Night of Ideas SF: How to Make Our Future Cities More Like Black Rock City

On February 2, Burning Man participated in Night of Ideas at the San Francisco Public Library after we were asked to share lessons from Black Rock City with other more permanent cities and cities of the future.

The French Consulate organizes the annual Night of Ideas, which took place across 70 countries and 120 cities in 2019 and aims to foster a free and democratic exchange of ideas.

This was the first time in San Francisco, where it was a seven-hour marathon session of panels and keynote presentations dedicated to the subject “Future Cities”. It was organized in association with SF MOMA, the SF Public Library and national public radio station, KQED.

It was also a night filled with performances, music, art and readings, and the French Consulate asked Burning Man to help with this creative component and bring local artists and performers into the discourse.

Burning Man is increasingly being asked to speak at urban planning forums like this, and it’s extremely gratifying. Over the last three years alone, I have had the opportunity to address thousands of mayors, urban planners, architects, and nightlife and art advocates across Europe in Amsterdam, Berlin, Stockholm, Moscow and Nantes.

Subjects have included: urban prototyping, how BRC functions safely as a 24-hour-a-day city, and conditions that lead to civic engagement and innovation. It turns out we have far more in common with cities than we do with events.


Social Space, Green Space and Expressive Surface Area

At Night of Ideas SF, I spoke about Black Rock City’s urban plan and the importance of social spaces, “expressive surface areas” and being in relationship to nature. I argued for embedding culture throughout cities instead of displacing it in concentric rings that otherwise move experimentation and creativity farther and farther outside city centers.

The “concentric ring” approach is often intentionally used as an urban planning tactic or viewed as a fait accompli. However, if you do that, city centers eventually “calcify” and stagnate from the inside-out. At best, cities that employ this tactic become museums to their former cultural relevance; at worst, they become expensive places to live and tourist traps without any authentic soul or cultural vitality. Boring!

It’s extremely important that in our rush to meet housing demands and tax revenue goals we don’t displace art, culture and entertainment venues. In fact, it’s imperative cities take measures to EMBED art spaces, maker spaces, hacker spaces, and community centers THROUGHOUT cities.

A final point I made, which I learned from Black Rock City, is the importance of planning for “permanent flexible space”. That’s kind of an oxymoron, but important for forward-thinking urban planners to think about. In BRC we hold space for the unexpected with open camping for unregistered Theme Camps and walk-up art projects that the Artery places on the fly. This encourages cultural vitality and flexibility.


Two examples of how cities can do that are Art Pads (a permanent location for art that changes every year or so), and Parklets (temporary parks, often placed in former parking spots). Both these flexible spaces have been prototyped by Burners in San Francisco and cities around the world, and they can add more social and expressive space and interactions to permanent cities.

Dogpatch Arts Plaza in SF is the most recent location to incorporate a Temporary Art Pad. I supported the creation of this latest art pad on behalf of Burning Man, providing encouragement and advice on how to make the plaza layout as flexible as possible for future use. Locals chose the first artwork, which was a sculpture by artists Laura Kimpton and Jeff Schomberg.

Burning Man also helped establish the first Temporary Art Pads in San Francisco over a decade ago, one next to the Ferry Building on The Embarcadero and the other at Patricia’s Green in Hayes Valley. Net result: more art, often by artists from the area, and social interactions centered around creativity. In the case of the Dogpatch Arts Plaza, we also included social space and green space — combining the best of parklets and Temporary Art Pads.

I’m hoping this concept is replicated and other developers will embrace the form to encourage creative expression, social interaction among neighbors, and green space.

New Measurements of Success

Cities can also look at their infrastructure as an expressive delivery device — like the signs, lamplight spires and public transportation systems (i.e., mutant vehicles and art bikes) in BRC. Projects like the Bay Lights Project by artist Leo Villarreal have shown the world that bridges and other urban infrastructure in cities can also be expressive delivery devices.

These are three practical and tangible examples of how to increase social, expressive and green “surface area” in cities. However, they are still pretty cosmetic. I think of them as the minimum that cities could do.

To make cities more like BRC, city administrators and developers also need to adopt different measures of success: measures that perhaps look and feel a lot more in tune with our community’s 10 guiding principles and a little less focused on units, tax base and profitability of urban development projects alone.

Some lessons for permanent cities:

• Encourage collaboration and bottom-up, community-driven solutions.

• Make social space, expressive surface area and green space a priority — and prototype like crazy to increase more of it!

• Make artists, hackers and makers your top priority! Help them own property to embed culture throughout cities vs. pushing them out in concentric rings.

• Zone to preserve and create entertainment and amplified sound zones.

• Create permanent spaces for the ephemeral and experimental to unfold.

• Establish new measures of success and value in urban planning.

We need more humanist values of success, and we have to make a place for the joyful, the fun, the strange and unexpected in cities of the future. We have to hold permanent space for the ephemeral and unexpected! This isn’t just about urban planning. It’s about making a place for imagination to thrive in cities of the future.

From BRC to Refugee Camps

I also had the great pleasure of sharing the stage with Mike Zuckerman, who co-founded the first freespace in San Francisco with Ilana Lipsett and a team of Burners, creating another urban prototype that has been copied in cities around the world. He also has been bringing his own lessons from our temporary city to refugee camps in Elpida in Greece and Nakivale in Uganda.

I have to say that Mike is a hero of mine. I’m humbled and inspired by members of our community that take what they learn in Black Rock City and passionately put it to good use in the world.

Mike does that in spades. His most recent project in Uganda involved permanently liberating a piece of land within a refugee camp to create a playa-inspired town square complete with cultural center, amphitheater school and free market place for residents to share their music, art and traditions with one another.

That project has had profound impact on the citizens of that temporary refugee city — although that “temporary” camp is now almost 30 years old! Mike and a team of international volunteers, Ugandan Nationals and refugees from across Africa have increased social interaction, cultural exchange and provided a forum for human relationships and ideas to be shared.


The success of this project has proven the importance of such spaces, and it may have even laid the foundation for a permanent city to evolve around this forum for social and cultural engagement.

The crowd at Night of Ideas in San Francisco was hushed when Mike spoke — and with good reason. He’s taken what he loves about Black Rock City and he’s applying that passion to some seriously challenging issues — as many Burners are doing every day somewhere in the world.

You may be doing it in ways you aren’t even fully aware of, but we are all part of this evolution. We are entering a new chapter as a community in terms of bringing “Home” back to our year-round cities and to other temporary cities in need.

Return to Neighborliness

I’ve also been impressed by the work of Douglas Farr and his new book, Sustainable Nation: Urban Design Patterns For The Future, which applies the 10 Principles and lessons the author learned from Black Rock City to problems affecting cities.

I was honored to share a few examples from his book, but what I really love about Douglas is that he is arguing for a return to neighborliness — the kind of neighborliness that used to be more common when we lived in actual NEIGHBORhoods. It’s also the kind that you still find in abundance in Black Rock City and the many temporary towns and cities created via Burning Man’s 90 Official Regional Events around the world.

As we find ourselves in conversation with mayors, urban planners, architects, and even economic development agencies, you can expect us to be advocating for the importance of engaging citizens in creating the cities that they want to live in.

That’s where you come in. Form or join local neighborhood association and planning commissions. Run for local supervisor and mayor. Give feedback on new developments and challenge developers to include social spaces, art spaces, community gathering spaces, and green public spaces in their plans.

You know the kinds of things you love about BRC. Be that bridge and build the city you want to live in!

Top photo by Matthias Carette — Courtesy of the French Consulate in San Francisco

About the author: Steven Raspa

Steven Raspa

$teven Ra$pa is Associate Director of Community Events for Burning Man and a founding member of the Regional Network Committee and Regional Events Committee. He is an artist, passionate arts advocate, community organizer and lover of cities.

5 Comments on “Night of Ideas SF: How to Make Our Future Cities More Like Black Rock City

  • April Kidwell says:

    How about more focus on the root issues that will make the most profound impact on SF like “Leave No Trace Dates” and radical inclusion? I love being a participant of burning man and I love living in SF however I feel it’s an ugly truth that burning man culture puts more emphasis on contributing art in the city than it does on helping humanity at home. It’s wonderful and at the same time an incredibly sad cesspool with a homelessness epidemic unlike any other I’ve encountered in this country. If our burning man culture is so great why do we put art above cleaning our city and helping our people? Food for thought. If we can erect and deconstruct a magnificent city in a week surely we can pool together to solve these hometown epidemics.

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    • $teven Ra$pa says:

      April, I really appreciate you raising this challenge. Homelessness wasn’t the scope of my talk, but there was a really wonderful panel called “Equitable Cities” at Night of Ideas. There are Burners that are working on this issue throughout the city. Some have prototyped temporary housing, others are involved in looking at policy in their day jobs. I’m not at all an expert on this subject and can’t pretend to be but I see at least 4 different kinds of homeless in SF and they require different approaches and kinds of support. I, too, hope and encourage members of our community to help address this problem. Burning Man’s Community Events Team gathers donations annually for the homeless in SF and we distribute them to people living on the street to try to create a moment of sincere human connection and care, but that won’t solve the problem. In my opinion, we can solve this problem only through regulation, income and wealth redistribution, and a commitment to protect existing vulnerable communities that are often the people who lose their homes to begin with.

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  • Megs says:

    Well written blog, Steven. Thank you for sharing your insights.

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  • Jacob says:

    How can we make the cities LESS like Burning Man?

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