How to Reinvent Your City, Burning Man Style

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This post originally appeared at

Every August for one week, the Burning Man festival takes
place in a temporary city of its own creation, called Black
Rock City
after Nevada’s Black Rock Desert where it is located. This year, Black Rock City’s population will be 60,000 — bigger than Carson City, the state capital of Nevada.

Our real-world cities,
meanwhile, are struggling to provide the services citizens need, limited by
declining tax income, record debt, and increasingly complex social issues.
Cities have no choice but find ways to do more with less. Many seek to harness
the creative energies of citizens to fill the gaps, asking them to take a more
active role in governance, service provision, and even in
creating new services

It’s easy to write off Burning
Man as a hippie love fest in the desert. It has its own problems like any city,
but that’s selling it short, especially in one regard – its remarkable ability
to foster participation. The event — which for 26 years has expected
participants to practice sharing, gifting, and radical self-reliance — is an
effective proving ground for experiments in community self-organization. In
fact, participants build most of the city without any direct oversight from

Given that cities need its citizens
more than ever, can the lessons of Burning Man’s Black Rock City, which pushes citizen participation
to the limit, be applied to modern cities? Of course they can. Here are a few
ways you can support participation, sharing and community in your own town.

First, Adopt
the Right Mindset: There are No Spectators

Michel Bauwens, the
founder of the Peer to Peer Foundation, believes that the proper
role of government in our emerging networked society is that of partner in
social production
. This means that in a myriad ways government helps
citizens help themselves. This turns the existing model of government as a
top-down service provider on its head. Instead, government works in a bottom up
fashion to empower citizens to provide for themselves.

Burning Man does exactly this.
It fosters a culture of participation through its Ten
and provide basic infrastructure such as roads, sanitation, and
safety, which, by the way, rely heavily on volunteer labor. Participants fill
in the blanks beautifully
with a seemingly unlimited number of options for
care, connection, artistic expression, education, sustenance, and fun. At
Burning Man, there are no spectators. Likewise, we increasingly need cities
where every citizen is intimately involved in creating their city on a day to
day basis.

Crowdsource The

Almost none of the hundreds of
art projects exhibited at Burning Man are fully funded by the festival. Many of
them are crowdfunded through Kickstarter or Indiegogo. This requires active community participation,
and it also organically vets projects ensuring that the best ideas are likely
to be funded.

The city of Vallejo,
California is
taking this idea for a spin, testing out participatory budgeting for 30 percent of its funds.
Community members decide which projects to fund, and must work together to get
the funding approved.

“If you live in northern Vallejo and you want a
bus shelter, then you know what, you’ve got to partner with people in other
parts of the city who want bus shelters too,” Councilmember Marti Brown
told The Atlantic Cities. “People are going to have to learn how to think
like that. It encourages people to work with groups they’ve never worked with

Vallejo is the
first to try participatory budgeting city-wide, though it’s now
being considered in San Francisco
. Want to see participatory budgeting in
your city? Get involved.

Build Your Own

Burning Man famously bans all
exchange of money, recommending that people share and “gift” their resources
within the community. That’s not likely to happen in the rest of the world very
soon — but with the recession, the housing boom-and-bust and the financial
crisis all tightly linked to the banking industry, an ever-growing number of
people are ditching their Wall Street banks for citizen owned banks like credit
unions and public banks. A
new report
suggests that a public banking could reverse the effects of
recent consolidation, bolster the treasuries of government banks, and put
financial controls back in the hands of the people.

Though common in Germany and elsewhere, The Bank of North Dakota
is currently the only state-run bank in the United States, and it’s been hailed
as an “economic
.” Could each city or county set up a local bank to create its own
community miracle?
It certainly could

Share Your

There’s another way to share
your money and your values with your community: Join a local cooperative and
encourage your city government to support the growth of the cooperative sector.
Coops are owned and controlled by either workers or customers. They are more
democratic, community-minded, and more stable job creators than most private

Did you know that 120 million
Americans belong to at least one cooperative? That 25 percent of the nation’s
electric grid is cooperatively owned? 2012 is the International Year
of Cooperatives
, and this proven, fast-growing business model is offers
many advantages over conventional, tightly controlled private businesses.

Worker-owned businesses like The
Evergreen Cooperatives are
addressing poverty and unemployment
, helping money stay in the community
where previous charity initiatives have failed. National coops are booming too,
including chains like ACE Hardware which help mom-and-pop shops stay open.

Hitch, Surf
& Crash

Want to live well on a budget at
Burning Man? Pool your resources with a “camp” of anywhere from five to 500
people, who share kitchens, showers, shelters and even transportation so that
everyone can afford access to these necessities.

Want to live well on a budget in
your city? Use the same logic: join
a car-sharing program
, try out a
coworking space
, share your lodging
and, if you’re traveling, rent somebody’s empty room instead of shelling out
for a hotel.

Many cities are beginning to
adopt community bike programs (of which Black Rock City also has one), but beyond that,
there is plenty of room to expand. City-run sharing networks could generate
income while saving residents money.

Think it’s a good idea? You
might need to start your own. And
encourage your city to adopt sharing-friendly

Plug In to the
Resource Grid

Just a few months ago, Burning
Man launched a tool called Spark. Designed to facilitate collaboration between
attendees, the site allows anyone to create a free “ad” for services or
resources needed or offered (on a gift basis). Today’s ads include a call for
carpenters, an offer to “freeze anything” and several musicians looking for
performance opportunities.

Resource sharing is complicated
mostly because it can’t be done over longer distances. Sites like Craigslist,
Freecycle and Taskrabbit are good places to start active collaboration on
projects, and new platforms are being developed that will further facilitate
getting things done without buying a bunch of supplies. One new
platform-in-progress, Social Alchemy, is being developed by Burners Without Borders
leader Carmen Mauk and hopes to be a collaborative project management tool —
for example, helping relief workers in disaster areas find the equipment and
labor they need to do their work more efficiently.

You might need to start your own
local sharing network using a service like ShareTribe — but first, check Craigslist, Freecycle and
your local tool lending library to find out what’s already going on.

Reprogram Your

Burning Man organizers lay out
the roads and some infrastructure, then allow the population to build its own
city. In the rest of America, we don’t have as much creative control — but many
of us are exercising much less control than we could, often because of the
difficulties of dealing with bureaucratic government bodies.

Do you want transparent,
efficient government? Participatory budgeting? Streamlined voting? Easy access
to your representatives? It’s all made more possible with technology.
Code for America is a group that works with city governments
, helping them
transform their information infrastructure to improve citizen engagement,
efficiency and transparency. Can you help your city adopt new social
Yes, you can

“As our futures are increasingly
becoming urban, cities need to start experimenting with citizen participatory
process,” says James Hanusa, New Initiatives Consultant to Burning Man.
He points to the Urban Prototyping
project, which seeks citizen participation in redesigning San Francisco public spaces, and the Burning Man Project,
which supports the application of Burning Man’s Ten Principles in many communities.

These ideas just scratch the
surface. Much more can be done to make cities as participatory as Burning Man.
And while the above innovations increase citizen participation, they lack one
thing Burning Man offers.

Black Rock
City is manifested
by thousands of people in the spirit of celebration. The passion of
participants is unmistakable. They are drawn into the civic drama by the drama
of their own self-actualization. They experience — sometimes for the first time
— what it’s like to be accepted completely in public, and so are willing to
give their best to the city that invites the best in them. This is the way the
city is made, and how it makes people.

The true flowering of cities may
not occur until the civic is married to the celebratory. This too is within

Jessica Reeder is a member of
the Black Rock City Department of Public Works, and occasionally writes for the
Burning Blog.

Image by Christopher,
licensed under Creative Commons.

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