8 Ways to Make Your City More Like Burning Man

From building public art to creating "sacred spaces," the annual event is inspiring leaders across America.
by | August 2019
Burning Man makes room for "sacred spaces," such as the Temple of Promise in 2015. (Wikipedia)

Every August, tens of thousands of people descend on the northern Nevada desert for Burning Man, the weeklong gathering to celebrate arts and self-expression. The temporary city of 70,000 rebuilds and refines itself every year from the ground up, and it has become something of a model for urban planners.

Many city leaders have been inspired by the way Burning Man incorporates art throughout the community and by its collaborative, resident-driven planning process.

Cities in the real world don't have the luxury of redesigning themselves every year, but here are eight ways that urban leaders are incorporating lessons from Burning Man back home.

 

Make Yourself Art-Friendly 

Large-scale public art pieces and colorful wall murals have become commonplace in parts of many cities, but there’s always room for more. “After seeing the creativity of the human spirit at full blast at Burning Man,” says Columbia, S.C., Mayor Steve Benjamin, “I immediately came back and started talking to my cultural affairs folks about placing more public art because I was so inspired.” Don’t be afraid to think big, and don’t be afraid to think small, either: The city of Durham, N.C., recently partnered with local artists to transform drab utility boxes at certain intersections into vibrant symbols of their neighborhoods.

 

Encourage Love 

Cities should think about ways to foster happier, more connected relationships among citizens. That might sound a little too kumbaya to some, says Marlon Williams of the nonprofit Living Cities, but consider the Gross National Happiness Index pioneered a decade ago in Bhutan. Closer to home, Louisville, Ky., Mayor Greg Fischer has garnered national attention for his pledge to make Louisville “the nation’s first compassionate city,” and has worked to operationalize “the concept of compassion” in the public sphere.

 

Make Yourself Artist-Friendly 

When it comes to street artists, musicians and performers, cities tend to start from a place of prohibition and then grant permits on a one-by-one basis. Flip that script, says Doug Farr, a Chicago-based planner and architect, and the author of Sustainable Nation: Urban Design Patterns for the Future. “Think about how you can add a layer to your plan where you pre-approve what artists can do, rather than burden them with going to city hall and applying for a permit.”

 

Prioritize Play 

“We always say that a good neighborhood is a place where you can live, work and play,” Williams says. “But we don’t actually do the play thing very well. In most cities, the only place adults have to play is at bars. And they’re not playing, they’re just inebriated.” Cities ought to consider how they can encourage residents of all ages to “play” within a space. Williams points to the movable chairs in New York City’s Bryant Park: By inviting residents to rearrange the chairs however they want, the city encourages them to engage with the space and make it their own.

 

Collaborate, Collaborate, Collaborate 

Rethink your planning process to make it as truly community-driven as possible. Seek out and involve resident voices throughout, says Burning Man Associate Director Victoria Mitchell. “Think about what it would look like if people get to actually participate and it’s a two-way process, not just a one-way, thank-you-very-much, check-off-the-box-for-my-community-engagement-requirement process,” she says.

 

Engage in Rituals 

Communal rituals help forge a cultural identity. But “cities lack rituals,” Williams says. Holiday parades are OK, he says, “but cities really need to be asking: How can we engage in rituals that celebrate life and creation and a shared identity?” Rituals need not be elaborate. One good example Williams cites is citywide book clubs.

 

Create ‘Sacred Spaces’ 

With the towering effigy of the Man, an immersive temple, several smaller shrines and countless other spiritual spaces, Burning Man does a remarkable job of creating places that invite residents to gather and commune in a shared experience, says Williams. Real-world cities need more of those. “Not necessarily religious spaces,” he says, “but places where people can come together to deal with the emotional and psychological impact of living in a city together.”

 

Activate Your Space

Embrace tactical urbanism. Think of easy, temporary ways to get citizens to see their neighborhood in a new light. These can be large-scale endeavors: Every summer from mid-May through mid-September, the city of Montreal completely closes one of its main streets to vehicular traffic, stringing up lights and allowing restaurants and bars to set up seasonal open-air terrasses in the street. But activations can also be small. Earlier this summer, St. Louis’ Bevo Mill neighborhood installed a set of large-scale letters spelling L-O-V-E in a park square. “But we did it on a tactical basis, out of Styrofoam, for 1 percent of the cost of metal,” says Doug Farr, who worked with St. Louis on a plan to help revitalize Bevo Mill. “People may hate it, in which case it’s there for a week or two and comes down. But assuming it goes better than that, we can do a more permanent version. That’s a lesson straight out of Burning Man.”

Zach Patton | Executive Editor | zpatton@governing.com