Sunday, March 6, 2011

Temporary Cities: Burning Man, Quartzsite, and Chalma

“Black Rock City” exists as a human settlement for only eight days each year. The rest of the time, it is an empty patch of arid desert. Chalma is a small Mexican village (less than 2,000 inhabitants) that swells to 50,000 inhabitants for a few days each year. The town of Quartzite in the Arizona desert is a bustling town of tens of thousands for half the year, but a sleepy village of hundreds the other half. Should we call these places “cities”? They clearly violate one of the four points in Louis Wirth’s influential definition of urbanism—permanence. But they share enough characteristics with other urban settlements to warrant the label “temporary cities.” This view is shared by Nate Berg, who has written about Black Rock City and Quartzite.

Black Rock City, of course, is the name of the temporary settlement that houses the annual Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. Thousands of people gather each summer for several days of artistic expression, parties, and semi-communal living. When the festival is over, everything is cleaned up and the desert put back to pristine shape. For comparative urbanism, there are many interesting things about Burning Man and Black Rock City. There are lots of books, articles, blogs, etc. on the festival. A sociologist has written a book about how the festival is organized (Chen 2009). Nate Berg’s article on the Places website explores some of the urban issues, and his conclusion is worth quoting:
And as Burning Man has grown from a small gathering into a temporary city, attendees have become more intimately involved in the community around them, empowered to enact the changes on whatever scale is necessary to improve their quality of life during their eight days in the desert. It's city-making at the individual level…. People realize that they can do things — maybe small things — that improve how they experience and interact with their fellow citizens. To create power in that way doesn't require a political office or city budget, only the desire to make life better. Community improvement through community participation is not difficult to achieve. It happens every year at Burning Man. And possibly beyond.
One of the things I find interesting about Black Rock City is the relationship between city growth on the one hand, and centralized planning and organization on the other. The early years had few rules or established plans. People began to form neighborhoods informally based on interests and year-to-year friendships. But in 1997 the festival grew too large for informal organization; people were shooting off guns, driving cars too fast through campsites, and some participants were injured. So the organizers stepped up the formal regulation and planning of the settlement, creating the circular plan and a number of rules and regulations (including rules about neighborhood structure). 

 Quartzsite is a temporary city for a very different social clientele. The city becomes a mecca for “snowbirds” in their RV’s each winter (snowbirds are the northerners who flock to Arizona each winter). A city springs up in the desert, but a months-long city of RV’s, not a days-long city of tents as in Black Rock City. The mobile retirees form neighborhoods and enjoy urban life. Nate Berg’s article in High Country News gives a good picture of Quartzsite as a temporary city, although many questions remain. Because of our project on comparative urban neighborhoods, I am particularly curious about how the neighborhoods form at Quartzsite: is the composition consistent year to year? Why are some groupings large and others small? Just how close are social relationships within these spatial clusters of RV vehicles? How much planning or organization is provided by authorities in Quartzsite? Ethnographers and planners have studied the RV lifestyle (Counts and Counts 1996; Simpson 2007), but like Black Rock City, this and other RV destinations cry out for more attention from urban scholars.

Lest one think that temporary cities are a contemporary innovation, consider pilgrimage destinations. Chalma is a sleepy rural village in the mountains west of Mexico City. But there are important relics in the local shrine, and millions of pilgrims come to Chalma each year. It is the second-largest pilgrimage destination in Mexico, after the Guadalupe Basilica in Mexico City. During the annual festival, the village swells to over 50,000 residents. These people have to be fed and sheltered, and order has to be maintained somehow. For over four hundred years Chalma has been the setting of a temporary city (Benuzzi and Fay 1981; Rodríguez-Shadow and Shadow 2000).

I hope you did not miss my use of the term “mecca” to describe Quartzsite above. The city of Mecca, of course, is the largest pilgrimage destination in the world. For centuries, each year has seen millions of pilgrims make the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Mecca is a large city all year round, and has been for many centuries. But when its ranks swell by many millions of residents for the main festival, the urban issues (food, water, shelter, sanitation, crowd control) multiply accordingly. Chalma, however, is more typical of temporary pilgrimage cities around the world in the past and present. I haven’t heard of anyone studying these places for their urban insights, but such a study would make a fascinating and important contribution to urban studies. Temporary cities are part of the wide urban world, and they have much to teach us about cities, urbanization, and human life in cities.


Benuzzi, Silvia and George E. Fay (editors)
1981    A Pilgramage to Chalma: The Analysis of Religious Change. Museum of Anthropology, University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, CO.

Chen, Katherine K.
2009    Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization Behind the Burning Man Event. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Counts, Dorothy A. and David R. Counts
1996    Over the Next Hill: An Ethnography of RVing Seniors in North America. Broadview, Peterborough, Ontario.

Rodríguez-Shadow, María J. and Robert D. Shadow
2000    El pubelo del Señor: Las fiestas y peregrinaciones de Chalma. Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México, Toluca.

Simpson, Deane
2007    RV Urbanism: Nomadic Network Settlements of the Senior Recreational Vehicle Community in the US. Paper presented at the Conference, Temporary Urbanism: Between the Permanent and the Transitory.


  1. There is a clear connection between the fascinating cases you highlight here and those that emerge in discussions of sociopolitical organization at various time and places in Asia. For example, Alizedah: and contributions to:

    Barnard, H., W. Wendrich & . 2008. The archaeology of mobility : old world and new world nomadism. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, University Of California.

  2. The paper by Alizadeh looks very interesting, and I plan to read it. I somehow missed it when it appeared. Roland Fletcher has bridged the gap between mobile/temporary settlements and urbanism in a number of publications, including:

    Fletcher, Roland (1991) Very Large Mobile Communities: Interaction Stress and Residential Dispersal. In Ethnoarchaeological Approaches to Mobile Campsites: Hunter-Gatherer and Pastoralist Case Studies, edited by Clive Gamble and B. Boismer, pp. 395-420. Prehistory Press, Ann Arbor.

    Fletcher, Roland (1995) The Limits of Settlement Growth: A Theoretical Outline. Cambridge University Press, New York.

    Fletcher, Roland (1998) African Urbanism: Scale, Mobility and Transformations. In Transformations in Africa: Essays on Africa's Later Past, edited by Graham Connah, pp. 104-138. Leicester University Press, London.