Five Reasons Why Burning Man is the World’s Best City
Every summer, a diverse swath of humanity descends upon Nevada for Burning Man, the annual festival-slash-temporary-city in the desert.
The London Observer once described Burning Man as “a “beautifully zoned tentopolis, designed with a precision of which the Renaissance city-state idealists or Haussmann would approve.” We totally agree. And as veteran Burners and planning nerds, we got curious about how Burning Man’s designs translate into the experience there and what concepts we can port over to our year-round cities, buildings, and shared spaces.
Tents set up under a shade structure during “build week” – the days before the event.
We’ll get to our insights from our 2022 research soon, but first a quick primer:
Born in 1986, Burning Man is internationally famous as a big party in the desert, an extreme “festival” with fantastic art. Since 1990, Burning Man has been held in a defined zone created only for the event: Black Rock City or BRC, for short.
Black Rock City is always built in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, an ancient lake bed at 4,000 feet elevation that provides a flat and mostly very smooth hard surface. The city’s famous dust storms are a product of the ground being essentially hard-packed talcum powder. Each year, 80,000 flock to this ‘one-week-per-year’ metropolis.
A pier emerges from the desert floor and leads to this partially “sunk” pirate ship. Photo credit: Hawaii Savvy
BRC: A True City
At once utterly unique, the design of BRC borrows from a variety of historic urban planning movements. The grand “boulevards” leading to opulent civic monuments (the “Man” and the “Temple”) are reminiscent of the City Beautiful movement. The radial layout and tabula rasa design also conjures images of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities.
The tree of ténéré, a 2017 art installation and stage for an orchestra and ballet performance of The Rites of Spring. Photo credit: Steve Jurvetson
Unlike other cities, BRC can tweak almost any aspect of the city each year, making it an ideal lab for urban design. (It’s important to note that Black Rock City has grown from a few thousand in the 90s to 80,000 in 2022. The event has been able to accommodate rapid growth by scaling key elements but retaining the essentials – a testament to the resilience of the city design.)
The Lamplighters in 2007. Photo credit: Lorenzo Tlacaelel
This is a fully-functional city – complete with roads with street signs, an airport, a hospital, multiple post offices, DMV, Department of Public Works, Sanitation (porta-potties but not garbage), even Street Lighting!
Black Rock City’s layout in 2022.
The perimeter of BRC is 9.45 miles. Inside this area is a dense series of roads as well as “open playa.” Roadways, the placement of art, and all other sites are laid out to the foot using GPS. The design is anti-sprawl ― camps and projects are all required to stay inside these precise boundaries. Orientation is made easy by sight lines and simple street layouts, with streets named in an easy pattern of A-K names and clock-based radials, (example: “I’ll meet you at the corner of Cumulus and 9:30.”)
This is what street signs look like in Black Rock City. Photo credit: Susan Becker
Now that you have the city plans, let’s get into the how and why it works so well.
1: BRC is dense in all the best ways
The vast majority of the 80,000 live in the “neighborhoods,” yielding a very dense 40,000 people per square mile (the highest densities in the US are parts of New York City at 40-58,000 square miles with very tall buildings). For most residents, this is the most dense living arrangement they’ve ever had (or at least since college).
At roughly four miles from most living quarters or camps to art pieces in “deep playa,” 100% of the city is within a 20 minute bike ride. Burning Man’s first city planner, Rod Garrett, initially sketched Black Rock City as “a circle with the Man in the middle and the system of radial roads … The area closest to the Man would be reserved for art installations, creating a parklike zone that complemented the ‘residential neighborhoods’ in the same way Central Park makes Manhattan livable.”
A photo of Center Camp, the heart of the city, in 2010. Photo credit: Mike Q Victor
Five main plazas provide focal points for art and events, as do a ring of five mid-city plazas. These also function as roundabouts for traffic flow.
An intersection viewed from atop a structure at a main plaza in 2022.
Density, so often lauded by contemporary city aficionados, is also a key element of what makes every step (or pedal stroke) through BRC memorable. All roads are 40 feet wide, except for ”‘community walks,” 15 foot wide ped-paths. City blocks vary from 150-250 feet deep, but according to a logical pattern. Each city block contains between two and ten destinations, and takes a minute or less to walk. Traveling at a speed of 10 miles per hour or less allows for interaction with the built environment in a unique and intimate fashion.
Short blocks mean it’s never far to the next neighborhood or attraction. The streets are the ideal width for maintaining a cohesive feel between properties: You are close to your neighbors on all sides. The community walks provide that excellent “alley” feel.
At first this arrangement can feel like being at a big campground – people setting up tents and other outdoor living arrangements in close proximity, all of it either assigned or “open camping.” The temporary feeling fades as major camps, art projects and other key locations in the city are constructed. Meanwhile, the open plots are filled with residents, most of whom also set up art and other interactive projects they’ve brought.
Theme camps meld art with living space.
This “build” phase fosters a strong sense of community, with frequent opportunities to interact with and help neighbors. As urbanist Jane Jacobs noted, “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” This premise is fully realized in Black Rock City, as participants truck in everything they need to build coffee shops, nightclubs, libraries, art installations – you name it. Then everyone works together to make it all happen in Amish-style barn-raising cooperative work. Putting in time and effort increases appreciation for what is created (both by you and others).
Dome on the Range campers construct a geodesic dome during build week.
2: Shared Spaces
BRC is the largest example of the Shared Spaces concept in action: places in cities without street signs or clearly-marked roads where cars, pedestrians, bicyclists, etc. move freely. “The concept is that the absence of separation will make everyone more cautious, so commuters slow down, make eye contact, and negotiate,” says Roman Mars, host of 99 Percent Invisible in the video linked above. As a result, no waiting at lights, and all traffic moves steadily, all the time.
Photo credit: Thomas Sullivan
Although there are roads within Black Rock City, much of the space is “open playa,” or just plain old desert where citizens of BRC roam freely. Bikes, pedestrians, art cars, even emergency vehicles move about easily, with little conflict, and extremely few, and low-speed, collisions.
3: Every Neighborhood is Truly Mixed-Use
A mixture of land-uses, so often valorized in modern city planning, is the status quo in BRC. Theme camps, the Burning Man equivalent of businesses, offer a wide variety of food, beverage, entertainment, and service options. Having these points of interest interspersed throughout each neighborhood prevents dead zones: it’s not necessary to spend time in transit to find interesting things to do.
Unlike most traditional businesses, theme camps generally use the same allocated plot for their residential needs throughout the event. This means that neighborhoods are packed with residents and a wide variety of destinations.
There’s always much to do and see in BRC!
4: Cars are put in their place
Perhaps the most crucial difference of BRC vs. virtually any other North American city is that the typical transportation hierarchy is flipped on its head, with autos relegated to the bottom of the food chain. Participants are only able to drive to/from their campsites when they arrive and depart the event. Speed limits within the city are capped at 5 miles per hour with zero prioritization for cars at intersections and entire swaths of no-drive zones. During the event, the only large vehicles allowed are “art cars,” contraptions that light up, play music, or both. And all art cars are regulated by the Department of Mutant Vehicles or DMV (told you it was a real city!).
Bikes are the main mode of transportation at Burning Man.
5: Bikes come into their full potential
Limiting the utility of private automobiles and maximizing the ability to walk and roll makes each street in BRC usable by humans of any age and ability, at any time. Not even Paris or Amsterdam can say this.
The removal of cars, the hard surface, and the careful design are inherently pro-bike, making BRC the unquestionable Best Bike City on the planet. In this environment, bikes hit the Magic Four: Riding one is safe, the most efficient option, easy to do, and fun!
As a result, Black Rock City’s bike mode split is well over 90% and a bike is an essential part of any burner’s pack list. (But people in BRC are clearly not “cyclists” – almost 90% ride with their saddles way too low!)
Bikes are used for deliveries, repair services, as food carts – everything. There are also bike obstacle courses and even races.
Burning Man bikes are famous for being art projects in their own right, too.
Bikes can also be art.
Freed from the constraints of a city designed for cars, in BRC bikes deliver on their promise in some startling, wonderful new ways that are only possible in this environment.
On the open playa, and to a lesser degree on neighborhood streets, a group of people on bikes can act like a flock of birds or school of fish. Bike flocks are wonderful but very hard to replicate elsewhere: people riding as a group but free-flowing, navigating obstacles, changing direction, talking. With flocks, bikes become a social tool in a way no other transportation is, and flocks can be for wedding parties, dates, meetings, adventures, or art tours.
A flock of bikes heads into “deep playa.”
We know BRC’s design principles are tough to fully realize in the “default.” And we will be the first to admit that there are elements that cannot directly translate to the “real world.” But knowing and experiencing transportation and urban planning done in a radically different way is a good starting point in our opinion. And the slow trickle of car-free streets and companies buying bikes for their employees to use for their commutes and city councilors simply using language like “15-minute city” are all small wins for people and the planet.
If you ever want to nerd out about city planning at Burning Man (or elsewhere), drop us a line at email@example.com
Bikes Make Life Better is dedicated to helping employees at large organizations use bikes for healthy sustainable transportation. They’ve helped design bike programs, facilities, and fleets for Airbnb, Meta, Kaiser Permanente, LinkedIn, Netflix, Salesforce, Stanford, and many others.