FEATURE: The Edge of Town

History, growth and the meaning of city limits in a city that knows no limits

William Fox

Signs of Time Where the Past Meets the Future

Charlie Correll, a lanky anthropologist with the Bureau of Land Management, stops in the middle of the dirt road to gesture at the dark rocks dotting the side of the canyon. "Here's where the petroglyphs start." In front of us are hundreds of designs and pictures scratched into the rocks over centuries. Geometrical swirls, bighorn sheep, stick figures, snakes. At least 1,700 petroglyphs have been catalogued in the newly established Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area, south of Las Vegas. Behind us, at the entrance to the canyon, where the road is blocked to vehicular traffic by a line of large boulders, the leading edge of Las Vegas is visible as it metastasizes deeper into the 21st century. To stand here is to teeter on a temporal precipice: The past and the future could not meet at a juncture any steeper.

The petroglyphs, some of which were pecked into the dark desert varnish as long as 2,000 years ago, document the shift in the valley from hunter-gatherers stalking bighorn sheep to riders on horseback wearing cowboy hats—the moment when the valley's 10,000-year prehistory rolls over into history. For thousand of years, people moved through here in small bands, perhaps no more than a hundred people in the entire valley at any one time. They walked from spring to spring at first, then later learned how to carry water in pottery jugs.

In the beginning, they speared giant sloth, mammoth and the American lion, a diet not so different from that of their ancestors on the African savanna. When they had hunted out all the megafauna, they hunted rabbits and birds and ate roots and seeds harvested from desert plants. Always they kept moving, never overusing any one place, the habit of early desert people from the Sahara to Baja.

Twelve thousand years ago, when people had already entered the valley, there may have been only between one and five million people on the entire planet. When bands of people grew beyond the ability to sustain themselves as a group—somewhere between 10 and 40 members—the juvenile males would wander off to stake out a new territory. The primary human boundaries were ones claiming water and hunting grounds, zones of conflict that changed with the climate.

Eight thousand years ago, people in Mesopotamia and Anatolia were beginning to aggregate as communities around agriculture, in some cases forming villages as large as 6,000 people, which required the irrigation of crops. Catal Hayuk, in what is now south central Turkey, was the earliest known settlement of that type, and apparently its residents even platted out streets before houses were built on them, the first evidence we have of city planning—and of a city's edge.

That kind of progress didn't appear in the Las Vegas Valley until 1855, when the Mormons brought essentially the same technology from the American Midwest and used water from the Las Vegas Springs to irrigate their crops. They failed in their first attempt to create a permanent settlement here, but in 1905 the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad was able to store and pipe enough water downtown for use both by its locomotives and residents that it was feasible to plat out a town and sell lots—and this city's edge was born. In 1911, the year the city incorporated, the city had 800 residents and was defined as being just over 19 miles square. The population of Clark County was counted at 3,321, and the life depicted by the petroglyph makers had disappeared.

Meanwhile, Back in the 21st Century ...

When I visited Las Vegas with my parents in the early 1960s, it seemed the perfect desert city. From a distance, it was mostly invisible by day, and an elegant rebus of light once the sun went down. Although the county population had grown to more than 172,000, Las Vegas proper hovered around 64,000, and the city only covered 25 square miles. You could stand almost anywhere in town, look down a street and see the edge of the desert. You were offered one of the finer viewscapes in the American Southwest, and you knew exactly where you were.

But the population of the United States has more than doubled since then, and the edge of Las Vegas began to lose its comely shape during the 1980s. In 1983, the Spanish Trail community started to build more than 1,200 homes around a golf course, and in 1988 Summerlin made public its planned community that would eventually house 160,000 people in 22,500 acres adjacent to Red Rock. These were "master-planned communities," the very language itself displaying an arrogance toward the environment, as if it were a mere slave to human desire. Las Vegas was surrounding itself with hermetic enclaves, satellites that were not separate communities—there was nothing communal about them, everyone's houses designed to afford maximum privacy from its neighbor—but segregated pockets of urban paranoia.

Las Vegas the city was morphing into Las Vegas the metropolitan area, which included North Las Vegas, Henderson and the unincorporated townships of Paradise and Winchester, among others. The area exploded from 458,000 in 1980 to almost 1.6 million 20 years later. For all intents and purposes—and with apologies to Boulder City, Pahrump and other small communities—the population of Clark County became synonymous with that of the metro area. The city wasn't the city anymore—it was the Valley.

To most newcomers—which means much of the population—Las Vegas is inextricably confused with the Strip or Clark County or Henderson, and the lack of distinct edges makes community allegiance difficult. By the late 1990s, the urban area covered more than 400 square miles, and two acres an hour fell to development. Whereas most cities published map books annually, Las Vegas saw them issued monthly, and the city was running out of street names.

The political and governmental fragmentation and bewildering growth compounded the problem of civic association by encouraging equally disjointed urban planning—there was no common ground. And, although home prices are now increasing to parity with those in other Southwestern cities, development fees and property taxes remain so low that it severely crimps the ability of the city to pay for communal amenities, things as basic as sidewalks. All of these factors lower your sense of belonging to the city, to a place you care enough about to plan for its health.

The western edge of the city was stopped only by Red Rock, which is administered by the Bureau of Land Management. As Steve Parker, a professor of history at UNLV pointed out to me, the BLM is "one of the Federal Four government agencies landlocking the city, along with the U.S. Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife, and the National Park Service." Look at a map and you'll see the Lake Mead National Recreation Area delimiting the east, the Desert National Wildlife Range and Nellis Air Force Base to the north, Red Rock to the west and BLM land to the south. Eighty percent of Clark County is controlled by the Federal government.

Yet even those boundaries are not fixed in stone, given enough money. Pressure from developers in the late 1990s resulted in Sen. John Ensign (then in the House of Representatives) and former Sen. Richard Bryan co-authoring a bill that allowed the BLM to auction off land to the highest bidder. The Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act (SNPLMA) required that 85 percent of the funds raised be used to buy environmentally sensitive land in the state. Since passage of the bill in 1998, the BLM has sold 5,600 acres in and around Las Vegas, realized $690 million and bought 105,000 acres.

The bill, lauded by developers and environmentalists alike, tends to encourage urbanization on the desert floor and preserve areas of vertical relief for recreation. It codifies our scenic preferences while acknowledging that it's cheaper to build on the flats. In 2002, a corollary bill authored by Ensign and Sen. Harry Reid likewise released 231,000 acres of federal land for multiuse or development, and designated 444,000 acres for wilderness use, among them the Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area. The bill thus cuts two ways. It helps preserve desert habitat, but allows developers to build their way out of the Valley.

Slipping the Noose on the Way to Becoming a Formless Aggregate

Charlie leads me up a bighorn sheep trail, which may also have been a footpath used by the prehistoric hunters, and we top out on a ridge sparsely decorated with creosote and yucca. We're here to witness a test run over the new route by one of the Grand Canyon helicopter tour companies. Air traffic congestion at McCarran International requires that general aviation—that is, anything but commercial jetliners—be displaced to other facilities. Most of the private airplane traffic now uses the North Las Vegas Airport, and the majority of the helicopters probably will be using a new heliport approved by Clark County Commissioners for just south of the Sloan Exit off I-15, directly to our west. It's a location that may keep the helicopters from flying over the high-end Sun City Anthem development, whose residents turned out en masse to protest the flights, yet it is still close enough to the Strip to remain viable for the tour operators.

As if cued by our presence, three of the machines file past us to the south. The thwumping of their rotors is distracting, but we're hardly in a pristine sonic environment. The muted but constant rumbling of jet traffic is a reminder even within the canyon that the city is just over the hill. From where we're standing, we watch earthmovers carve out the leading edge of Anthem. Less than a mile north from us, a series of power lines parades across the Valley. The land on the far side has already been sold by the BLM. The land on the near side and up to the boundary of the national conservation area will be auctioned off this year or next. The official estimate is that the city will reach the boundary of the "wilderness" in seven years, but both Charlie and I think that's underestimating the financial power of the developers.

South of us and on the other side of the McCullough Mountains, the range through which we've been walking this morning, is a series of dry lake beds leading to the Nevada-California border. Between the playas and the I-15 freeway sit the hamlets of Jean and Primm. The former hosts a couple of hotel-casinos and a correctional facilitiy, the latter a couple of hotel-casinos and a power plant. On Roach Dry Lake, which spans between the two, will be built a new airport to handle the overflow from McCarran. Las Vegas will soon thereafter stretch north from the border 24 miles to what is now the edge of the city at the Sloan exit. Eventually the NCA will become an island wilderness virtually surrounded by urbanites.

I look up toward the northwest. That upraised corner of the Valley is still relatively free of development, but not for long. The city has proposed to the BLM that 1,600 acres near the Kyle Canyon Road, which leads up to Mount Charleston, be auctioned off in the fall. Already, houses have been built within seven-tenths of a mile of the road. The next community north is the 200-acre town of Indian Springs. Once an hour's drive from Las Vegas, the town is now only about 20 minutes from the nearest Vegas supermarket. The opening of Yucca Mountain in 2010 virtually guarantees that urbanization will swallow Indian Springs and encourage Las Vegas to continue northward.

As it grows along I-15 south and US 95 north, Las Vegas will resemble nothing that looks like a city, but instead be a formless aggregate more akin to the Los Angeles and Phoenix areas. Everything relatively flat will be developed, and at night the desert mountains will stand up as dark islands in a sea of light. The last chance to prevent that may have slipped by in 1997, when State Sen. Dina Titus proposed limiting the city's growth with a "Ring Around the Valley" bill in the state legislature. "The developers called it the Noose Around the Neck Bill," Titus told me, "but I declared victory, even though it didn't pass, because growth became an issue that's never been off the table since."

Boundary Recognition Is a Thing of the Mind

How cities grow and the path they take are dictated by the ground rules of topography. But how far they grow, the shape that cities finally assume, is utterly within the control of their citizens. It would behoove Las Vegas to limit its growth to the bowl of the Valley, a natural setting that would allow residents to visually comprehend where they live.

Eighty percent of everything we learn comes in through our eyes and is parsed into only a couple dozen simple geometric shapes. Everything we see is assembled from that basic vocabulary of shapes—every face, landscape, painting, machine. And each of those shapes is determined visually by boundary contrast—between areas of lighter and darker amounts of light. Boundary-recognition is not only the foundation of sight, but of cognition. It's how we think. To lose the boundary of something is to allow it to become invisible and out of mind. This is not healthy, because you lose your sense of your place in the world. You begin to believe that you are, indeed, master of the land, a dangerous conceit in a desert environment where a drought can last a century or more.

The growth expanding outward from the city is higher density than that at the core. The approximately 70,000 people who now move to Las Vegas annually translated last year into 25,000 new housing units—along with the strip malls, office buildings and new streets to go along with them. While the population of the city from 1990-1996 increased 190 percent, the size of the urbanized area grew 238 percent, a lopsided trend that continues today. This pattern of sprawl increases traffic congestion, air pollution and health problems, not to mention the strain it puts on the infrastructure for water, sewage, power, telephone and emergency services. The city's four poorest zip codes are in the urban core, the 10 wealthiest in the suburbs, an economic segregation that creates a crime problem adjacent to the Strip.

It was the dean of American urban studies, William Whyte, who coined the phrase "urban sprawl" as he was flying east from Los Angeles to San Bernardino in the 1950s. By the late 1980s he was urging city planners to "tighten up," to set growth boundaries and encourage growth inward. In other words, to establish city limits, in both senses of the phrase. In Las Vegas, this would mean preserving an edge to the city that remained within sight, infilling empty spaces within the boundaries and redeveloping crumbling neighborhoods until a stable population is reached. Further economic development of the city would depend more on changing the nature and quality of local business, vs. letting it depend solely on growth.

As Charlie Correll and I walk back down the steep ridge to the floor of the canyon, I reflect on the ability of people thousands of years ago to live successfully in this environment without the use of technology. Despite the pressures of maintaining a subsistence diet in one of the harshest environments in North America, they had enough surplus time and energy that they could etch petroglyphs into hard rock here in Sloan Canyon, in Red Rock and the Valley of Fire. I wonder if Las Vegas will last as long, or leave behind a single mark as enduring as the picture of a bighorn sheep.

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