Does Burning Man Need a New Urban Plan?

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Does Burning Man Need a New Urban Plan?
The “Circle” plan from Phil Walker’s “Kit of Parts” plan for Burning Man

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Does Burning Man Need a New Urban Plan?
The “Circle” plan from Phil Walker’s “Kit of Parts” plan for Burning Man

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

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.

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. […]

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