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The Nobel Prize-winning economist, Paul Romer, recently attended the festival ‘Burning Man’, during which he explored the urban economics behind it. He now envisions the possible relevance of this instant-city planning model and its potential applicability on a larger scale, to worldwide urbanisation.

Taking place in Black Rock Desert in Nevada, USA, the ‘Burning Man’ festival, which is held annually, aims to create ‘an experiment in community and art […], exploring various forms of artistic self-expression, which are created to be enjoyed by all participants’; yet it is arguably more popularly known as a week-long bacchanal. Romer, who attended the event this year, has argued that ‘the coming century will need more “Burning Man urbanisation”’.  A week before the start of the event, there was hardly any buildings or constructions whatsoever. Overnight, tens of thousands of people had shown up, forming an ‘instant city’, complete with a road network and a strange make-do architecture.

By 2050, developing-world cities are projected to gain 2.3 billion people. A significant amount of these people will move as to makeshift settlements on the edge of existing cities, thus tripling the urbanised land area across the developing world. Romer’s answer to the imminent rise in world population ‘is to do with this moment what Burning Man does every summer’. That is, to stake out the street grid, separate public from private space, and leave room for what’s to come. Following this, he suggests letting the free market take over, as no market mechanism could ever create the road network that connects everyone; rather, it is up to the government to do that first.

Students applying for Land Economy can reflect on this novel idea of using ‘Burning Man’ as a planning template for the next urban century, and can further research Romer’s proposal and critically assess its potential to provide an adequate solution for the future of urban economics.

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