The Camp Placement Questionnaire closed on April 25 and the Placement Team saw the most questionnaires in Burning Man history: 1914 submissions, which is a 24% increase from 2018! For the first time, there’s not enough room for everyone wishing to be placed. It’s a moment we’ve anticipated for a while, but has arrived sooner than we expected.
How Did We All Get Here?
A majority of people used to arrive to Burning Man, find a spot in open camping, negotiate boundaries with their neighbors, build their temporary homes, and provide engagement and interactivity to the community. Perhaps that’s how your camp started.
As the city grew, so did camps. People got more organized and logistics got more complex, so reserving space and early access became more highly desired. When tickets sold out for the first time in 2011, Directed Group Sales tickets were created to maintain cohesive communities for theme camps and to provide them with reliable access to the event. Placement has evolved over time to mean much more than just getting a home address on playa.
Today, the Placement Team dedicates thousands of volunteer hours each year to assess Camp Placement Questionnaires and help camps understand the placement criteria. We’ve found historically that most camps are trying their best to do it right, address issues that arise, and that between 90-95% of camps qualify for Placement under our current criteria. In 2018, 1,541 camps requested placement, 1,471 camps were placed, and 70 camps did not receive placement. In 2017, 1,524 camps requested placement, 1,395 camps placed, and 129 camps did not receive placement.
What Placement is Doing This Year
This year there are 232 more theme camps and 17 more villages seeking placement than there were in 2018. Most of these new camps are small and medium sized with populations less than 40 people. Combined, we estimate that they represent approximately 10,000 Black Rock Citizens. These numbers show that much of the growth is being driven by open campers who wish to become placed camps.
When we looked at the total number of people represented across all camp questionnaires this year, the combined population ranges from 76,000 to 98,000. That figure is more people than the event’s population cap allows, and leaves no room for people who plan to be in open camping or walk-in camping. It’s reasonable to conclude that camps are hedging their bets with unrealistic camp sizes.
In past years, Placement had the space to move placed camps out further toward L street, while still maintaining reasonable amounts of open camping. You’ve probably noticed this trend with more blue flags on the back blocks of our city each year.
This year, Placement cannot expand the amount of available space, DGS tickets, and Work Access Passes to meet the full demand without toppling the entire system. We considered several options for addressing the issue:
- Add more streets, which may be cost prohibitive and would not solve the underlying problem given the total population of BRC remains capped at 70,000 paid participants. Also, the 2019 city plan already adds an additional 50’ radially across the entire city to accommodate density.
- Hold the proportion of placed vs. open camping square footage at 2018 levels (approximately 22% of the city), which would mean over 300 camps not receiving placement. We do not have additional established criteria to use to make those decisions and do not feel it’s right to suddenly not place camps who meet our existing criteria.
- Continue to place all camps that meet Placement’s existing criteria with the understanding that, in order to maintain open camping as a viable option, we will need to overhaul the system for 2020.
We think the best approach, in order to be the least disruptive to camps planning to attend Black Rock City this year, is to go with the third option. The Placement Team is holding camps to the same expectations we always have, and will continue to build vibrant and interesting neighborhoods in even more parts of the city. We’ll do this while preserving open camping in 2019, though the amount of space left for open camping will be reduced from 2018 levels.
Open campers may feel pinched from losing space; camps expecting placement may feel slighted if they’re not placed. We’re asking you to help make this year’s approach work, and more importantly, need your support to map the long term solutions to this new reality. Together, we all will have to make some hard changes necessary to make this system sustainable.
This turning point will require the best and most creative thinking from our community, and we hope you’ll give some thought to this challenge, and will share your ideas when the time comes to design a new system. Some of the things we’ll be considering as we design a new process include:
- The Black Rock City Cultural Direction Setting process: Many of you have engaged in this process over the past nine months through surveys, community conversations, and the Theme Camp Symposium. We appreciate how much our community has stepped up to think about how placement and open camping impact our culture, how much of residential BRC is pre-planned, and the role of the Placement Team. Any changes to the placement process will be grounded in the collective vision created through this collaborative process.
- How Placement distributes DGS tickets: The Directed Group Sale was designed to help theme camps and critical projects get access to a limited number of tickets for their core teams, to ensure their projects and plans were feasible. With the steady increase of the number of camps and projects, we no longer have enough DGS tickets to maintain a reliable core for all placed theme camps, and know that one motivation for a camp to get placement is to receive ticket access through a directed rather than an open sale process.
We understand the core need for camps to receive blocks of tickets in order to plan for and participate in Burning Man, and we want to continuing meeting that need.. That being said, 2019 placed theme camps are not guaranteed 2020 DGS tickets based on the existing system’s rules. We will announce our approach for 2020 tickets for camps as soon as we can in the fall of 2019.
- How our community holds camps accountable: The Placement Team is limited in size so we rely on the community and neighbors to tell us about your experiences with each other’s camps. More than ever, we need to know what’s actually happening on the ground and for neighbors to hold each other to the standards of interactivity we all expect and to uphold the Ten Principles. We don’t want to just know about who’s doing it wrong, but who’s really doing it right.
- Our Placement criteria: While our existing criteria has been a great foundation to assess camps and teach new camps how to come into the fold, we will be considering additional criteria to better differentiate camps. These criteria and metrics could include uniqueness, innovation, environmental sustainability, diversity, self-sufficiency, capacity, quality, history, and size.
This year’s theme of Metamorphoses is quite fitting for the turning point for Placement. As a community, we have the chance to pause, reflect, and re-conceive this critical piece of how people experience Black Rock City for many years to come.
How You Can Help Immediately:
- If your camp requested placement this year mainly to receive access to 2020 DGS tickets, and you really don’t have a developed theme camp or team, please consider withdrawing your questionnaire in order to make space for others. We want all placed camps to make genuine contributions and provide interactivity to the community, not just camps doing the minimum in order to receive future tickets.
- Know that bigger is not necessarily better, and that our culture is also about celebrating the small. Maybe you overestimated your camp size in your questionnaire or thought it would look impressive to be as big as you can. Maybe you had a big dream that you’re realizing you can’t pull off without the right amount of people in your camp. Now’s the time to update us and correct the size of your camp by emailing the Placement Team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Remind people seeking camps that open camping is still an option. Theme camps should also consider forming in open camping without reserved placement. Some of the most serendipitous meetings, interesting interactions, and strongest communities occur in open camping.
Change can feel unnerving, but I’m confident we’ll land in a better place. This is our chance to build an even better Black Rock City. The Placement Team remains committed to co-creating a vibrant city for all of us, and to uphold the Ten Principles in all of our decision-making. We’re here to help Black Rock City camps and neighborhoods continue to be the heartbeat of the Burn.
Placement Manager, Burning Man Project
With support from:
Marian Goodell, CEO of Burning Man Project
Charlie Dolman, Black Rock City Event Director
Harley K. Dubois, Chief Transition Officer and Founder of Placement
Trippi Longstocking, Associate Director and former Placement Manager
The Placement Team
Top photo by Will Roger Peterson