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Katie Hazard: City building lessons learned from Burning Man

After delivering the final keynote address at the 2019 Transforming Local Government Conference in Reno, Nevada, Burning Man Arts program manager Katie Hazard sat down with Municipal World CEO Susan Gardner to talk about the lessons traditional cities can learn from a temporary one that hosts 75,000 people for a week.

Burning Man – an annual community event focused on community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance – has been taking place in the Black Rock Desert (approximately 100 miles northeast of Reno) for the past 33 years. It may be a temporary community, but each year organizers build a fully functioning city that supports some 75,000 people who come for the eight-day event.

“It’s really a fully functioning city. There is a whole range of what you would expect in a typical city, although what’s a little different there is the Burning Man organization creates that infrastructure, the roads, and the airport, and that kind of thing,” Hazard said. “One of our main principles is leave no trace. When we arrive, it is a big empty slate. Also, when we leave. We don’t provide garbage cans . . . people bring everything they need. Nothing is for sale. They have to bring with them everything they brought in.”

Organizers arrive about three weeks before the rest of the participants make their way to Black Rock City. The process of building the city begins with a survey of the whole entire site. Organizers and volunteers then begin to lay out the roads, set up the post office, the medical families, and even an FAA-sanctioned airport.

All this takes place on an ancient lake bed, “this big, flat expanse of white land and is ringed by these black mountains,” as Hazard describes it. By the time the event gets underway, what becomes known as Black Rock City is recognized as the third largest city in Nevada.

Hazard explains three attributes she sees as flourishing at Black Rock City and that people could apply to their more permanent communities.

Collaboration is essential, she said, as locally driven solutions lead to people being more involved and having a sense of ownership of their community. Honouring creativity – “Self-expression does great things for people” – is important. So too is a willingness to be experimental and not fear failure. These are all lessons Hazard said she hopes municipalities can learn from Burning Man.

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