Alan ran across this aerial time series of Las Vegas sprawl, produced by NASA, which I turned into the animated image below. (Sorry if it takes a while to load.)
See how quickly sprawl exploded across the desert landscape at the Las Vegas urban fringe? (If you can’t see the time progression, you may need to change your browser settings to display animated images.)
Curiously, though, the growth patterns in Las Vegas have been remarkably compact. A few years back we analyzed development patterns in a bunch of comparably-sized US cities. And as it turns out, the arid ones like Las Vegas sprawled relatively little, compared with their pace of population growth, and had with very little ultra-low-density development at the urban fringe. (Apparently it’s hard to plunk a house down in the middle of an arid desert without a reliable water supply.)
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In fact, we found only one high-rainfall US city that’s done a reasonably good job at controlling low-density sprawl, and protecting rural land from development: Portland, Oregon, with its long-standing growth management regime. (See this data supplement for comparisons.) And as Sightline Fellow Doug MacDonald argues, even Seattle—which benefits from a statewide growth management law, and where regional governments have been trying to constrain low-density sprawl—has fallen well behind its targets for compact development.
It’s hard to see the development pattern above as admirable; the city grew shockingly fast, and new development overran a lot of the desert landscape. Still, it’s worth noting that Las Vegas’s real challenge has really been how fast the population has grown. Its urban form leaves a lot to be desired, but then again, the problems of low-density suburban sprawl are perhaps even more troublesome in our part of the world.