Learning, Again, From Las Vegas

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Tired of arguing about streetcars?  Let’s take a break and talk about something we’re more likely to agree on — Las Vegas!

While the city plays a crucial role in American culture as a test-site for exotic street names, I suspect we’d mostly agree that it’s not going to be a leader in sustainable urban form anytime soon. While the grid pattern of the city has some advantages (more on grids soon), Las Vegas has a particularly bad habit of building blocks of apartments in places where efficient transit will never be able to serve them and where basic commercial needs are still too far to walk. Thus achieving all of density’s disadvantages and none of its benefits.

But there are surprises.  I just completed my annual trip to Las Vegas, to see family there, and thought I’d update this 2007 item from my personal blog about this capital of churn:

All urbanists are supposed to hate Las Vegas.  Sprawling, car-dependent, water-wasting, Las Vegas is almost gleefully unsustainable.  Yet walking the Strip last month, and driving it again late at night, I was forced to refine my disapproval.  In its energy the Strip reminded me of giant tropical annual plants, like the banana tree, which are designed to burn themselves out and collapse in short order.

The metaphor is wrong as ecology — plenty of unsustainable destruction is bound up in Las Vegas’s cycles of revision — but the admiration I have for banana trees, their ability to hurl themselves to tree-size without any of the trappings of permanence, resembles the feeling of walking a Las Vegas Strip where virtually nothing is 10 years old, where everything is an endless novelty, and where today’s new towers are dwarfed only by construction cranes promising an even bigger tomorrow.

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A generation ago, every student of urbanism or architecture read Robert Venturi’s 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas.  In a now-familiar attention-grabbing move, Venturi sought meaning in a place that the intelligentsia had scorned, in this case the hotel-casinos, parking lots, and enormous flashing signs of the Las Vegas Strip. Las Vegas, he argued, heralded a new but perfectly legitimate aesthetic, one that we had all better study to be ready for the future.

The book made me notice that I give my own environmental values a veto over my sense of beauty and ugliness, at least as applied to cities. To me, a hot-desert city designed to waste water and oil was simply delusional. There was no point in arguing about the aesthetic merits of a delusion. I resented Venturi lumping me in with a paper-tiger intelligentsia that condemned Las Vegas as ugly. But if asked, I’d have said yes, any human landscape that conditions its citizens to think of scarce resources as free would never appear beautiful to me in aggregate, no matter how beautiful parts of it might be.

I don’t always conflate the true with the beautiful and the delusional with the ugly; I’m receptive to fantasy in literature and film. I did a degree in theatre after all. But a city is an act of collective imagining, one that conditions its citizens to unconscious habits even more than mass-media do. An efficient city with no imagination is dull, but one founded on delusions about the capacity of its land is suicidal. I don’t entertain aesthetic comparisons between different kinds of suicide.

Although Venturi intended Learning from Las Vegas as an aesthetic study, the book is typical of much anti-environmental writing on urban issues. The standard move in these works is to treat environmental concerns as though they were aesthetic ones, then take a long view in which these aesthetic arguments look narrow and culturally contingent, as aesthetic arguments always do.  This move — ridiculing environmental judgments as though they were aesthetic ones — is sadly common these days; Robert Bruegmann’s book Sprawl: A Concise History is an especially painful recent example.

But back to Las Vegas. Seen from the air, its sprawl clearly signifies permanent car dependence on a massive scale. But in its heart(s), and its face to the world, Las Vegas has rediscovered pedestrian scale, and swept Venturi into the ashheap.

Las_vegas_3Of the major Strip hotels that Venturi studied in 1972, every single one has now been demolished and rebuilt on a larger scale. Even today the working hotels are haunted by cranes promising still larger towers in the future.  (I wrote those words in 2007, but they’re still true in 2009.  The lead-time for development is so long that it will take another year to see the full stop to construction that you’d expect the crash of ’08 to induce.)

The old Strip was a standard car-based fantasy: each hotel/casino complex was its own unrelated composition, situated up to 1/4 mile from the street behind a vast parking lot.  Today, the parking has been moved to structures in back, so that the hotels can reach toward each other with walkways and courtyards to create a vast continuous pedestrian realm. Competing hotels find that they both come out ahead if people can walk from one to the other, even further ahead if they plug into public transportation, including both the sexy casino-funded monorail and the unremarkable but jam-packed double-decker buses, called “The Deuce.” The effect is an extraordinary massing of pedestrians typical of San Francisco, New York, and other similar bastions of the urbanist left.

Las_vegas_2 (The 24-hour nature of the economy also ensures 24-hour transit service, an unusual feature in a city of this size.)

There’s plenty to dislike about Las Vegas, but as I walked the Strip, I had to acknowledge that it was reaching out to me, welcoming me as a pedestrian. This new principle of design, more than the ostensible new preoccupation with “family” entertainment, is what makes the Strip seem so much less sleazy than the place Robert Venturi and I both knew in the 1970s.  Even I contributed to the new economy, buying a latte and a margarita in the course of the afternoon.  I’d never have done that if I’d had to drive there.

12 Responses to Learning, Again, From Las Vegas

  1. Alon Levy July 11, 2009 at 6:55 pm #

    This is not how I remember Las Vegas from when I was there in 2006. I remember the Strip as being composed of huge hotels without much walking between them; the convention I was at was mostly contained to one hotel, but whenever there was an event at another hotel, we had to share taxis.
    Also, I think the aesthetic issue with Las Vegas isn’t about having a city in a desert, but about the kitsch, and the sleaze. I like to say that it’s a poor man’s Monaco, and people who’ve been to both cities seem to agree with me. In Monaco, hotels look like typical urban hotels, without copies of world-famous monuments; gas stations and convenience stores don’t have slot machines; Monte Carlo’s layout encourages people to go out of their hotels and walk on the streets, rather than just gamble all day long.

  2. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org July 11, 2009 at 10:03 pm #

    Alon. The walk I took was in the central part of the Strip just north of Tropicana Avenue. I have no doubt there are plenty of hotel-fortresses left in other areas. And I’m sure it doesn’t approach the urbanism of Monte Carlo.

  3. calwatch July 11, 2009 at 11:10 pm #

    And while the part of Vegas along the Strip, and Downtown, has become more pedestrian facility, the rest of the city just looks as dumpy as it always has. Maybe it’s the desert environment, but the slums of Las Vegas (low slung two and three story apartment buildings and unmaintained houses) dwarf any other similar type area on the West Coast, and the instant slums of 2,000 square foot homes on 4,000 square foot lots, with their snout noses and lack of buffer space, now foreclosed upon, don’t help much either.

  4. calwatch July 11, 2009 at 11:19 pm #

    Er, Pedestrian friendly.

  5. Wad July 12, 2009 at 12:17 am #

    Las Vegas is fascinating transit-wise as the metropolitan area is, sociologically, as interesting as used toilet paper.
    CAT gets phenomenal ridership despite the brutal weather, the land uses hostile to non-car use (example: street medians are used to discourage jaywalking, while at the same time crosswalks can be very far apart), and the surliest drivers in the Western Hemisphere.
    And despite Las Vegas being the capital of sensory overload, it keeps transit at its lowest common denominator. Las Vegas resists rail even though there are corridors that have the ridership density to support rail service. It’s all-bus to the point of being stubbornly so. Yet even its infrequent buses are often packed.
    As for Calwatch’s comment, I would say that the Phoenix area has it much worse. Phoenix developed the same land patterns, but an economy built entirely on momentum. At least Las Vegas has the tourism economy to justify growth.
    Yet, quite possibly, Las Vegas may also end up becoming the Detroit of the 21st century. It made the same mistake: an economic monoculture defined by one industry.
    Las Vegas was a great place to work for many because it represented the last, best and only hope of redundant workers grasping at the margins of economic relevance.
    The wages were decent, there was plenty of work, and the casino operations gave somewhat of an advantage because the required security clearances meant they couldn’t be turfed to machines or a tidal wave of immigrants. Las Vegas attracted plenty of them, too, but mostly for non-frontline and custodial jobs.
    There’s one problem, one that will be very visible once the housing bubble is cleaned up.
    The Las Vegas miracle is one that could be easily replicated, and within a generation, Las Vegas may join Phoenix and most of the Southwest as the Dust Belt.
    It started first with the Native American casinos. Initially it began with the Connecticut mega-resorts Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. That transferred casino commerce away from Atlantic City. The next big wave came after California opened the floodgates. Card clubs and bingo halls added slot machines, and the more established casinos grew into mega-resorts. The tipping point might have been when Pechanga expanded into its current resort.
    This allowed the California Indian casinos to offer the same caliber of casino tourism as Nevada, and they did it in a fraction of the time as Nevada. The spike in gas prices helped to decimate the market. But Las Vegas, because it can attract A-list shows, fares far better than forlorn Reno, Laughlin or the state line casinos.
    The third wave is the concerted efforts by Gulf of Mexico-area states to develop full-blown Redneck Rivieras. Hurricane Katrina pushed this initiative into overdrive.
    Las Vegas will lose its hegemony in the casino market, and despite Nevada being a tax haven, this does not trickle down into a robust, diversified economy. It certainly won’t come from the residents. They aren’t entrepreneurs or from the “middle class” in the classical sense. Las Vegas is a giant Labor Ready office.
    Changing the architectural form won’t change the predicament of Las Vegas. I see the same happening in Las Vegas as is happening in Phoenix much as how Rogue Columnist Jon Talton at http://roguecolumnist.typepad.com chronicles it. Thanks, Calwatch, for that link, BTW.

  6. Thomas Morris July 12, 2009 at 12:30 am #

    I found Las Vegas, circa 2005, to be weirdly receptive to pedestrians but totally unsuited for them. Example were the nice crowded sidewalks sandwiching the strips vehicular traffic. As well the scale the Strip is built on makes walking seem like a good idea until you start walking to another hotel and finally getting there a half-hour later. A completely inhuman scale.

  7. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org July 12, 2009 at 11:14 am #

    Thanks for the comments! I think I agree with all of them so far …

  8. EngineerScotty March 2, 2010 at 12:13 pm #

    The evolution of spam-bots never ceases to amaze; here’s one which tries to be on topic.

  9. Tessa March 2, 2010 at 2:43 pm #

    That is pretty amazing. It’s actually just quoting the wikipedia entry on Las Vegas, though: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Las_Vegas,_Nevada

  10. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org March 2, 2010 at 3:23 pm #

    I'm impressed too!  But I still deleted it!  Perhaps someone wants to start a spam appreciation blog, and we can move these discussions over there.  😉

  11. EngineerScotty March 2, 2010 at 3:41 pm #

    Won’t be long before the spambots are smarter than Randall O’Toole….

  12. EngineerScotty March 4, 2010 at 7:40 am #

    Nope, not yet.

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