Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Urbanism in Las Vegas: Hiding In Plain View?

An article out today in the Las Vegas Sun ponders the finding that suburban homes built in the city during the recent real estate boom seem to have little appeal for "Generation Y," which has gravitated toward urban living.  This apparently bodes poorly for the revival of the Las Vegas real estate market.  In the middle of the article, however, the author drops a surprising observation which is quickly passed by:
(Unfortunately, however, even many of our suburbs are not well-positioned compared with other cities. The mania for land during the boom led to extraordinarily dense developments — in essence urban neighborhoods plopped down in the suburbs — with houses on top of one another, paired with a dearth of decent amenities such as parks.)
So perhaps Las Vegas is not suffering from a lack of urban neighborhoods after all.  There seems to be a mix-up here in terminology, with confusion as to whether "suburban" describes a) a type of house, b) the form of a neighborhood, c) the (lack of) amenities in a neighborhood or d) the location of a neighborhood within the metro area.  But if the form of a neighborhood is "extraordinarily dense," and dense by way of many small lots on reasonably well-connected streets, the essential physical prerequisites for an urban neighborhood arguably are met. 

The author does note at toward the end the possibility of enlivening these neighborhoods by introducing non-residential uses the concept known as "retrofitting" that has been written about extensively.  But with the imprecise usage of "urban" and "suburban," it's easier to overlook those good urban qualities that may be right under our noses.


  1. Density doesn't help if it's all single-use. Being in a dense clump of residential units a mile from the nearest store is no better than being in a roomy clump a mile from the nearest store. You still have to drive everywhere.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Cambias. Though I agree with what you said, my point was that a certain level of density is the "sine qua non" of urbanism -- to introduce new uses requires only a zoning change, not a physical change. It may be a suburb on paper only.

    By contrast a large-lot suburban subdivision cannot easily be densified, nor will introducing a mix of uses make it much more walkable.

  3. The parenthesis you quote refers to the fact that LV has lots of apartments and very-small-lot homes built in completely car-dependent forms. In fact I often cite LV as a perfect case study for how you can build moderate density in a way that's still completely car-dependent.

    See for example the Goog Earth image a ways down in this post:


    Of course, the Strip is another matter. LV knows how to do walkable urbanism for tourists. See here:


    Cheers, Jarrett

  4. Jarrett -- thanks for commenting and for the link to that great post. I did note above that density alone is not sufficient for good urbanism, but that it also requires "reasonably well-connected streets." I did not come to any conclusion about whether Las Vegas meets that criterion in this particular post, but my thought was that these denser clusters might at least be retrofitted for better pedestrian circulation, if not mass transit access.

    The arterial-defined residential "squares" appear to contain sufficient population, and in sufficient proximity, to support retail use at the center, if pedestrians were in fact given the means to walk or bike directly to the center (rather than clambering over fences, berms, going through backyards, etc.)