If You Could Design Black Rock City, What Would You Build?

One burner's idea of what BRC 2015 would look like. Originally designed in 2012.
One burner’s idea of what BRC 2015 would look like. Originally designed in 2012.

The Black Rock City Ministry of Urban Planning (www.brcmup.org), a group of long-time burners and camps, is organizing an international design competition for the Black Rock City street plan.

Black Rock City represents a unique opportunity, possibly the only place in the world, where it’s possible to invent a new city from scratch. This design competition offers artists and scientists worldwide a platform to explore new spatial and geometric possibilities for the city. The current ringed street plan works, and has served us well for many years, but who knows what weird and wonderful city is waiting to be born, and who knows how a new city plan might interact with its art?

The design competition outlines a few basic principles, mostly practical considerations related to logistics and safety, but otherwise imposes no assumptions on what Black Rock City should be. The competition rules are as follows:

  • Designs should fit within the pentagonal boundary of the existing city plan. While this is not a strict requirement (non-conforming entries will be accepted), entrants should bear in mind that the BLM controls access to the playa, and that the existing boundaries are defined in part by their requirements.
  • The Man and the Temple should be the central focii of the city.
  • The city plan should provide a large area or areas for art installations and exploration, while the ratio of open space to camping space should be similar to the 2015 plan.
  • The city plan should be navigable and have a straightforward addressing system (no mazes please)
  • Otherwise, no assumptions or constraints.

Of these requirements, navigability is probably the most important one. One of the BLM permitting requirements is that the city have an addressing system so that emergency services can easily locate people in need of help. The ringed street plan works nicely in this respect because you only need two coordinates, a time and named street, to find any address on the map.

Math and nature provide many examples of repeating or self-similar patterns that are both predictable and also beautiful, so there are many possibilities to be explored. Fractals are one good example. These are self-similar patterns that are based on a simple set of recursive, or repeating rules.


A Koch snowflake, a recursive pattern that is generated from a simple rule. Imagine something like this being applied to the Esplanade in something similar to the existing ring plan.


The Koch snowflake, shown above, is just one example of a self-similar pattern that could be applied to the city plan. A pattern like this would transform the Esplanade from a simple arc into something more organic, something a lot like a coastline. Fractal patterns are also interesting because they are a way to increase the length of streets, which means you could increase the length of playa facing streets and create a lot more “beachfront property” while bringing the playa closer to outer camps in the process.

A closeup of a segment of a Koch fractal. This one has three levels of recursion, and increases the length of the line by about 2.4 times relative to the straight line distance from point A to point B.

Whether you find your inspiration in math or nature, there is an encyclopedia of patterns and geometries to explore.

The competition, which is open to anyone, will be organized in two stages. In the first stage, entrants will submit a single page drawing or rendering, along with a brief statement about the design’s intent. These entries will be displayed online and put up for a public vote. The top ten entries will be invited to develop detailed street level plans for stage two of the competition.

The stage two entries, once detailed, will once again be put up for a vote, after which the results will be published and formally submitted to Burning Man organizers for review and consideration. The decision of which design to accept, including the option to retain the existing street plan, will rest with them. The competition entries themselves will be put on display in 2016. To register, go to www.brcmup.org

We don’t know what the leading entries will look like. Maybe they will be a subtle adaptation of the existing city plan, or maybe they will be something radically different and beautiful. Maybe they will be the work of long-time burners, or maybe they will come from people who’ve never been to Burning Man and who are viewing it from an outsider’s perspective. We just don’t know, and that’s what makes a project like this exciting.

It’s also worth pointing out that we’re not seeking to fix something that isn’t broken. The goal, as with art in general, is simply exploration. Black Rock City’s ephemeral nature is what makes it unique, and is what makes it possible to explore completely new geometries in a way that an already built city cannot accommodate.

So with that in mind, we invite you to think about what your version of Black Rock City would look like, and invite you to submit your ideas this Fall.


Brian McConnell, co-founder of the Black Rock City Ministry of Urban Planning, <bsmcconnell@gmail.com> is an author, engineer and inventor based in San Francisco.

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