Burning Man's contribution to urbanism

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By Steven T. Jones

Time.com’s “5 Things Cities Can Learn from Burning Man”

Gabriel Metcalf was just giddy when he heard about Burning Man’s 2010 art theme: “Metropolis: The Life of Cities.” It beautifully brought together two of his two passions. In addition to being a four-time attendee of the event, he’s the executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association.

“I can’t believe the Burning Man theme. It’s just so awesome,” he said, palpably giddy. “Black Rock City is one of the great cities of the world.”

That’s high praise from someone whose days are devoted to studying urban life and its myriad challenges, and a testament to the fact that Black Rock City has successfully made the transition from frontier to city. Metcalf was equally excited about the other Burning Man news that I reported in today’s Guardian: how Black Rock LLC wants to create a year-round retreat and think tank on the playa and how they want a high-profile headquarters in the vicinity of SPUR’s new Urban Center, which opened earlier this year.

“One thing I love about Burning Man taking on the question of urbanism is it’s going to not just be about physical placement, how you lay out the blocks and streets, but about community in a larger sense,” Metcalf said. “The exploration of different forms of community is what I think is so interesting and transformative for the people who go there.”

That notion was also echoed by veteran New York City burner Not That Dave, who helped create that city’s Burning Man regional event, Figment, which Burning Man founder Larry Harvey attended earlier this year, a trip that help trigger next year’s art theme (I interviewed Not That Dave earlier this year for my forthcoming book, The Tribes of Burning Man).

“We really wanted to link the arts community in New York with Burning Man’s sense of do-ocracy, volunteerism, decommodification; take a lot of Burning Man’s principles and link it up with a creative resource that is already here that isn’t Burning Man related,” Dave said.

“What’s the resistance to calling it a Burning Man regional,” I asked.

“Sex, drugs, partying – that’s the brand here. The brand of Burning Man is all-night raves, sex, and drugs. But Figment is a daytime-only event on an island with a lot of kids. And so those two worlds don’t have much intersection,” he said. “So, I’m a Burning Man regional contact for New York. There are five of us here. And I think that what makes Burning Man amazing is the art first. The art, to me, is like a Trojan Horse that lets everything around it happen. A lot things that happen around Burning Man are really important, in terms of community, in terms of personal exploration, in terms of personal transformation – but the art is what allows that to happen. Without the art, it’s just a rave in the desert.

Many people criticize Burning Man as a waste of resources and say it has no business as an urban model, but I’ve always thought that criticism was overblown. It actually uses far less resources and produces less waste than most cities of 50,000 people. But still, given all the energy and stuff that must be marshaled for that trip into the middle of nowhere, many embrace the move toward regional events and a think tank.

“Burning Man starts to feel like a festival of consumption, with all the waste that goes into it. To me, that’s a draw to: What if we took all that energy, and all those resources, and invested that locally? And what if a lot of people did that? What would that mean?” Not That Dave, who does marketing for a major architectural firm, asked. “I think Larry’s vision for it is that Burning Man eventually becomes the retreat. That it’s like something you go to once in your life, like going to Mecca. You gotta go there once and you never need to go there again, but you can if you want to. I think that’s interesting as an idea.”

Metcalf – perhaps not surprisingly for a think tank director – also sees real value in what Burning Man is trying to do next. He said that Harvey “is trying to make it relevant and to speak to the big issue of the day. Metropolis speaks to the biggest issue, human settlement, how we’re going to live together. It’s asking the big question.”

Not having attended Burning Man in the anarchic early years, Metcalf has always seen Black Rock City as a city. “In the absence of state-imposed authority and control, you take 50,000 anarchists and put them in the desert and they’ll create order out of chaos.” And the city they created, he said, is “like being a protagonist in a movie when you arrive in the big city. The Esplanade is one of the great main streets in the world.”

He has also pondered its symbiotic relationship with the city where he lives and works. “Is Burning Man an expression of San Francisco, or has Burning Man reconceptualized San Francisco? I think Burning Man has had a big influence on San Francisco, and at the same time, it is San Francisco’s gift to the world.”

Metcalf said he and the people he works and camps with are buzzing with the possibilities for next year’s theme: “A lot of us at SPUR have been very inspired by Burning Man and we’ll continue to draw inspiration from it.”

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