New York, Paris, London...Vegas?

Fast-forward a bit. Let's say that it's 2050, since that seems to be a popular year for speculation these days. You're living in a stylish downtown penthouse a few blocks from a gleaming transit station servicing three different high-speed lines. You work in an office building as a Chief Innovation Officer -- not a light title to carry, by any means -- for a major technology firm. One day after work, you take a train a few miles west of the bustling commercial hub where you work to a rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood to meet a friend at a sunny sidewalk cafe on a dense street filled with shops and new condos. You are living the American Dream, with a beautiful home and a fantastic job in the heart of a dynamic urban center with its finger pressed firmly against the pulse of globalized culture. You are a proud resident of one of the world's Great Cities, capital letters required.

Now, imagine that that city is Las Vegas.

It sounds like science-fiction, no? But, in a recent post written from the American Planners Association convention in Sin City, California Planning & Development Report contributor Bill Fulton argues that Vegas is on the track to claiming a spot on the shortlist of the most exciting urban places on our already highly-urbanized planet. While your initial reaction may be something along the lines of "Say whaaaaat?" (mine certainly was), there is something very refreshing -- even inspiring -- about this idea.

Fulton's argument, in a nutshell: "Vegas is a not-too-subtle reminder to planners about how great cities are really created: You stuff vast amounts of money into a tiny space for decade after decade until the mixture of wealth, commerce, entertainment, and culture becomes so combustible that it finally explodes. Paris, London, Tokyo, San Francisco, Chicago, New York – all were built on this model."

There are so many ways to poke holes in this idea, which is oversimplified almost to a fault, and in fact this post was intended to do just that. But soon after the writing began, I realized that Fulton's speculated future for Las Vegas was far more interesting (not to mention uplifting) than much of urbanism discussion today. Contrast the idea of Vegas, one of the least sustainable cities in the country, as changing its tune and reinventing itself with the Die-or-Be-Drowned harping of James Howard Kunstler, a pundit whose bullheaded pessimism and truly shocking lack of imagination have just about made him a caricature of himself. Mr. Kunstler's tireless drumbeat: "Our gigantic metroplex cities will prove to be inconsistent with the energy diet of our future. I think our smaller cities and towns will be reactivated. We are going to be a far less affluent society."

Perhaps what's missing from the debate over how cities will deal with climate change is something as simple and extraordinarily difficult as optimism. After all, the combination of wealth, commerce, entertainment, and culture is, when you boil it down, mostly what accounts for the rises of cities like New York, Paris, London, and Tokyo. But there was more to it than just a healthy skeleton; there was meat on them bones, so to speak. These Great Cities were places that generated potential as much as they generated wealth. Many millions of people moved to these cities not on the promise of a better future, but on the hope thereof.

The city of Indianapolis is easily one of the least-interesting large cities in America, if not the world. But there is a pride of place there nonetheless, and on several occasions I have read or heard discussions about how to make Indiana's capital a "world-class city." What if talking the talk is an effective way to learn how to walk the walk? The verdict is still out on Indy, but look a little to the west for an idea of what could be. After all, a good deal of Chicago's greatness came from early residents, who were famous for their ability to bluster and boast, claiming greatness long before it was actually achieved (which, incidentally, earned Chicago its most famous nickname: The Windy City). These boosters and bright thinkers pushed and shoved their city into greatness, and without them Chicago would likely be a very different place today.

So who says that Vegas can't become, as Fulton suggests "the next New York?" While it would seem like a miracle to most of us living today, stranger things have certainly happened, and in less time. Thomas Friedman wrote in a recent column for the NY Times that "[Americans] want to do nation-building. They really do. But they want to do nation-building in America...They want our country to matter again. They want it to be about building wealth and dignity — big profits and big purposes. When we just do one, we are less than the sum of our parts. When we do both...no one can touch us."

There is a palpable desire in this country for very real and serious change (notably reflected in the presidential candidates' impassioned adoption of that very term in the current election season). Who are we to look to to shape how we think about the future? People like Fulton...or people like Kunstler?

(Photo from Flickr user Christopher Chan. The original full-color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)

APA Conference: Love It Or Hate It, Vegas Is A Great City In The Making (CDPR)

Suburbia's End? (Richard Florida)

Who Will Tell the People? (NY Times)


Anonymous said...

I find this pursuit to be the next Great City (with caps as you suggest) to be very interesting. I recently wrote a reaction piece to this article, where Joel Kotkin claims Houston will hold that title.

Where I think Vegas may succeed over Houston is in their capacity to destruct for the sake of progress. Koolhaas presented this phenomenon as a quality of New York in Delirious, New York that led to its unique evolution. Vegas appears to share this quality, and for that reason we can potentially view it as a young New York.

The ease in which cities like New York and Vegas can provide a clean slate provide an endless source for new wealth, commerce, entertainment, and culture to take root.

Anonymous said...

Respectfully, with this post you've made Kunstler's point for him. You balk, hem, and haw at Fulton's provocations. Deservedly so, for the 'city' of Las Vegas lacks even minimal traits that could qualify it as urban. You seem to agree. In the end though, the 'happy motoring society' captures your imagination, draws you in, and you suggest that Las Vegas - the fullest and most perfect instantiation of the 'happy motoring society' - can indeed work (and thrive!) with just a little sunny optimism.

Even if you're right, which I doubt (oil is at $124 today FYI), the next question is normative. Why not concentrate our attention on cities - real cities - with some existing reservoir of publicness, sociality, urban form, design, and function, and let the unplanned hells of Houston and Las Vegas flounder and shrink as they must? Why are we looking toward Las Vegas at all? Why expect anything of it?

Brendan Crain said...

Brian - I'm normally more than happy to argue a point, but did you bother to read the post? It never so much as hints at the happy motoring society being held up as some kind of ideal; in fact, it's exactly the opposite. My point is that (pragmatic) optimism will likely be far more effective in making cities like Las Vegas livable in the future. Bleak prognoses like Kunster's do absolutely nothing to inspire the average person, which is exactly who needs to be inspired to change their way of living.

Why expect anything of Vegas? If you have to ask that, I'm assuming that you suffer from the same lack of imagination as Kunstler. And lost causes are lost causes, I guess.

Anonymous said...


I appreciate the response, although not your tone. A bit harsh and defensive, don't you think? Indeed I did read your post, as well as Fulton's. The fact of the matter is that I, like you, have much imagination, as do many people who care about cities and urban issues. I'd prefer that our collective (and scarce) imagination be devoted to rehabilitating places like my home city -Pittsburgh- and other struggling cities like them. Cities that, unlike Las Vegas, possess a reservoir of urbanity as well as some modicum of pedestrian culture.

I suppose my point is that to point out that many US cities struggle in the year 2008 is essentially to utter a truism. Pittsburgh, my city, a wonderful city, certainly struggles. In light of that, to devote substantial attention to Las Vegas is woeful and misguided. And, yes, it also seems like a spasm of nostalgia for the 'lost cause' of car-culture.

Brendan Crain said...

Pittsburgh happens to be my favorite city; I agree wholeheartedly that it is a wonderful and woefully underrated place. But to suggest that places that have not already attained that level of urbanity are incapable of doing so shows, if not a lack of imagination, than an extremely narrow view of the future. Pittsburgh does not have to suffer for Las Vegas to improve and thrive. This is not an either-or situation. Las Vegas and Pittsburgh can and should learn from each other.

Brendan Crain said...

A recent post at the blog Globalization and the Environment sums up my feelings on Kunstler and his ilk nicely; I thought I'd share a quote:

The best antidote to the doom merchants is skepticism. We must be willing to take uncertainty seriously. Climate change is a fact. But apocalyptic thinking distorts the scientific debate and makes it harder to explain the causes and consequences of this fact, which in turn makes it harder to know how to deal with it.

The danger is that we become so infected with the apocalyptic virus that we end up creating a real catastrophe — the meltdown of our economies and lifestyles — in order to avoid an imaginary one.