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Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

Jarrett Walker: Learning, Again, From Las Vegas

[ I’ve touted Jarrett Walker’s Human Transit blog before. It is an incredible resource for non-dogmatic analysis of transit issues from a professional in the field of transit design. He also does more general writing about cities from time to time, including this piece, which is reproduced with permission. If you like this piece, you might also want to check out Creature of the Shade, his personal urban travel blog. – Aaron ]

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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.

Las_vegas_1

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, and 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, and 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, and 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, and then take a long view in which these aesthetic arguments look narrow and culturally contingent, as aeshetic 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, and 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, and 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," that ply the street. 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.  

This post originally appeared in Human Transit.

11 Comments
Topics: Architecture and Design, Transportation, Urban Culture
Cities: Las Vegas

11 Responses to “Jarrett Walker: Learning, Again, From Las Vegas”

  1. Jim Russell says:

    Great read. I appreciate the introspective look at one’s geographic fetishes. Venerable geographer Peirce Lewis taught me to look at the function of a certain landscape and suppress the urge to pass normative judgment. Ugly places deserve a closer look.

  2. I agree.

    Back to what Jarrett said in the post though, I think a lot of environmental type writing invites being criticized as aesthetic because the writers can’t resist piling that on. A good example is Kunstler’s “Geography of Nowhere”. One problem is that descriptions of urban functions and such tend to be dry, while snarkiness about aesthetics is amusing, and that’s what sells books.

  3. Jim Russell says:

    I think environmental writing suffers from geographic fetishization. It has roots in Enlightenment philosophy, the dualities existing within “civilization” and “wilderness”. The exotic is celebrated, something to be preserved.

    Ever read Simon Schama’s “Landscape and Memory”?

  4. I have not, but maybe I should pick it up.

  5. cdc guy says:

    Short summary: Form really follows function, over time.

    The Las Vegas Strip became middle America’s playground, and middle Americans walked in search of better slots and cheaper buffets and more-titillating shows because they were too cheap to pay for two or three cabs a night.

    Las Vegas moguls figured it out and rebuilt the city to match. A “big box” version of Jane Jacobs’ neighborhood?

    This explanation, of course, really appeals to the pragmatic economist in me…

  6. Wad says:

    Will Las Vegas continue to be celebrated now that casino tourism is a commodity?

    Las Vegas had decades where it enjoyed a virtual monopoly as “Sin City.”

    The problem now is that casinos are socially acceptable, or at least an elixir for blighted areas, all throughout the U.S.

    The watershed moment came when California approved Indian gaming, and in about a decade, California’s casinos were able to replicate the Vegas experience — something that Vegas needed 50-60 years to create.

    Now, Vegas-style casinos are sprouting throughout the deindustrialized Midwest as well. Nevada stalwarts are lending their names to these projects. Detroit and Kansas City already have casinos. Cincinnati has approved casinos.

    This doesn’t bode well for Las Vegas, which stands to become the Detroit of gaming.

  7. Wad. Indian gaming has been going for long enough that Las Vegas has had time to adapt. During the mid-00s boom, Vegas was diversifying its entertainment options to ensure its attractiveness as an international destination.

    Here in Australia, it’s striking that almost every Aussie who’s been to America has been to Las Vegas. It’s one of those “only-in-America” experiences that foreign tourists specifically seek out.

    So while I agree that it’s future is in doubt, it does have the regenerative powers of an annual plant, and if another boom comes, I fully expect to see it bounce back for one more round. If not, it will keep dying. I certainly wouldn’t invest there myself. Eventually, of course, gas prices and/or water will push back.

    Here’s another striking thing: Look at Las Vegas on Google Earth, especially out toward the northwest. It has the same one-mile grid of arterials that most southwest cities have, but you can see it’s been really badly surveyed. An arterial may bend 2-3 degrees from one mile to the next, following a crude approximation of the ideal grid. That sloppiness is an important feature, I think, of a city that’s built entirely for near-term returns.

  8. AmericanDirt says:

    I don’t think Sin City is destined for the same fate as Motor City.

    Like Jarrett says, it reacted and adapted long ago to its competing casino satellites. Just a few years after Venturi’s book, Atlantic City stepped up to the plate. Vegas started becoming kid-friendly in the late 1980s and hasn’t looked back–it’s getting more ecumenical every year.

    What the successive brains behind Vegas have been so good at (where they have not in Biloxi or Atlantic City) is perpetual reinvention, often with infrastructure that anticipates this short life-span. One of my favorite college instructors, who loves sprawl even more than I do, asserted confidently that all the Styrofoam Vegas replicas of New York and Paris and Egypt will fade before too long, and when they do, developers will cheaply tear them down and the material will line the insides of our Patagonia sweaters. (That is, if the Patagonia company outlasts the kitsch-of-the-decade in Vegas.)

    Though I have never read either book in its entirety, I can’t help but think Garreau assumed a similar aesthetic gaze two decades later with his “Edge City.”

    As for any anticipation of an academic study of that other aspiring “Strip”–the one in Branson, Missouri–I’m not holding my breath. Sleaze will always be more interesting.

  9. Wad says:

    AmericanDirt wrote:

    I don’t think Sin City is destined for the same fate as Motor City.

    It’ll be a slow process. Vegas has plenty of land and can still attract capital and workers, so it can reinvent itself a few more times.

    Yet reinvention in itself is a diminishing return.

    To torture a gambling metaphor, Las Vegas has bet its bounty on a single throw of the dice. Gambling tourism is pretty much all Las Vegas has. It has too large of a gravitational pull. Jobs, capital, service sources, knowledge trees are all tied to gambling.

    Nevada’s reputation for business friendliness has not really translated into anything visible. Again, gambling crowds out the other independent economic actors.

    Las Vegas is especially screwed when it comes to climate (’nuff said) and transportation. Its interstate highways and railways are only connected to California and Utah (same problem for Reno), and it has no navigable waterways.

    Plus, given the fact that gambling has become more socially accepted and economically depressed areas crave the jobs and tax revenues provided by casinos, it’s not hard to see that Las Vegas will lose its economic moat.

    Las Vegas may not ever be as bombed-out as Detroit became, but as gambling becomes commoditized it may revert to the niche that racetracks have fallen into now.

  10. Alon Levy says:

    Wad, actually Las Vegas has become a hot target for conventions. Because of its large gambling industry, its hotels can sell rooms and convention space at a loss, making the city more attractive for conventions.

    And while other US regions have discovered gambling, none has managed to develop out of it; none has Vegas’s brand, just like none of the casinos in the French Riviera has the brand name of Monte-Carlo.

  11. cdc guy says:

    I live in Indiana, the US state third-most dependent on gaming tax revenue (after Nevada and New Jersey). I have never set foot in an Indiana casino, despite the fact that all are within three hours driving time. But I have been to Las Vegas (and have visited more than one of its casinos) four times in the past twenty years, always for a trade show or industry meeting.

    The convention-hosting capability of Las Vegas is pretty much un-matched and as Alon pointed out, that’s their secret weapon.

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