The playa has a lot to teach us about city planning
Published in: Architect Magazine
April 2008

People don’t believe I went to Burning Man to study its urban planning, but I did. As it turned out, Burning Man’s structure — and even its infrastructure — are among its most compelling features.

The utopian festival began in 1986 with a gathering of 20 friends on a San Francisco beach. It has grown more than a bit since moving to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert four years later; its population each some now exceeds 50,000. Burning Man is a utopian gathering around a giant effigy (which, famously, is torched on the Saturday before Labor Day). Money is more or less banned and self-expression is encouraged. Some “burners” turn their encampments into works of conceptual art; to help them along, the organizers give each summer’s gathering a theme. This year, it was the American Dream, and many camps were designed as spot-on commentaries on sprawl and real estate mania.

Like the best urban planning, the layout of the festival is a kind of outline filled in by an enthusiastic and creative public.

Black Rock City (the name given to the settlement) thrives, in part, because of smart design decisions. The city is laid out in a series of concentric circles; the largest is nearly two miles in diameter. The nested streets are given different names each year; in 2008, in keeping with the theme, the smallest circles were Allanté, Bonneville, and Corvair, the largest Hummer, Impala, and Jeep. The order is alphabetical, so the name of the street you’re on tells you how far you are from the center of the circle.

The rings are intersected by radial roads identified by clock position—2:00, 3:30, 6:15, and so on. Any location can be instantly reduced to its coordinates: “I’m at 7:30 and Fairlane,” or “Look for me at 4:15 and Dart.” Together, the naming system and the circular design mean you always know where you are in relation to the “man” (the festival’s namesake is at the precise center of the circle, where it serves as a beacon 24/7). What’s more, you can get anywhere you want to go without having to ask directions.

One-third of the circle is set aside for art installations, complementing the “residential neighborhoods” in the way that urban parks make cities livable. Indeed, the layout is reminiscent of nothing so much as Manhattan’s, with its grid system enhancing navigability, its juxtaposition of dense development with open space, and its tallest building visible (reassuringly) from every vantage point.

There is more to love. Black Rock City has no phone service (cell or otherwise), which means all conversations happen face to face. Communal facilities, including a vast café (coffee, tea, and ice are the only things for sale), are handily located in a giant, tentlike structure at 6:00. Private vehicles are banned—virtually everybody rides a bike. (It helps that the terrain is completely flat.) If real Sun Belt cities were laid out as cleverly, many retirees could pedal from place to place.

Before 1996, Burning Man was a design free-for-all. Participants pitched their tents, or parked their RVs, anywhere they wanted to. The results included traffic jams, confusion, and, perhaps most disappointingly, feelings of isolation. Then Rod Garrett, Burning Man’s self-taught city planner, developed the spokes-and-wheel layout. The basic concept, he says, grew out of the idea of circling the wagons against the elements, as well as the desire to “express and abet a sense of communal belonging.” There were also security concerns, suggesting the need for a discrete perimeter, and an expansion of emergency services, which required clear sight lines and agreed-upon street names. Over the years, Garrett has refined the plan, even instituting zoning—yes, zoning—to separate potentially conflicting uses. (Loud dance clubs are located at 2:00 and 10:00.) The influence of Jeremy Bentham (with his panopticon), Frank Lloyd Wright (Usonia), and Frederick Law Olmsted, whose social activism informed his park designs, is everywhere.

True, Burning Man is hardly sustainable: Everything required is shipped in, and everything left over is shipped out. This great urban planning experiment may succeed precisely because it doesn’t have to last. Still, it teaches important lessons about using the built environment to foster a sense of belonging. There are lots of reasons to go to Burning Man; for design lovers, it’s quite the trip.