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.

Burning Bright: the Black Rock City Experiment

By Adam Brock

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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.

The Living Domino

By Adam Brock

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Siteplan Small

There’s a big empty industrial complex down the street from my apartment called the Domino Sugar Factory. Nobody tends to give it much notice; it’s just a row of empty buildings of in an out-of-the-way part of the neighborhood. But with the pressures of redevelopment creeping into the area, the six-square block waterfront site is a fast becoming a developer’s dream. With a project of this scale, the fate of Domino will easily determine the fate of the rest of the neighborhood – and right now, the view from where I live ain’t looking so good.

Domino is currently owned by a group called the Community Preservation Corporation, although, in typical developer doublespeak, community preservation seems to be the last thing on CPC’s mind: their plan calls for four several-hundred-foot towers, each one taller than the Williamsburg Bridge they’re adjacent to. Cumulatively, the uber-development would double the neighborhood population, stressing an already overtaxed sewer and transit infrastructure to the breaking point. And while the proposed 660 units of affordable housing are a plus, the impact of the other 1,750 units would likely displace thousands of the area’s current residents, as shopkeepers and tenants alike are booted to accommodate an influx of new wealth.

This sounds like the beginning of a sad story told a million times over. But it doesn’t have to be this way, especially with the buckling housing market making 2,400 new units seem fiscally questionable. There’s another way to develop Domino: one that listens to the needs of the surrounding community and ecology while still turning a profit. That’s the premise behind the Living Domino Project, the first cut of which I’ve shown below. From the ground up, the design I’m working on takes a whole systems approach, looking at how flows of water, waste and energy can be continuously cycled. I aimed to preserve as many of the existing structures as possible, with the new ones positioned to capture the riverfront views and take advantage of the site’s ample sun exposure.

LivingDomino1

Here’s an overview of how the project would take shape:

AffhsgThe southern two blocks of the site, as well as the upland block, would be devoted to a mixture of public open space and affordable housing. Ideally, Living Domino can match the 660 units promised by CPC, although this might mean building higher than the 8 or 9 stories I’ve sketched out. Similar to London’s heralded BedZed development, the housing units would have attached south-facing greenhouses to help heat the building and provide space for growing food.

CultcenterThe recently-landmarked refinery structure (and the iconic concrete-and-glass tower behind it) would serve primarily as an arts and cultural center, along the lines of the vision laid out at dominosugar.org. With hundreds of thousands of square feet between the two buildings, there could be extensive galleries and performing arts space, with plenty of room left over for a public library, offices, or a magnet school.

The roof of the refinery, covered in PV and solar hot water heaters, would serve double duty as a rainwater collector. After a storm, the water would flow down sculptural “green gutters” (thank you, USBK) and into a public fountain. From there it enters the site’s greywater system and could be used to flush toilets or water plants.

VfarmThe northern two blocks of the site would house a Center for Urban Ecology, complete with a prototype vertical farm providing jobs and fresh local produce to the surrounding community. There’d also be an amphitheater, with the existing figure-8 footprint of two old storage towers as stage. Finally, the five blocks of public waterfront would accommodate a water taxi stop, a plaza, commercial tilapia culture, and a marina.

The Living Domino Project is, of course, quite embryonic, and the concepts presented here are likely to evolve greatly in the coming months. But more important than any of the specific features is the idea that the Domino site has massive potential for catalyzing a healthy, sustainable community. Rather than creating yet another agent of gentrification as CPC plans to do, the opportunity exists to create something truly groundbreaking, something that serves as a jewel of Williamsburg and the New York City waterfront. It’s not too late to make Domino come alive – but the clock is ticking.

Making it Actionable: Gallatin’s Community Learning Initiative and the Art of Inhabitance

By Adam Brock

College can be a mighty frustrating place for young radicals. While universities are often hotbeds of revolutionary thought, very little of that thought seems to make it outside the walls of the classroom and into the real world. Colleges tend to remain insular to the social pressures in the communities around them; sometimes, they’re even the cause. My own school, NYU, is certainly no exception – its continual expansion has long antagonized the Greenwich Village community, and it’s played no small role in the gentrification of the area.

Gallatin, the small, innovative division of the University that I attend, is working to reverse that role with a program called the Community Learning Initiative. CLI started several years ago as an attempt to bring the university a bit closer to the ground: courses like “Mapping for Social Change” and “Literacy in Action” combine the rigorous theory and reflection of typical university curricula with hands-on partnerships with nonprofits and activist organizations.

As innovative as these courses are, though, they have limitations of their own, particularly with conflicting timescales: grassroots campaigns usually last years, while universities tend to operate in 18-week chunks. This year, with a bigger budget and expanded staff, CLI is expanding its scope with multi-semester working groups, campaigns, workshops, guest lectures, and research.

While the Community Learning Initiative isn’t explicitly focused on sustainability, its approach naturally connects with the precepts of ecoliteracy. Ecological awareness, after all, means understanding the way we affect and are affected by our environment, an understanding that entails social factors as well biological ones. David Orr, in his essay “Place and Pedagogy,” frames the process as a shift from residing to inhabiting: “Good inhabitance is an art requiring detailed knowledge of a place, the capacity for observation, and a sense of care and rootedness. Residence requires cash and a map.”

With the Community Learning Initiative, Gallatin is well on its way to integrating Orr’s inhabitance into its educational model – but is it scaleable? Grassroots campaigning for credit might be the progressive Gallatino’s dream education, but how would it fare in the decidedly more traditional College of Arts and Sciences? It’s hard to say. For now, at least, it’s reassuring to see that programs like CLI are happening at all, bringing their students closer to the place where they live – and in the process, transforming the role of what a university can be.

Williamsburg Rises Up…

By Adam Brock

WBurg Units small

Click to view full-scale

I wonder what it would feel like to suddenly find myself with three new roommates, or if one of my classes jumped from 20 people to 35. I suppose I’ll find out soon: that’s the shift that’s set to take place in my neighborhood over the next couple years, as a series of sleek, Big Money condo towers rise along the low-slung Williamsburg waterfront.

As part of the Domino Project, I’ve been analyzing the current demographics of my neighborhood to better understand of who lives here and how the proposed development at the Domino site would alter the streetlife and resources. I threw together the map above yesterday to demonstrate what the area looked like in terms of housing in late 2004: a mix of walkups, townhomes and warehouses, with the occasional yuppie-priced loft thrown in the mix.

But thanks to a 2005 rezoning, my map is already out of date. Williamsburg’s overstuffed L trains and continually backed up sewers will be seeing about 5,000 more people arrive in the next several years, as construction commences on a wall of luxury condos (with a helping of affordable housing thrown in for a tax break). Towards the Bedford stop, there’s the Edge, with 892 total units, and Northside Piers, with 290 in the first of three towers to go up. South of the bridge, the 350 apartments and condos at Schaefer Landing have been open for a year or so. These projects, the largest 3 of many medium-to-large new developments in the area, will bring to Williamsburg a combined total of 2,000 units of housing – 5,000 people or so – by 2010.

And then there’s Domino. According to the CPC’s current plans (PDF alert), the development there would create two 400-foot and two 300-foot towers along the water, dwarfing the Williamsburg Bridge and generating a further 2,400 units of housing.

New Domino rendering

Can it really come down to doubling the population of an already overtaxed neighborhood in order to turn a profit? There’s got to be another way – one that works not just for the market, but for the community and the ecosystem as well.