Repost: Burning Bright – The Black Rock City Experiment

As this year’s Burning Man draws near, I thought it would be appropriate to repost this writeup from an event I attended in NYC a couple years back. It discusses what we can learn about city planning, community, and “radical self-reliance” from Black Rock City, the ephemeral city in the Nevada desert that hosts the Burning Man festival every year.

What if ecological city planners were given a chance to design a city from the ground up, in a completely empty landscape? What if the city was decreed to have zero environmental impact – and torn down and rebuilt on a yearly basis? While it sounds like something pulled from the journals of Paolo Soleri, this ultimate planners’ workshop actually occurs every summer at Black Rock City, the ephemeral site of the Burning Man Festival in Nevada. Known for its out-of-control costumes and massive art installations, Burning Man is also an annual experiment in low impact/high density human habitation: with a population of 40,000 packed in at twice the density of London, this is no mere camping trip.

I got a taste of Burning Man’s refreshingly offbeat design process at “Burning Man: Planning and Evolution of the Temporary City”, a panel at the AIA’s Center for Architecture last weekend. On the stage were Burning Man founder Larry Harvey, Black Rock City planner Rod Garrett, The Eye, architect for one of the festival’s ‘theme camps’, and Hayley Fitchet, a city planner for London-based Gensler.

While it’s often described as “the world’s greatest party,” Burning Man is much more than a weekend of hedonism. At the core of the burner philosophy is the idea of sacredness: nothing is sold at the festival other than water and coffee, and for many, the experience is imbued with a sense of the divine. Harvey explained how the unique architecture of Burning Man heightens this sense of wonder by employing timeless concepts like site orientation, bilateral symmetry, exquisite detailing, and natural materials – concepts that the sleek, convoluted architectural forms of today seem to have left in the dust.

While Harvey played the mystic, Garrett was all professionalism, choosing to focus on the logistical challenges of Black Rock City and how it’s evolved since he came onboard ten years ago. Shaped like a C, with the iconic Burning Man itself at the center, the city plan is scaleable to accommodate a growing population, and allows people and goods to easily access all parts of the site.

Black Rock City

Well-intentioned though it may be, Burning Man is still prone to the pressures of development that threaten any growing city. Garrett related a fascinating tale of how, in the early 2000s, the theme camps (grandiose setups constructed by groups of longtime burners) were contributing to a sort of Burning Man gentrification, forming a literal inner circle around the main esplanade. In the spirit of equality, Black Rock City was rezoned in 2005 to spread them out along the radial streets. The result: the theme camps now act as attractors for “neighborhoods”, bringing together burners with similar interests.

It might seem that the very aspects of Burning Man that make it such a compelling case study – ephemerality, lack of context – would limit its applicability to real-world urban design. But Fitchett, the final presenter, convincingly argued to the contrary, explaining how her three years at Burning Man have informed her work as a planner. Want proof of the importance of landmarks? Look no farther than the Man, standing at the heart of the temporary city until the ritual burning on Saturday. Need reassurance that streets without traffic signals are actually safer? Observe the way bicyclists naturally take to the middle of the Black Rock City streets, while pedestrians cluster around the edges. Perhaps Fitchett’s most original Burning Man-derived insight was the conviction that our public space need not be mediated by commerce. “The chance to be a participant in public life,” she quipped, “should not come at the price of a cup of coffee.”

It was a comment that captured well the spirit on stage, and of the festival as a whole. In the two decades since its founding, Burning Man has become the riotous epicenter of American counterculture – a reputation it’s earned by providing a place, however fleeting, where people can relate to each other without the inevitable distortions of the dollar sign. Back here in reality, we might not be refashioning our street grids or imposing a barter system any time soon, but even so, Burning Man is well worth the consideration of those of us looking to reinvent urban life. After all, if Larry Harvey and his team can bring forty thousand people to the Nevada desert in summer, they must be doing something right.

Metropolitan Green and the Regeneration of Urban Space

By Adam Brock

Is all the good space left in New York gone? With construction cranes and scaffolding as ubiquitous as taxis these days, it’s easy to think that within a few years every square foot of space that can be built on will be. A closer look, though, reveals that even after a decade of manic development, New York’s urban space is vastly underutilized. While condos and office towers continue to rise all over town, vacant lots with no sign of impending construction still abound in all but the densest of neighborhoods. Meanwhile, there are great opportunities for utilizing street space more intelligently, and thousands of acres lie untapped on city roofs.

And it’s a good thing, too: the way we reinvent these underutilized spaces will be crucial in determining the long-term resilience of New York City. We don’t need more condos for rich people from other countries. We need more trees, more green spaces to get away from the daily grind. We need to start growing more of our own food. We need to provide jobs for the working class that will lift them out of poverty while restoring the quality of the air, soil and water. In short, we need to figure out how to pastoralize the city as thoroughly as we’ve already urbanized the countryside.

The difficulty with making New York City greener is not a lack of space. Rather, it’s a lack of control over the space that’s available. In a city of dense, highly-prized real estate, decisions about how we manipulate our space are left in the hands of those who can afford to pay for it. The fate of the urban environment is determined by developers: entities which, constrained by the need for short-term returns, simply aren’t designed to think about the longer-term social and environmental consequences of their actions. Meanwhile, the people that do care about these things – the people that actually live in urban neighborhoods – are rarely given more than a token voice in the planning process, and they rarely have the tools to envision how development might work better than it currently does. Even city governments, which used to guide the urban form through zoning, civic beautification, and urban renewal projects, have largely ceded control of the urban environment to the free market due to ever-tightening budgets and the lure of tax revenue from big-ticket properties.

Perhaps it’s not such a bad thing that there’s no grand plan for how our cities are evolving: design from the bottom up can have its merits. It might not grow the economy as much as luxury lofts and big-box stores, but elements like small businesses and owner-built houses bring vitality to a place that modernist monuments and slick corporate megastructures lack. On the other hand, only city governments have the ability to create and maintain the critical infrastructure necessary to keep a city functioning, and only government and business have the money to transform our cities on the scale that’s necessary. The challenge for the 21st century, then, is to figure out a synthesis of top-down guidance and bottom-up authenticity, applying the knowledge and capital of government and business to the desires of the community.

It’s a massively different process than the one that occurs today, and the transition will probably outlast our own lives. But while we’re waiting, I think it’s worthwhile to start imagining ways that we might, if given the chance, start to redesign our own communities. I began doing just that last semester with The Living Domino, an ecological concept plan for a vacant factory complex down the street from my house. My most recent design challenge, Metropolitan Green, takes the same values and shows how they can be applied on a somewhat smaller scale.

Existing
A few blocks south of the Bedford Ave L stop, there’s a little triangular block where the slightly diagonal Metropolitan meets up with North 3rd street. Small and awkwardly shaped, the lot contains a mostly empty private parking lot and an overgrown triangle of a garden, and has thus far resisted development. The street to the north contains a bagel store, a lumber store and a laundromat, and sees hardly any traffic besides deliveries to these retail establishments. The result is a block of wasted space, an unsightly agglomeration of pavement, cars, and chain link fence in a space that’s ideally suited for a public plaza. Currently, more than half of the surface area of the triangle is taken up by sidewalk and asphalt, neither of which get much use.

MetroGreen
Metropolitan Green proposes an arrangement would combine biology and architecture, while giving Williamsburg residents some much-needed public green space in the process. The design integrates the block with the buildings to the north, erasing the street that divides them except for a small access driveway for the lumber store. A greenhouse would emerge from the south side of the bagel store, collecting heat to help keep the building warm and providing a pleasant space for eating outdoors and growing a small amount of food year-round. Just to the east of the greenhouse, a small pond and intentional wetland process the organic waste from the bagel store and lofts above it, while providing a home for several types of edible fish. A matrix of raised beds allow vegetables and herbs to be grown outdoors nine months of the year, while the southernmost portion of the block is left as an open park.

For all the recent excitement around the idea of sustainability, designs such as the Living Domino or Metropolitan Green are still considered too radical to be feasible – but that’s no reason not to keep working at them. There’s no doubt in my mind that the end of cheap oil and need to mitigate global warming will demand a reinvention of the built environment far beyond what’s currently deemed politically feasible, and the more we can start to envision that eventual metamorphosis the better. Indeed, that metamorphosis might just happen sooner than we think: the economic climate seems to be changing even faster than the meteorological one, and it may not be long before crops begin to take the place of condos as the newest member of the urban fabric.



Envisioning Gateway

By Adam Brock

Gateway National Recreation Area is one of New York City’s best-kept natural secrets. A collection of playing fields, tidal marshes and islands on the southeastern edge of Brooklyn, Gateway is chronically underfunded and poorly served by mass transit – with the result that hardly any New Yorkers (myself included) have ever been there.

With the Envisioning Gateway contest, it looks like that might be changing. Sponsored by the National Parks Conservation Association, the contest lets you vote on one of 8 professional proposals to revamp the area – most of them with a serious ecological bent.

GtwyPro2The Reassembling Ecologies proposal suggests clustering all the human activity along a single axis, leaving the rest to remain untouched. [un]natural selection takes the opposite approach, creating a constructed wetland and connecting the islands with bridges and causeways, with the premise that “human health and ecology exist within and not separate from the surrounding environment”. There are also proposals to turn Gateway into a “national eco-urban research zone” and to flood the area and install a network of hydroponic pods.

Voting ends at the end of the year, after which NPCA will present the designs and public feedback to the National Park Service. Definitely worth a look – and a vote.

Scale Linking in the Savannah

By Adam Brock

Eglash

I’m still trippin’ out on the latest TED Talk by Ron Eglash. The ethno-mathematician spent a year searching for fractal patterns in African villages, and found that self-similarity pervades the design of their settlements, ornamentation and even their games. My favorite part comes at the four minute mark, where Eglash throws down a diagram of a Ba-ila settlement in Zimbabwe that shows the same rounded pattern represented in the shapes of the village, family enclosure, and household. And within each household, the shape repeats again in miniature form as the home of the ancestors… ad infinitum.

Just another example of “primitive”societies employing a knowledge of natural systems that’s far more sophisticated than our own… here’s to hoping 1491 author Charles C Mann gets to take the stage for TED 08.