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Does Burning Man Need a New Urban Plan?

Even a temporary city requires thoughtful design when it reaches a population of 70,000 and growing.

Jim Urquhart/Reuters

When a group of Burners describing themselves as the Black Rock City Ministry of Urban Planning announced a design competition last fall for a new urban plan for Burning Man, Phil Walker had never given the matter much thought.

“I’m actually not a Burner. I’ve never done it,” says Walker, the senior associate vice president for CallisonRTKL, an architecture firm and design consultancy. “Maybe a bit of vicarious living for a middle-aged suburban dad is what appealed to me.”

Walker nevertheless joined several dozen architects, planners, Burners, and otherwise interested parties by contributing a concept to the so-called Big Book of Ideas, a collection of sketches and renderings of new urban plans for Burning Man. Some of the nearly 100 plans reorient the cosmic desert geometry of Black Rock City, the site of the annual Burning Man pilgrimage. Other plans seem to defy the laws of physics. One plan reshapes Black Rock City to form the letters “S.O.S.”—visible from space, of course.

The “Circle” plan from Phil Walker’s “Kit of Parts” plan for Burning Man. (CallisonRTKL)

But Walker’s urban plan for Burning Man simply improves upon the original by applying setbacks along certain streets and intersections for different cultural and urban uses.

Once Walker began investigating the history of Burning Man, he says, he became fascinated with the evolution of Black Rock City. As Burners know, the festival got its start in 1986 with the simple burning of an effigy on Baker Beach in San Francisco. Thirty years later, it’s an unparalleled annual pop-up settlement that lures more than 70,000 people to the Nevada desert every year.

What Burners may not know—what may not be obvious to Burning Man participants even as they are engaging in the drug-fueled, barter-driven utopian experiment that is Burning Man—is that certain longstanding design decisions guide the entire civic scheme of the festival.  

For example, some of the contributions in the Big Book defy the single guiding design principle behind Black Rock City. While the city is laid out on a radial plan built with the Man at the center, the circle is left intentionally incomplete. Closing the loop would put some tents and structures in the direction of the wind—and therefore in the path of an infernal column of smoke as Burning Man reaches its peak.

The “Circle” plan from Phil Walker’s “Kit of Parts” plan for Burning Man. (CallisonRTKL)

Walker says that Burning Man’s planners work months in advance to establish the infrastructure for Burning Man. The plan has evolved, he says, to address the needs of a sizable settlement, one with more needs in terms of services and security. Still, the radial scheme, developed by Rod Garrett, a landscape designer, hasn’t changed fundamentally since about 1997. That’s a testament to the plan’s flexibility and capacity for growth.

“I have a lot of admiration for Rod Garrett,” Walker says. “The plan works. It’s great. For many people, it’s beloved. There’s a lot of positives to the simplicity to the plan.”

So Walker didn’t set about to change the orientation of Black Rock City to, say, a series of nested hexagons, like the urban plan submitted by Nadica Pankovska and Joana Stojchevska of Macedonia. Instead, he built out a “kit of parts” for simple streetscape interventions that he says can have a dramatic impact on urban flow and cultural space. “There are interventions that cities have been using for hundreds, thousands of years,” he says.

One of the zanier ideas for a new urban plan for Burning Man, from Adrian Labaut Hernandez of Italy. (Black Rock City Ministry of Urban Planning)

Chamfering the corners of a Black Rock City block or using easements to create a Black Rock City public square could create new lanes for cyclists and pedestrians, as well as new opportunities for vendors (or barterers). Plus, laying out traffic circles or avenues wouldn’t represent a burden for the people building out Black Rock City in the desert heat. Walker says that he tried to be aware of how any change in the plan would be received by the people who might be implementing it.

This year’s Burning Man festival won’t reflect the suggestions by Walker or anyone else involved with the contest, which was purely an ideas competition. But as the festival grows and evolves—perhaps radically so with the infusion of the same tech and venture capital that has transformed the Bay Area—some new ideas may be necessary to keep the fire burning.

“It really is a city that they build out in the desert every year,” Walker says. “They have to unroll it every year, set it up, and then it disappears.”

Walker’s “Chamfer” concept, from his “Kit of Parts” for Burning Man. (CallisonRTKL)

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.