Tuesday, May 6, 2008
"Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood.” The famous dare of century-ago century Chicago architect Daniel Burnham proved to be a daunting challenge in the last century for American cities. Big projects such as the government centers in Boston and Albany turned out to be anti-social and ill-fitting products of urban planning as sculptural design. In part as a result of these efforts, few American cities have tried big makeovers in recent years.
But Las Vegas is not any city, of course. One of the fastest growing cities in the nation over the past few decades, Las Vegas has struggled to make itself a great city that happens to have giant casinos –- not just a grouping of giant casinos and parking lots with a city attached. The city is trying to build a new downtown (Las Vegas’s old downtown withered in recent decades, as have many in the nation) called “Union Park” just west of the old downtown. The hope is that new residences, a performing arts center, and big office towers will provide a ready-made city center.
One concern with the plan is that big buildings don’t a downtown make; many American cities (especially in the Sunbelt) are filled with big buildings to which visitors travel and leave almost exclusively by car. Horizontal development (restaurants, small shops, etc.) is more likely to make for a vigorous urban setting. But the Las Vegas plan also doesn’t seem to hold the attributes of the carefully packaged retail walking spaces that have been fairly successful in places such as Reston, Virginia. Moreover, the current plans include a lot of open space, which reminds one of the enormous, human-dwarfing wind-swept plazas that made places such as Boston’s Government Center so unpleasant. (In Las Vegas, of course, it would be a sand-swept plaza). And the idea of adding new condos in a city with soaring foreclosure and vacancy rates seems like an unreasonable gamble.
Perhaps the bottom line is that the United States simply doesn’t do big public spaces well –- we are a culture only of pleasant “private spaces.” But, like Burnham, let’s appreciate Las Vegas for trying …