Black Rock City Inspiration

At this very moment 50,000 people have setup housekeeping in a temporary city in the Nevada desert. If you don’t know much about the Burning Man Project you might find it surprising that this temporary city (Black Rock City) has an incredibly well thought out plan designed by architect Rod Garrett.

This year the art theme for the city is Metropolis: The Life of Cities… so naturally there is an increased awareness and focus on how to make it more livable. The inhabitants of Black Rock City are already very careful about leaving no trace when they leave, so it seems like a great community to spent a bit of focused time noodling over this growing concern – how to make communities more livable.

My brief exploration into the origins of the BlackRock City plan brought back a memory of a comment that Jim, one of my readers, made about needing a place just for tiny houses. Here’s part of what Jim said:

“What we need is a piece of land where we can all get together without zoning boards and such and do our thing. We do need an association of some sort and a publication to focus our efforts.”

I couldn’t agree more with Jim’s comment – and Black Rock City begins to provide a real world example of how this might be done.

My head spins with ideas of how this might take shape. The main challenge would be to find a piece of land in a location where a critical mass of full-time inhabitants could be achieved. It would also have to be located in a place where the existing local government was agreeable to such a sustainable city.

The financial critical mass may not be as hard to achieve as one might think. For example, 50,000 people attend burning man each year and each person pays about $300 each for a ticket. That means the managing organization must have a budget in the neighborhood of $15 million. So when I say things like, “We’re Stronger Together,” you can see what I mean by all the zeros.

Duplicating Burning Man is not really realistic but bringing together a group of motivated people large enough to finance such an endeavor may be within reach, especially if the project stayed focused on frugality, self-sufficiency, and  sustainability.

Here are some initial thoughts:

  • Establish a true democracy – Maintain a separation of business & state… and keep the requisite beaurocracy small. Develop a simple way for people to discuss and vote on shared community issues. Keep the scale small enough to effectively promote self-governance.
  • Make it self-sufficient and sustainable – Produce the things people need within the community without any required outside trade. Encourage trade with other communities, but avoid developing dependencies.
  • Promote safe alternative housing – Use things like the international building codes as a guide but avoid getting bound-up in regulations. Use common sense and local expertise to keep homes safe.
  • Encourage owner and community built housing – Come together to help others build mortgage-free simple homes.
  • Finance the project by selling shares instead of physical lots – Imagine owning the right to live in a place while leaving the land itself shared by the community. Theoretically this would help promote a stronger sense of civic responsibility and discourage real estate profiteering.
  • Keep things low-tech and frugal – Avoid centralized civic projects that require excessive setup costs and maintenance. Instead use small scale power systems, rainwater collection, solar and wind pumped wells, composting toilets, and greywater systems.
  • Establish human scale businesses – Commerce and trade are one element that knits together communities. By all means a people should find ways to contribute to the community – just keep it on a human scale to promote more accountability.
  • Embrace diversity – Diversity adds strength to everything from investment portfolios to ecosystems. If we allow our differences to divide us, things will fall apart. Instead focus on common values.
  • Design shared places – To encourage cohesiveness build into the city plan shared places for work, play, worship, etc.
  • Develop a model for including visitors – Instead of establishing a closed-door policy, set precedents for regular events and opportunities for visitors to share and learn. This may also include hosting an occasional large event that could help replenish the shared funds the community would need to grow.

This is really just a daydream, and a bit different from the eco-village or co-housing models. I’m really just describing what a modern version of an ancient Greek city-state might look like.

If a group of motivated people can put together a city for 50,000 people in the Nevada desert each year, and leave without a trace; it should be within reach to develop permanent small cities like the one I’ve begun to describe here. All you’d need is the right mix of people, the right location, and a critical mass.


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