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Building Las Vegas: History Has Shaped A Unique Urban Sprawl

The seemingly endless sprawl of stucco and tile is a big part of the Las Vegas, but how did we get here?
Burt Kaufmann/Flickr

The seemingly endless sprawl of stucco and tile is a big part of the Las Vegas, but how did we get here?

Las Vegas is arguably just different. It looks and feels different than most other cities in the country.

Locals accept this as just the way things are, but out-of-towners may question the Interstate locations and why master-planned and gated communities are the norm here. 

To understand why this is, you have to understand, at least a little, of the city's history and its pattern of growth due to the monumental developments in that history.

Geoff Schumacher, historian and author of "Sun, Sin and Suburbia," told KNPR's State of Nevada that the city started like many other cities around a central hub.

In Las Vegas, the hub was originally downtown around the Union Pacific Railroad stop.

However, a series of growth bursts changed that and moved development away from downtown. First, in the 1930s, the building of Hoover Dam created Boulder City and Boulder Highway and brought a burst of development.

The second big burst was during World War II and the opening of the Army Air Field, which is now Nellis Air Force Base. 

“We had such a growth spurt during World War II," Schumacher explained. "It went from being a town to being a city at that point. It started taking on the characteristics of a city.”

Developers had to put up houses as quickly and cheaply as possible.

It was also at that time that development along the Strip started, creating what would be the Las Vegas Valley's economic engine outside of the downtown core.

It's not just the Strip.

While Strip casinos have undoubtedly played a key role in the Las Vegas identity, it's mainly been the melting pot of unique individuals who have driven the city's development forward. 

Other key projects that have shaped the city's sprawl include McCarran Airport and University of Nevada Las Vegas.

The next burst of growth really happened during the 1990s and 2000s, bringing the stucco and tiled roofs many neighborhoods are filled with today.

When master-planned communities, such as Summerlin and Henderson began to form, many say the small-town feel of Las Vegas neighborhoods began to dissipate.

Long-time Las Vegas architect Robert Fielden said so much of Las Vegas looks the same, because the sheer size of the subdivisions.

Unlike in other cities where builders would only create neighborhoods of a few dozen houses, Las Vegas builders developed huge tracts of land and those needed to go up fast and cheap.

With those fast developments came cinder block walls and gated communities. Fielden said those features have hurt the city's sense of community.

“These walls don’t build or strengthen community. People who live inside the walls still keep their doors locked and rarely go even to answer the door,” Fielden said.

He said because of ubiquitous walls and gates, people here have to get into their cars to take their kids to school, to get groceries, to go to church, to go to parks even. 

"You can't walk anywhere," he said, “People aren’t able to build social capital or build pride amongst themselves for living within the community”

According to Schumacher, the net effect of the fast, cheap, walled communities can be a non-distinctive look.

“For the most part we’re talking about cracker boxes, just get them up quick, and as a result you don’t have a lot of distinctiveness among houses in a neighborhood and you don’t see a lot of style,” Schumacher said.

Schumacher also pointed out that the sameness the city has is because of the natural landscape.

“Even though we live in this mountainous, desert part of North America really the valley is pretty flat,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of rivers that change the course of roads. We don’t have bridges over those rivers. We don’t have outcroppings of woods, like you would see in a lot of cities.” 

Schumacher said people have built a sense of community in Las Vegas despite the city's landscape through friendships found in shared interests, not proximity. 

Geoff Schumacher, author, "Sun, Sin & Suburbia";  Robert Fielden, architect 

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Prior to taking on the role of Broadcast Operations Manager in January 2021, Rachel was the senior producer of KNPR's State of Nevada program for 6 years. She helped compile newscasts and provided coverage for and about the people of Southern Nevada, as well as major events such as the October 1 shooting on the Las Vegas strip, protests of racial injustice, elections and more. Rachel graduated with a bachelor's degree of journalism and mass communications from New Mexico State University.