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What’s past is prologue

Is the time right for wasteful Las Vegas to embrace New Urbanism?

With a floundering economy and a post-election feeling that the country may be ready for a more sustainable society, the planning and design philosophy known as New Urbanism, which aims to combat the excesses of suburban sprawl, may be poised to enter the American mainstream.

The president of the Congress for New Urbanism, John Norquist, was in town recently for the Klai Juba Lecture Series, a series sponsored by the UNLV School of Architecture. He spoke with Weekly by phone earlier this week about planning practices in Las Vegas.

“I think Las Vegas has some concerns about sustainability,” he says. “It’s always been a boom town, since before World War II. It now is in a position where it’s beginning to embrace urbanism and complexity. People want to be in interesting, complex places where they can enjoy life.”

This need not mean just more fancy buildings on the Strip or Downtown. It means finding ways to bring goods and services closer to where people live, finding ways to make those big arterial streets that carve through the city (think Sahara or Eastern) more amenable to pedestrians. It means taming the city’s car-oriented culture.

Already there are signs of this in Las Vegas: Town Square, Inspirada, Fremont East and the proposed Union Park residential project Downtown. But transforming the whole city won’t be easy. Still, Norquist is optimistic about a city that is always reinventing itself. There’s “no reason why future neighborhoods in Vegas have to be banal.”

Norquist, former mayor of Milwaukee, became president of the CNU in 2004. While its name is synonymous with anti-sprawl design—much in the same way that LEED has become a catchphrase for green building—the organization is still pretty small, despite more than doubling its membership in the last four years, from 1,600 to 3,400.

The CNU, based in Chicago, is not looking to be a mass movement, and is still made up primarily of designers, architects and traffic engineers. “If we became a mass movement, like Sierra Club, we can’t focus as much on details,” he says.

Norquist is quick to try to dispel the notion that New Urbanism amounts to simple pre-war design touches like detached garages or front porches. For him, the movement is about “trying to restore urban form and technique” to a design culture inundated with freeways, parking lots, big-box stores and zoning that ruthlessly separates residential and commercial uses.

It’s fitting, then, that Norquist gave his talk at the recently renovated Fifth Street School. The Spanish Mission-style building, with its white archways, warm wood ceilings and sunny courtyards, is full of character. The building is also home to UNLV’s Downtown Design Studio, where architecture students can learn firsthand how to design better cities. The program’s director, Robert Dorgan, notes that Vegas is more than just a place where tourists gather. It can be a place where new ideas are created. “The amount of energy that comes through this town is untapped. [There’s] lots of critical thinking.”

No one seems to care much for the tag “new urbanism”—so used because proponents believed the word “urban” by itself carried too many negative connotations. But regardless of the name, no one questions the need. Norquist notes that, nationally, there will be a demand for 70 million units of new housing over the next 30 years. Locally, the Las Vegas Valley is expected to add another million people in a generation. Vegas has been building tightly packed single-family neighborhoods for years, a trend that will only intensify as land becomes scarce. If urban development here can be “organized in a way that’s more energy-efficient, it can save a lot of CO2 emissions, keep energy from eating up the economy.”

Norquist adds, “Obstacles to it are mostly brittle. If developers think they can make more money in urbanism than sprawl, they’ll change.”

I asked Norquist about architecture students who occasionally come to town to study the city, a pilgrimage inspired by the classic design book Learning From Las Vegas. Outsiders, he says, are fascinated by the city, but designers view Vegas with an “arrogant contempt,” for its wasteful ways.

Steve van Gorp, deputy director of the City of Las Vegas Redevelopment Agency, doesn’t like the mentality of those who come to town for a week and write articles and books. “They don’t know about the place,” says van Gorp. “It’s not gonna be the fucked-up place LA is.” He notes that, by and large, infrastructure has kept pace with development in the city. Van Gorp refers to himself simply as an urbanist. “We’re about putting cities back together.”

Norquist, who was last in town four years ago, says the city works. “A lot of people live [in Las Vegas], really great people who are trying to figure out how to make it better.”

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