All the urban planners in the country are in Las Vegas this week, and it's clear they have a love/hate relationship with the place.
Vegas is kitschy and over the top, and at first glance it always looks like the least sustainable place on the planet. Vegas is acres of neon plastered across the front of 30-story casinos in the 100-degree desert – each casino more outlandishly upscale than the other – along with the occasional lake and 200-foot water fountain.
The thousands of attendees at the American Planning Association conference in Las Vegas this week like to say they hate all this stuff, and no doubt a good percentage of them will flee to the desert to tromp around among the spring wildflowers. But they'll definitely be missing out. Because after the latest building boom, there's no denying it: Vegas is the most rapidly evolving – and, in many ways, the most exciting – urban environment in America.
The Strip is the densest employment center in the West, and because many hotel and casino workers make modest incomes, Vegas has one of the fastest-growing transit systems in the country. Cities all over the country have dreamed of monorails, but Vegas built one. Thousands of people mob the sidewalks every day and night. Rich and poor live alongside each other – not always in a graceful coexistence, but in close proximity to one another.
Planners think great cities are created by thoughtful analysis and political leadership that recognizes eternal land use principles. But 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.
Vegas isn't there yet – but it's getting close. You'll often hear planners compare Vegas unfavorably to New York, but the truth is that Vegas is probably more like New York at this point than any other American city. Indeed, it has positioned itself effectively to become the next New York.
The most obvious comparison is in the area of live entertainment. New York has been the center of live entertainment in America for a century and a half, since the beginnings of vaudeville. But Vegas is catching up fast. Live entertainers who used to have to commute from New York for special gigs can now make a living year-round in Vegas, and they choose to live here.
Las Vegas is also replacing New York as the new headquarters of the deal-based economy – but with a twist. At its peak, New York was one big office, where people shuttled around doing deals during the day and going to expensive dinners and fancy shows at night. Vegas is one big hotel – with the same result. The only difference is that the dealmakers live here only temporarily – a few days at a time for their trade show – rather than permanently.