Learning from Burning Man: Lessons in cultivating community and building happy cities

I recently returned from the trip journey of a lifetime. I crossed off a bucket list item and went to Burning Man. It’s been a few days since my return and the dust has settled enough (both figuratively and literally) for me to gather my thoughts on what it was that I experienced on that ancient lake bed.

Prior to my departure for Black Rock City, it would be safe to say that I was at peak disillusionment with humanity. 2016 has been a rough year (aren’t they all?). Between the Orlando shooting, the endless news stories detailing racist and gendered violence, and the perpetual stream of terrorist attacks, I hit a point of numbness. I was increasingly becoming disenchanted with people and the horrible things they were capable of doing to each other.

In retrospect, I recognize that there was a tangible tension I carried around with me; a malaise that seemed to colour my perception. Spending a week at Burning Man showed me something different. I witnessed the best that humanity was capable of in the midst of a time when we are constantly confronted with the worst.

Burning Man reminded me of what it is that I love about people. That we are curious. That we are compassionate. That we selflessly create for the enjoyment of others. And that we’re all in this together.

Recognizing that I will never truly understand the mystery of Burning Man, I’ll attempt to explore some of the elements I think make it so special and conducive to elucidating the best we have to offer.

Given that my research involves examining how the built environment influences mental health (from the perspective of neuroscience), I went to Burning Man with a particular curiosity about how the physical environment played a role in the “user experience”.  For starters, the natural environment, aka the playa, looks like a scene from The Martian.  In my experience, I found the other worldly context threw me off kilter – in a good way. I found myself wriggling out of the habits I had (including my morning coffee – not one cup over the week I was there!). It made me reflect on how our environment influences habitual behaviours and thinking. Perhaps this is one reason why some of us have such a love of traveling. The playa in many ways seemed to function like a tabula rasa. It was a place where you can reset. A place where you were encouraged to be yourself and express yourself freely (trust me, people were feeling verrrry free); accordingly one of the 10 principles of Burning Man is radical self-expression.

The playa was also a blank canvas for some magnificent pieces of art. One word I found myself saying quite regularly was “wow!”. I was constantly in a state of awe – whether it was the epic sunrises and sunsets or the larger than life art installations that adorned the playa. A study done in 2015 by Paul Piff examined the effect that awe had on people. They found that awe induced a sense of humility, which came with an increase in prosocial behaviour. Prosocial behaviour included generosity and compassion, two elements that, to me, were abundant at Burning Man. Burning Man supports a culture of gifting, in which they promote giving in a non-reciprocal manner. Burners are encouraged to give without expecting something in return. I found giving much easier than receiving. I always had the inclination to reciprocate the gift. It took a few days but I eventually got the hang of openly receiving gifts. Gifts I received included attentive listening, bourbon iced tea, hugs, and poutine (a nice reminder of home!).

As I mentioned earlier, compassion was everywhere I looked. Burning Man also promotes radical inclusion. This was probably one of the most transformative elements of the experience for me. We live in a society where we have to fight (hard) for inclusion. Social isolation is becoming an epidemic that has real implications on health, both mental and physical. I know this from the time I spent working as an occupational therapist in community mental health with adults with disabilities. Most of the clients I worked with would be hard pressed to name one true friend. At Burning Man, it was glaringly apparent to me what we are capable of when it comes to inclusion. I can’t count the number of times I was asked to join someone for a meal or a drink or a bike ride. One morning I got up to use the bathroom and someone (now a friend) on an art car stopped me as I was walking over to the washrooms and yelled, “hey you! join us!”. I was slightly groggy, and unkempt at best, but I just said “yes!” and spent the rest of my day having amazing conversations with a lovely group of people.

It seemed that the awe inducing setting in concert with the culture of inclusion and gifting made for a perfect (dust) storm of social connection.

One of the most wonderful aspects of Burning Man was the playful energy in the air. At Burning Man I felt like a kid again. I spent my days with my pals, old and new, riding bikes around and playing. It was a return to innocence. When I thought about it, I recognized the absence of play in my own life back in the real world. To be honest, it made me a little sad. I think that adults would be much better off if they played more often. Play can build trust and foster connections amongst the citizens of a city. I experienced this first hand at #yegsnowfight, a giant snowball fight my friend Jeff Chase and I organized a few years ago in Edmonton. (note to self: have more snowball fights).

Something that became quite clear to me at Burning Man was that we can’t fully depend on urban design to promote connection. Animation of spaces and placemaking is equally important. Just building a beautiful public space isn’t enough – citizens need to activate that space. Black Rock City pops up for only a week in the middle of the desert – I wouldn’t say that it’s the “urban design” that makes it special. It’s the energy and placemaking the people bring that truly make it what it is. A space that is otherwise inhospitable to life turns into a place that is teeming with it.  Principles of Burning Man related to this are radical self-reliance, communal effort, and participation. Radical self-reliance entails individuals “discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.” Communal effort encourages cooperation and collaboration. Describing participation, Burning Man states “transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation.” Reflecting on these three principles together, I am reminded of a quote a dear friend once told me: “You have to do it by yourself, and you can’t do it alone”. Change takes personal agency and radical participation, but requires a communal effort to execute. There’s a lesson here for changing our cities for the better.

Interestingly, I am writing this blog post between sessions at the Pro Walk  Pro Bike Pro Place conference in Vancouver where there are more than 1000 planners, policy makers, health professionals and community leaders gathered to discuss ways we can make our cities healthier and happier. I am here to help run an experiment/urban tour which is a collaboration between the Urban Realities Lab and the Happy City Team where we are exploring how urban design influences the way participants feel and behave. The results of our study will be posted here and I’ll be presenting them at the closing plenary on Thursday.

So, to bring it all together, here are some lessons I think we can take from Black Rock City and apply to our own cities:

  • Promote public art and urban design that facilitates awe. Experiencing awe has been shown to make us friendlier and more social.
  • Be intentional about social inclusion. Don’t just talk about it. Do it. Move beyond the policy statements and start organizing events and encouraging citizens to create inclusive communities.
  • Have fun and be playful. Placemaking can be used to promote play amongst citizens; through play we can develop a sense of trust and connection with others.
  • For cities: promote civic engagement. Enable citizens to be change agents.
  • For citizens: if you see something that you think needs to change, do it! And be open to receiving help. You can’t do it alone.

Clearly, we can’t recreate the magic of Black Rock City, but we can try our best to aspire towards it. We have our jobs and the mundane day to day obligations to attend to. Life happens. But, something that is important to remember about Burning Man is that it is an intentional community. Burning Man participants try to live out the principles I’ve discussed in in this blog post. We can’t always be perfect, but with intention comes action and I truly believe we can do great things if we put our hearts and minds to it.

I began this blog post describing that I left for Burning Man… jaded, to say the least. I’ve returned with a renewed hope in people and the cities and communities they co-create. Our future is bright!

(featured image is a picture I took of Gracie, our Camp Salty art car)


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