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.

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.

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.

Urban Permaculture Part 1: Waste = Food

While I might not be doing a whole lot of posting these days, Andrew Faust is keeping himself busy on the blogosphere. The following is the first piece in a series, cross-posted on Green Brooklyn, on how permaculture principles can apply to urban settings, specifically in NYC.

– Adam 

An Ecological Design View of Brooklyn and New York CityPermaculture works with whole systems integrated ecological design goals. We create designs based on our understandings of how the earth works and what human beings truly need for a high quality of life. As a person practicing and teaching permaculture design in New York City, I describe the goal of permaculture as: to create ecologically intelligent designs for human settlements.

In part we accomplish this by creating more regionally self-sufficient, local economies. I call it retrofitting the infrastructure. Instead of centralized mass production, the commodification of basic necessities and the long distance transportation of goods and energy services, we want to shorten the distance of transmission of all goods and services, this improves quality, efficiency and creates truer food security. In permaculture design we seek to close the loop on linear energy and nutrient flows.

In this series we will look at what these design goals offer in the way of insights and opportunities to improve the quality of life for the citizens of Brooklyn and New York City overall. Some of the key urban permaculture issues we will explore through this series:

  • Bringing ecological design to New York cities infrastructure
  • Water issues, air quality, soil contamination
  • Boosting our vitality and health
  • Creating healthy architecture
  • Greening urban environments
  • Bringing food production, trees and biodiversity back into urban landscapes

In whole systems design analysis everything is interconnected and pollution is a result of an unused excess. We want high urban density areas like New York City and Brooklyn to begin to generate and properly digest some of its vast quantity of imported and exported nutrients. By adopting this goal we will address a range of interconnected realities which I shall outline herein.

Some facts and figures to get us rolling:

  • New York City population: 8,250,567 as of 2006
  • New York City imports 20,000 tons of food a day
  • New York City exports 13,000 tons of trash a day
  • 40% of New York’s trash is organic matter
  • 600 diesel fume spewing tractor trailers a day haul this trash in a nine mile long convoy to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Michigan and Idaho
  • The average NYC household throws out 2 pounds of organic “waste” a day = 1 million tons a year
  • There are 12,000 vacant lots in New York City which are publicly owned

So let’s connect the dots. The way to improve this highly energy intensive and pollution producing linear flow is to begin composting this organic matter, turning this “waste” into a resource. We need to have accessible and well maintained ways to compost properly throughout New York City and Brooklyn. We need to begin composting on a citywide — as well as individual household — level. Start small and remember one person beginning to compost makes a big difference.

On the 12,000 publicly owned vacant lots we can compost this organic material and start community gardens, biodiversity reserves, tree farms, orchards and small inner city farms.

One of our ideas in Permaculture is that within the problem lies the solution. These are a couple of clear examples of how this works.

In Brooklyn there are many brownfields and other contaminated old industrial sites.

An Ecological Design View of Brooklyn and New York CityOne of the most successful ways to bring back a contaminated site is to begin to introduce living soil (i.e. compost), a diverse vegetative community and mushrooms and fungi. The microbes and enzymes in living soil breakdown a wide range of harmful synthetic chemicals and certain plant species are known to sequester heavy metals, enabling the gathering and reclamation of these metals.

In our upcoming postings on Urban Permaculture we will look at the dynamic processes by which nature provides us with healthy air, water and food. We will look into the many ways to bring these essential ecological elements back into our urban landscapes.

This Urban Permaculture series addresses a range of ecological issues in New York City and Brooklyn and presents permaculture design solutions to these city-wide problems. For more information about Andrew Faust and his Permaculture Design in NYC class, please go to The Center for Bioregional Living at

No Impact Man, Shellenberger and Nordhaus at NYU’s Focus the Nation

By Adam Brock

If you haven’t checked No Impact Man’s blog recently, here’s the final installment of a fascinating back and forth between Colin and Michael Shellenberger, of the Breakthrough Institute – a think tank that’s devoted to reframing the environmental debate around optimistic values.

Incidentally, Shellenberger and his Breakthrough partner Ted Nordhaus will be the keynote speakers at NYU’s Focus the Nation event tomorrow, which we’ve decided to theme around “local solutions to the climate crisis”. To provide an opportunity for them to continue the NIM conversation face-to-face, I invited Colin to be a part of the response panel, an offer which he kindly accepted.

It should be a pretty interesting back and forth – not only will Colin be responding to Mike and Ted’s presentation, but so will Marty Hoffert, NYU’s own climate scientist superstar. If you’re around the Washington Square area and can make it, I would highly recommend stopping by.

NYU Focus the Nation: Local Solutions to the Climate Crisis

Eisner and Lubin Auditorium, NYU Kimmel Center

60 Washington Square South

Shellenberger and Nordhaus are on at 6:00, the response panel starts at 7:00.

Of Pressure Cookers and Black Radish French Fries: How to Keep it Local in the Wintertime

By Adam Brock

With a million farmer’s markets, CSAs, and green restaurants starting up in the New York area, it’s getting easier and easier to eat locally – that is, between April and November. But what about during the dark, cold days of winter? Without all those local peaches and basil, it might seem like time to turn to Chile and California, but in fact there’s an abundance of great local food even in January – it just requires a different approach. I asked a bunch of my locavore pals how they dealt with the challenge, and was amazed with the feast of solutions they presented.

First up are some tips from Annie Myers of Thoughts On The Table:

  • If you eat meat (smartly, of course) there’s plenty of it this time of year. Check out: 3-Corner Field Farm (Karen sells at the Union Square Greenmarket) and DiPaolo Turkey (also at Union Square, and several other greenmarkets).
  • Root vegetables are in! And they’re my favorite, to be honest. beets, parsnips, turnips, carrots, onions, potatoes…are always good roasted with oil and salt, pureed thick or thin, boiled in soups, or made into spreads.
  • Use milk and cheese! Especially as part of recipes with the root veggies. The animals need a rest at some point during the year of course, but it’s not necessarily this one! And plenty of cheesemakers are making their winter cheeses. go to the Greenmarket, or to Saxelby Cheesemongers at the Essex Street Market, for plenty of local cheeses, and Ronnybrook and Evan’s Farmhouse Creamery for milk and yogurt.
  • Embrace the bread. Bakeries may not be using local grains, but I’m working on finding more of that, and in any case, it’s a good time of year to support your local baker. And there are always local jams and spreads available, preserved from the summer.
  • Greenhouse tomatoes are great. Expensive, yes, but just as good as the summer ones.
  • Can or pickle the root vegetables! And if you pickle beets, don’t put more than one or two cloves in the jar, like I did. You’ll get something that tastes like beet-shaped cloves.
  • Embrace local businesses. If it feels like local products aren’t plentiful enough for you, it’s still “locavore” to avoid large companies, brands, and mass-produced foods, and support artisan work (like the baker), rather than industrial machinery.

My friend Abby Rosenbaum seconds Annie’s thoughts on root vegetables and canning, and also suggests making the most of dried fruits and beans.

Andrew Faust, permaculturalist and founder of the Center for Bioregional Living, gives us this handy list of veggies to buy (and grow!):

  • All root crops: potatoes, garlic, turnips, celeriacs. Especially experiment with, say, black radish french fries, or rutbaga with your mashed potatoes.
  • For leaf crops: kale, collards, dandelion, chickories
  • Be starting mizuna, purple mustard, arugula and lettuce in indoor window boxes or pots.
  • Cabbage (fermented and fresh), carrots and beets

Finally, Kerry Trueman of Eating Liberally gives us a cornucopia of tips for buying and cooking local winter foods like a pro:

First, let’s put to rest the notion that the winter pickin’s at the Greenmarket are slim. OK, so there’s not much in the way of salad greens, but we are, in fact, blessed with an abundance of root vegetables, squashes, apples, pears, and the meat, dairy, and bread vendors don’t go into hibernation either.

Thanks to our globalized food chain, though, we’ve grown so used to an eternal summer of hothouse tomatoes and raspberries from Chile that everyone turns up their noses at turnips. And the sweet potato’s only invited to most American dinner tables once a year, on Thanksgiving—what a waste of a versatile, nutritious and tasty tuber. Other root vegetables I’m especially fond of are parsnips and beets— if you can find beets with the greens intact, you get two vegetables for the price of one, because beet greens are essentially the same as Swiss chard.

Winter produce does require a bit more planning than summer’s eat-it-now bounty; you have to buy your Bosc pears a few days beforehand and let them ripen, and most root vegetables are better eaten cooked than raw. On the other hand, you can buy a gorgeous heirloom squash and admire it for weeks or even months before making it into a soup or stew.

The Greenmarket’s obviously the ideal source for those looking to eat as locally as possible. But it does have its limitations; if you’re pursuing a predominantly plant-based diet for your own health as well as the health of the planet, you’ll want to include plenty of beans and whole grains in your diet, most of which are not produced locally. I have been able to find locally grown and milled corn meal, spelt flour, and buckwheat, but for other grains and beans I go to Integral Yoga, Life Thyme or Kalustyan’s.

There are some staples I end up buying at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, things like ginger, soy sauce, olive oil, lemons, canned fish and so on. But we strive to buy as much of our food from our local farmers as we possibly can. I’m more of a retrovore than a locavore, which is to say that I prefer the kind of food that pre-dates industrial agriculture—pasture-raised animal products, minimally processed foods, ideally from our own region whenever possible. No pears from Argentina or asparagus from Peru or garlic from China.

I go to the Greenmarket nearly every other day to bring our kitchen scraps to the Lower East Side Ecology Center’s drop-off site, so I’m in the habit of browsing the stalls and buying whatever looks good. I bring a list, but it’s best to be flexible—yesterday, my list called for red onions, blue potatoes, and garlic, none of which was available. So I came home instead with sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and an acorn squash. It’s all good, and if you’re not sure what to do with it, the Greenmarket booth has pages of simple and
tasty recipes there for the taking.

The thing that makes it so easy for me to cook up all this produce is a life-changing—and, sadly, rather expensive—appliance; the new, improved pressure cooker (not to be confused with the ones that our grandmas used, which had a reputation for blowing their tops off.) I use mine two or three times a day and can’t imagine life without it. It’s the ultimate low-carbon cooker, because it lets you make all kinds of dishes in a fraction of the time they would take to cook conventionally. It’s a godsend for making grains, beans, soups and stews and cooks any kind of vegetable you can think of in just a few

The Greenmarket is definitely a streamlined operation in the winter, but I know several farmers upstate who are devising ways to extend their growing season with alternatively heated greenhouses and other innovations, so I suspect we’ll have more variety in the future. In the meantime, though, take advantage of all the treats the market has to offer: the magenta-pink watermelon radishes that taste almost like jicama; Adirondack blue potatoes; Hawthorne Valley’s jalapeno sauerkraut; fresh-baked cider donuts from any of the apple vendors, and so on. Just go to the Greenmarket with an open mind–you’ll be sure to find something delicious and filling.

photo credit: flickr/ianqui