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thoughts on our urban future

Learning (anew) from Las Vegas

Las Vegas, the city of lights

The first time I saw elevated walkways over busy high streets, I was in China. Pedestrians had to climb dozens of stairs, cross over the street to ensure traffic would not be affected by pedestrians, and climb back down to street level. I saw several occasions in several cities where this ‘solution’ was used. In addition. guardrails throughout Chinese cities confined where pedestrians could go. Being limited in my travel experience, I didn’t find cities in America, Canada or Costa Rica using the same controlling measures.

This was some years ago. And after eight years in the UK, and extensive travel in Europe, and other parts of Asia, I find the engineered solutions in China were not conceived by Communist planners, no they were imported from Western traffic engineers! And I continue to find more and more examples where pedestrian movement is compromised for (eventual) global car domination.

Fremont Street, Downtown

Last week I was in Sin City (Las Vegas, Nevada). It is a city of extremes, and where anything is seemingly possible. It is also a city with a fixation on money, which seems to be the focus of everything (at least in downtown, and along The Strip).

Downtown is the old section of the city, where the original mafia casinos were established. This is the Las Vegas many people have a mental picture of if they haven’t visited the city.

The Strip in Las Vegas

Newer, larger casinos sprawled along The Strip, near to the airport. It’s interesting to see that downtown faces the same issues as downtowns throughout the world: space is confined, parking is not free and sprawling growth areas seem to undermine the vitality of the historic core. These historic cores need not only compete with the growing edge cities, but they need innovative solutions to fundamentally rethink and celebrate their inherent qualities.

Here, downtown Vegas succeeded with the pedestrianisation of Fremont Street  (the downtown central spine). The space was covered with a giant colonnade that creates a cooler microclimate during the day, and acts as a canvas for a daily light show in the evening. Downtown offers a different experience than that along The Strip, and it apparently is enough – at the moment – to draw visitors here to keep the old centre alive.

Sidewalk along The Strip

The Strip, on the other hand, has no communal, central communal space for pedestrians; it is a wide road lined with casino/resorts. Each plot of land is huge, and allows for the development of sprawling casino developments, many with several towers of hotel rooms, along with separate convention centres and the huge casino sign (along The Strip, this is read as mock historic façades and enourmous free entertainment shows – think of water shows within a created lake, a two-third scale replica of the Eiffel Tower, pirate ships with Siren shows, and the recreation of the historic Venetian city with replica canals and bridges).

The Strip is linear, and the place to be is along this route. Casinos off The Strip are perceived more for locals than for visitors. Associated prices – gambling, food, entertainment, etc – demonstrate this.

Elevated walkway along The Strip

The Strip was – and still is – a linear promenade connecting the various sights and sounds. Over the last few years, however, with increasing traffic and congestion, those pesky Communist planners, err I mean Western traffic engineers, have introduced grade separated crossings for pedestrians, and have started to eliminate pedestrian crossings at newly introduced signalled junctions.

I assume the rationale relates to the bottom line: the casino owners believe that people generally driving will have more money to spend in their investment properties than those walking. This may be true: those driving the Ferraris and Bentleys to the Aria surely spent more than the $20 I spent on the penny slots (yes, I walked to the casino). Therefore the focus is to cater to the driving public, and let the walking public walk out of their way to cross the streets!

A street escalator for the elevated crossing along The Strip

It’s not to say the walking public hasn’t been given some red carpet treatment – the elevated crossings are fitted with outdoor escalators up and down. However, many of the crossing points aren’t exactly over the road junctions, and pedestrians have to walk some distance down the side road to access the escalators. Overall, the feeling from an urban design perspective is that pedestrians are increasingly being marginalised along one of the greatest pedestrian/entertainment routes the world over. Why can’t pedestrians simply be given the right to walk along desire lines?

I left the city feeling inspired (it was amazing to see so many Americans walking – the city felt alive with pedestrians where most American cities are devoid of people on the sidewalks), disheartened (the central focus of the city is on private interests, on private land, with the focus on making) and a bit poorer (I really hoped to win that big, evasive jackpot).

1 Comment

  1. the “overhead bridges” in China you saw, are likely to be like those in Chengdu. i was working in Chengdu for a few years when i used those bridges several time to cross the busy main shopping street in the norhern part of the city. Found them quite pleasant and efficient, except perhaps for the older people.

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