COLUMN: Steve Miller
Las Vegas Tribune
March 28, 2001
Weighing Sprawl in the Las Vegas Valley
A National Study on Sprawl in the 100 largest urbanized areas of the United States was just released on March 19. The work titled "Weighing Sprawl Factors in Large U.S. Cities" is authored by Leon Kolankiewicz and Roy Beck with input by over three dozen advisors from the public and private sector. I was honored to be selected as one of the advisors.
Mr. Kolankiewicz is a national environmental/national resource planner, and Mr. Beck is a Washington, D.C. public policy analyst who together based their findings on an analysis of U.S. Bureau of Census data and input from the advisors.
The report to be used by urban planners and academics is on "the nearly equal roles played by population growth and land use choices in the loss of farmland and natural habitat to urbanization." Las Vegas is used as an important model to denote the effect of mass immigration on a metropolitan area.
My input primarily referenced the effect of the immense population growth on our local quality of life.
The most revealing data is contained in Table 4 on page 29 wherein metropolitan Las Vegas is shown to have increased its population by 194.6% in a twenty-year period, but only increased its total land area by 90.7% in the same time frame.
What this means is that our population increase is turning what was once a pristine desert valley into a re-creation of the sprawl more reminiscent of a much larger city.
Sprawl is defined in the study as either an increase in population and its effect on existing infrastructure, or the paving over of rural areas to accommodate the influx of new residents with more shopping centers, neighborhood casinos, sewage treatment facilities, schools, roads, etc.
Las Vegas reflects the first scenario: more new residents (6,000 per month) taxing existing facilities.
The surprise revealed in the study of our valley is that even though our skyline is dotted with cranes building higher and bigger buildings, the per capita sprawl of new public facilities being built across our desert landscape is not in line with the population growth. The new Clark County residents are just crowding into smaller dwelling units in higher volume. What was once horse country is rapidly turning into very high density per square mile urban population sprawl.
But most important, the study shows that our limited public facilities are being strained to capacity, as if we didn’t already know?
Most cities would celebrate the ability to in-fill and maximize the use of public facilities without spreading out proportionally. This is obviously not the case here based on our increased crime statistics, insufficiency of schools, and traffic congestion - problems that go hand in hand with overcrowding.
The study reminds us that such infill would not be so bad "if the new residents placed no further demands for non-urban recreation, waste disposal, worksites, shopping or roads just beyond the urban boundary."
This is what has more-than-ten-year Las Vegas Valley residents up in arms; the effect on our once-rural way of life. How many people can we squeeze into each square mile of our valley before we lose the quality of life that we had only a decade ago – the quality of life that drew many of us to Las Vegas in the first place?
This kind of question does not bode well with local politicians and developers especially those who approve or build apartment buildings or shopping centers on what was once rural land, or those who approve or build cookie cutter houses on compact lots.
Another part of the study says that Las Vegas' population has recently grown more than 100% while its per capita land use has not grown at all. Sure there are new structures going up all over the valley, but in proportion to the population increase the land use for public amenities is not keeping up.
What does this mean? It means that as we crowd more and more people into smaller spaces, and crowd each square mile of desert with higher population ratios, our quality of life is suffering.
It also means that we should be building more and larger parks, schools, roads, libraries, colleges, police and fire stations, etc. to maintain even a minimum quality of life – but we are definitely not!
Having been a member of the committee that authored the Las Vegas Master Plan, I am highly concerned that our government leaders are allowing haphazard growth with no planning to occur. Just look at the number of new subdivisions going up with walls abutting sidewalks at ninety-degree angles, Spring Valley is a good example.
This denotes political influence on the part of developers wanting to squeeze every last inch out of tiny lots to provide higher profits at the expense of back yards and neighborhood aesthetics.
The consequence of haphazard planning is shown in endless tunnel-type roadways with nothing but "prison walls" on each side. Meanwhile what our discarded Master Plan called for was the preservation of horse country around the perimeter of the valley with higher densities centered in the downtown core. Wishful thinking – long discarded.
Unfortunately, this horse country was considered cheap land by the developers and their lackeys in the city and county government. They were soon granted high-density zoning to get the highest and best use out of their investments with the payback being doled out in political campaign contributions and jobs for former bureaucrats.
I should know. During one of my political campaigns I received an unsolicited $285,000 mainly from local developers.
The problem began when a new local political regime took power in 1991, and rewrote the Master Plan to suit developers. The then-Mayor and then-Chairman of the County Commission were called on to do the deed.
The former Mayor was a recent Beverly Hills transplant with her roots in Laguna Beach, California – not exactly a person with Las Vegas at heart. The then-Chairman of the County Commission was a partner in the largest home building company in the state. The rest is history.
Since the rewriting of the Master Plan, Las Vegas’ allure has become a double-edged sword. Granted, we offer ample cheap housing and thousands of entry level jobs – housing and jobs so plentiful that we should erect our own Statues of Liberty on the roads leading into the valley; at the U-Haul lots; and at the Greyhound bus station – but at what price?
In the meantime, a few exceptions to the rule have surfaced to remind us of the quality of life the average Las Vegan once had. However, because of the stigma of the Las Vegas double-edged sword, these exceptions to the sprawl rule do not want to be identified with the problem.
They like to call themselves residents of "The Lakes," "Green Valley," "Centennial Hills," "Spanish Trails," "The Lake at Las Vegas," "Seven Hills," "Summerlin," anything but "Las Vegas."
Some of these boutique areas are even developing their own downtowns called "town centers" to further fragment our community and rob it of its collective sprit.
In a few rare instances the wealthier residents of the boutique areas have even forsaken their automobiles in favor of helicopters to avoid traffic congestion. This has spurred a new helicopter charter industry that fills our skies on a daily and nightly basis.
Back in the real Las Vegas there are still beautiful tree-lined neighborhoods close to downtown where ranch style homes exist on acre lots, but many are falling into a state of disrepair trying to compete with the wholesale "Mc Mansions" flooding the housing market.
As a landowner and real estate speculator, I have prospered here. As a homeowner in the original part of the city and as a parent I worry about my family’s future and prey that I can have a small part in influencing the local government leaders to slow down the growth until our infrastructure can catch up.
My future participation in the National Sprawl Study will reflect my concerns and probably embarrass some of our local civic leaders who live in those boutique named communities.
We must slow down helter-skelter growth in order to protect our dwindling quality of life before we become another Los Angeles - the city my father moved me from when I was a boy to escape the crime, traffic, foul air, and urban sprawl.
For more information on the National Sprawl Study, go to: http://www.sprawlcity.org./
Or write: Numbers USA, 1601 N. Kent St.,
Suite 1100, Arlington, VA 22209.
Steve Miller is a former Las Vegas City Councilman and Clark County Regional Transportation Commissioner. The readers of the Review Journal voted him the "Most Effective Public Official" in Southern Nevada in 1991. Visit his website at: http://www.SteveMiller4LasVegas.com