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.”

Comments

If anyone can find a way to have millions of people spend money and not have any way to raise anymore, consume resources without being able to replenish the diminishing supply, San Francisco progressives can do it, all it takes is good intentions.

As in if(?), Burning man was a real city producing nothing nor administering anything, with no supply chain nor utilities, as well as being self selected "community", then sure, it's a great model for the world of progressive thought.

I do like the idea of reservations for true believers, give progressives and born again Christians a vast area of useless land and let them make their own laws and tax code.

This is in no way a dig on burning man by the way.

Posted by glen matlock on Sep. 16, 2009 @ 3:54 pm

“A lot of us at SPUR have been very inspired by Burning Man and we’ll continue to draw inspiration from it.”

SPUR does everything in its power to marshal corporate dominance over San Francisco's built environment so that the urban crucible which cultured interesting movements like the Beats, Hippies, Punks and, yes, even Burning Man will be crushed forever. Cities do not live by luxury high rise condos alone, in fact left to their own devices, housing monoculture strangles vibrant urbanism. Maybe Gabe likes the idea of consuming the corpse of an interesting city in the throes of a bacchanalian festival and sees that as a model for the future?

Why have an interesting real city when you can have an interesting, itinerant virtual city and laugh all the way to the bank? Don't think about the problems in the here and now when its only X months and Y days until playa time! Let the urban planning experts handle all of that, NIMBY.

This is a trend where developers, their lobbyists and their lawyers, like Gabriel Metcalfe. Tim Colen and David Prowler work the culture vulture circuit by appearing to "get" independent culture (while not really "getting" but being seen to "get it") it as the policies they very effectively promote ensure that corporate packaged monoculture will dominate the urban landscape. Could any of you all imagine a David Wojnarowicz, a Cookie Mueller, a Jim Carroll or a Patti Smith arising from urban centers on either coast these days given the antisepticism of go-go development?

Interesting culture is cheap culture, DIY creativity without the need for an expensive infrastructure. Daresay that the model of a $300 ticket, provisions and travel is the antithesis of that, just like the development model for our cities put forth by developer lobbyists like SPUR is the antithesis of urbanism; the equivalent of luxury condos in the desert. Car camping really is not sustainable camping at all.

You can't hide developer mouthpieces behind the term "think tank," especially when their environmental green rhetoric evaporates into the warming sun when it costs a developer the first dollar like tequila on the playa.

What does it mean that Steve Jones sees a future for Burning Man in the example of the SPUR Urban Center, funded by a taxpayer guaranteed loan provided by Pelosi, located within spitting distance of the redevelopment project area in which the San Francisco Urban Renewal Association spearheaded the destruction of 4000 units of SRO housing, leading directly to today's homeless problem and displacement?

http://www.spur.org/about/abouttheurbancenter/donors

Jackboots on the neck of our city by those who can't find it within themselves to make a revolution in their everyday lives.

Is this the Guardian's position?

-marc

Posted by marcos on Sep. 17, 2009 @ 6:29 am

“A lot of us at SPUR have been very inspired by Burning Man and we’ll continue to draw inspiration from it.”

SPUR does everything in its power to marshal corporate dominance over San Francisco's built environment so that the urban crucible which cultured interesting movements like the Beats, Hippies, Punks and, yes, even Burning Man will be crushed forever. Cities do not live by luxury high rise condos alone, in fact left to their own devices, housing monoculture strangles vibrant urbanism. Maybe Gabe likes the idea of consuming the corpse of an interesting city in the throes of a bacchanalian festival and sees that as a model for the future?

Why have an interesting real city when you can have an interesting, itinerant virtual city and laugh all the way to the bank? Don't think about the problems in the here and now when its only X months and Y days until playa time! Let the urban planning experts handle all of that, NIMBY.

This is a trend where developers, their lobbyists and their lawyers, like Gabriel Metcalfe. Tim Colen and David Prowler work the culture vulture circuit by appearing to "get" independent culture (while not really "getting" but being seen to "get it") it as the policies they very effectively promote ensure that corporate packaged monoculture will dominate the urban landscape. Could any of you all imagine a David Wojnarowicz, a Cookie Mueller, a Jim Carroll or a Patti Smith arising from urban centers on either coast these days given the antisepticism of go-go development?

Interesting culture is cheap culture, DIY creativity without the need for an expensive infrastructure. Daresay that the model of a $300 ticket, provisions and travel is the antithesis of that, just like the development model for our cities put forth by developer lobbyists like SPUR is the antithesis of urbanism; the equivalent of luxury condos in the desert. Car camping really is not sustainable camping at all.

You can't hide developer mouthpieces behind the term "think tank," especially when their environmental green rhetoric evaporates into the warming sun when it costs a developer the first dollar like tequila on the playa.

What does it mean that Steve Jones sees a future for Burning Man in the example of the SPUR Urban Center, funded by a taxpayer guaranteed loan provided by Pelosi, located within spitting distance of the redevelopment project area in which the San Francisco Urban Renewal Association spearheaded the destruction of 4000 units of SRO housing, leading directly to today's homeless problem and displacement?

http://www.spur.org/about/abouttheurbancenter/donors

Jackboots on the neck of our city by those who can't find it within themselves to make a revolution in their everyday lives.

Is this the Guardian's position?

-marc

Posted by marcos on Sep. 17, 2009 @ 6:30 am

Thanks to SFBG and Gabriel Metcalf for this smart analysis of Burning Man and its urban implications!

Posted by Maureen Futtner on Sep. 17, 2009 @ 7:14 am

Thanks to SFBG and Gabriel Metcalf for this cool analysis of Burning Man's urban implications.

Posted by Maureen Futtner on Sep. 17, 2009 @ 7:16 am

The Guardian's position, Marc, has always been to encourage community dialogue about urbanism and its implications. I'm happy SPUR exists even though we've often differed with it on the issues, particularly housing. And I think Burning Man is an important social experiment, even if its no panacea. Hopefully all public spirited San Franciscans willing to work together in good faith can begin to find some common ground in helping us realize our full potential as what Chicken John calls "a city of art and innovation."

Posted by Steven T. Jones on Sep. 17, 2009 @ 8:24 am

Steve, how much more evidence of SPUR's financial backing and the failure of their half-baked luxury TOD preachings are we going to need in order to figure out that theirs is a one-way path to a permanently culturally sterile city? Don't we have 15 years of a real estate induced decimation of organic culture under out belts already? When was the last time you saw live music at a bar without having to buy a ticket beforehand?

I really am glad that you all get out to the desert each year for a good time and a moment of urban-armor-less community. Experiencing that makes us realize how damaging urban existence really has become to our souls. But the contrivances which allow for community to spring up on the playa are synthetic and unsustainable, and when warped by SPUR's pro-development blinders, are most likely part of their political toolkit designed to lull susceptible San Francisco progressives and enviros into unilateral disarmament.

Thus, I think you all make way too much of Burning Man in general and would not see that as a model for the City. You remind me of Democrat hacks who think that it really is a good idea to negotiate away one's entire position in the name of bipartisanship when the other side has no intention whatsoever in cooperating beyond serving their immediate needs, just so you can claim to have cut a deal while at the table.

Short of economic collapse of the real estate market to the levels of pre-gentrification San Francisco, there is no going back after we ingest SPUR's medicine.

-marc

Posted by marcos on Sep. 17, 2009 @ 8:46 am

Marcos, you don't really know or understand SPUR. You sound like a wack job IMHO. SPUR is working to solve a lot of issues and find a way to make it work for everyone. You sound like a NIMBY person, sad sad sad.

Posted by Gina G on Sep. 17, 2009 @ 10:04 am

Admittedly, I've only seen photos - but black rick city looks like any other sprawlville out there

Posted by Josh on Sep. 17, 2009 @ 10:48 am

SPUR:SF Developers::Lewin Group:Health Insurers

-marc

Posted by marcos on Sep. 17, 2009 @ 2:33 pm

Here's another gem from SPUR's archival library:

http://spur.org/publications/library/report/sfeconomy_070100

This was issued in July, 2000, a few months after the stock market peak after which the dot.com bubble burst, leaving the San Francisco economy gasping.

This report concludes that San Francisco is well positioned for continuing economic success, and that the benefits of projected economic growth can be shared among workers at all income levels. The report describes the effects of the city and region's hugely successful economic evolution on land use, housing and transportation, and identifies illconceived public policy, and insufficient investment in housing and transportation as the most significant challenges to continued economic prosperity. San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) recommendations for increasing the city's housing stock and improving transportation are related to the needs of the city's economy. The analysis of San Francisco's current economy and future prospects draws on the significant body of work previously published by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), Bay Area Council, Bay Area Economic Forum, and Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy. The analysis is built around three basic industry groups that leverage projected growth in similar industries in the State and national economy to support economic growth in San Francisco.

Things didn't quite work out that way. But this is SPUR's modus operandi, top produce professional appearing "reports" that point public policy in the direction of filling the coffers of their donor base.

-marc

Posted by marcos on Sep. 18, 2009 @ 11:09 am