[Harley K. DuBois is a founding member of the Burning Man Board, with over 15 years of project management, art and city planning experience. As the City Manager of Black Rock City, Harley oversees both the Playa Safety Council and Community Services departments. She originated theme camp placement, the Greeters, Playa Info, and Burning Man Information Radio, and has kindled the development of all other Community Service teams. This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]
The zoning of Black Rock City began, from my recollection, by about our third year on the Black Rock Desert. There was nothing official about it at first; it was completely casual and self-governing. People simply camped with their friends or other like-minded folks. That meant that people who stayed up late and were loud at night camped together. People that had mad scientific projects involving explosions and fire clustered around each other, and those that liked the sunrise and afternoon activities created a spot of their own.
The origin of theme camp placement was the chaotic debrief meeting after the 1994 event. I raised my hand with an idea (… learning quickly that in the Burning Man culture, you’re likely to be tasked with doing the ideas you voice!). I suggested that instead of lining our city streets like the “default world” does with commercial ventures, why not use theme camps to help define the city? In 1995, there were about 10 camps placed (my personal favorite was Birthday Camp were it was everyone’s birthday every day), and they helped define Center Camp both physically and culturally.
In 1996, the amount of camps doubled, and placement included No Man’s Land. In 1997, when the growing population necessitated our first fully-conceived city layout (see Rod Garrett’s post Designing Black Rock City for more information), I placed theme camps along the Esplanade frontage, delineating the end of the city proper and the beginning of our central art space on the open playa. Placement was done largely to honor those creating the interactive camps, to curate an experience for citizens, and to activate an area that had significance. To this day this is still largely the intent of placing theme camps throughout Black Rock City.
While the intent of placement and zoning was (and still is) to provide the citizens of Black Rock City with an amazing experience, zoning is also used to help facilitate harmony while allowing for divergent interests within a city. It’s the Placement Team’s job to meet the demands of particular elements of the city who have developed different needs and different tolerances.
In 1995, the first rave was brought to our “project” in the desert. It seemed a happy enough collaboration at first, but the rave’s placement caused some difficulties. It was upwind and close enough to make a decent night’s sleep impossible. It was far enough away that driving seemed like a good idea until you realized there was no real road and navigation was a bit dangerous.
The next year (1996), the rave was moved downwind and a mile out, with a clearly defined road leading to it. Though the previous year’s issues were resolved, the distance and lack of connection with the rest of the city proved to be problematic. A breakdown of civic standards and community created chaos, ultimately resulting in serious injuries occuring to rave participants. The Burning Man organizers, and I in particular, were devastated by the experience, and vowed that no such incident would ever occur again.
We implemented a number of changes in 1997 as a result, including the adoption of a fully conceived city plan that allowed for a greater level of organization (now an emergency vehicle could locate a place where an incident was occurring in an expedient manner), the development of a radio communication system to meet our needs, and the expansion of our Ranger and Medical facilities. We also banned driving within the city and encouraged walking and bikes, and increased the ratio of porta-potties per person. I implemented a volunteer recruitment team and a placement team to make sure that all participant and organizational needs were met.
Sound and Fury
We were ready to ban “raves” in order to create a safe event in 1997. If it weren’t for Bob Wallace we would have. He challenged me, and ultimately the newly founded Black Rock City LLC, to examine our (Larry and my?) knee-jerk reaction and consider the issues at hand more carefully. I came to see that it was not “raves” that were the issue, but “sound”. For those wanting quiet, an all-night-hippy drum circle was just as annoying as the thumping of the bass beat of electronic music. An olive branch of a sound meter was extended from Bob to me, and a willingness to make “sound” work within Black Rock City was established.
The following year, (1998) we implemented a zoning plan intended to meet everyone’s desires by creating a “Loud” and a “Quiet” side of town. Theme camps were sorted depending on volume of noise output and preference in experience. This solution lasted two years and revealed three ground-breaking concepts: 1) even the hardest partier wants to sleep at some point, 2) placing your speakers out on a horseshoe-shaped city will carry the sound directly into the front yards of your quiet neighbors across the city, and 3) industrial noise afficionados do not necessarily get along with ravers.
Thus, in 2000, I met with a coalition of committed ravers, drummers, Black Rock Rangers, professional bouncers and sound engineers, and we developed the current sound policy that we still use today. We created the 10:00 and 2:00 loud ends of the city. We officially named the camps habitating that zone “Large Scale Sound Art” camps (LSSA) so as to not distinguish on preference in music, but respect artistry across all (loud) sound disciplines.
The Littlest Burners
Simultaneous to this effort, we were taking into consideration other important zoning issues elsewhere in the city. A sign of success in a healthy community is people coming together, and in some cases that means children. By 1998, kids began appearing at our event more frequently, so I started Kids Camp. It was placed close to Center Camp for family access to important services like Rangers, Medical, ice, etc.
Kids Camp’s size and autonomy has grown and evolved steadily over the years, but their relative placement has remained the same. This has encouraged a natural sort of zoning to develop: there is a long-standing practice of placing kid-appropriate theme camps near (what is now called) Kidsville, and placing anything adult-oriented elsewhere. Alternative Engery zone also followed the same trajectory of finding independence and adding an additional layer of zoning for generator-free camps around it.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Because Black Rock City has grown from such a small organic center to its current size and shape in a relatively short period of time (one week a year for 20 years on the Black Rock Desert equals 20 weeks), it’s easy to examine how everything comes together to make a successful neighborhood. We’ve learned that: 1) friends and family camp in an area because they liked it and can find each other easily year after year, 2) people come to parts of the city due to a concept or association (like 4:20) or a rumor (like the amount of dust present) and tend to stay there, their numbers growing every year until a sense of that place becomes identifiable, and 3) the curatorial nature of theme camp placement helped to foster a sense of “there” in an area.
Our population grew and grew over the years, and by 2004 the city size began to edge towards disassociating people from the larger and increasingly unweildy and far-flung community. Plazas came to our aid. Though they showed up as a concept as early as 1997, they were not fully realized until much later. Designing plazas (complete with services such as Rangers, Medical, Ice, information, and a group of theme camps that fully embraced their placement) in 2005 helped create a more localized neighborhood feel, allowing people to identify with a more manageable portion of the larger community. Just as in any large metropolis, one feels a comfortable affinity with one’s local neighborhood, while simultaneously feeling like (for instance) a New Yorker. Along these lines, to expedite the process of neighborhood identity creation, the Placement questionnaire now allows theme camps to pick their preferred area for placement.
Being an old timer and purist, I feel that this development diverges from the original spirit of Burning Man, as the fluid and unexpected nature of change from year to year was certainly exciting. However, it can be argued that neighborhoods will help acculturate people new to Burning Man that much more quickly, and provide a necessary sense of localized identity to our growing population.
We welcome your thoughts and comments.