2012-03-30

Watch Las Vegas's Growing Sprawl From Space

Watch this time-lapsed video of one of the country’s largest and least sustainable cities as it inexorably expands and sucks up the resources around it.

It’s hard to believe, but Las Vegas wasn’t always a massive, sprawling development filled with casinos and indoor amusement parks. Back in 1972, the city was pretty tame, sprawl-wise. These videos compiled from NASA’s Landsat satellites illustrate the growth of Las Vegas as it goes from a city with a population of under 300,000 to one that seems to be on a never-ending mission to expand into the desert. Today, the population of the Las Vegas metropolitan area stands at almost 2 million.

The Sierra Club warned of the dangers of Las Vegas’s sprawl in 1998:

"The city has extremely serious air and water pollution and overuse problems as a result of its rampant expansion. Growth is starting to put strains on the ecologically fragile Mojave Desert. The wildlife habitat and water quality and quantity of the Colorado River, named one of the nation’s most endangered rivers in 1997 and 1998, have been damaged by diversions to serve the exploding population of this southwestern urban area. Exhaust from greater numbers of cars on the roads is unable to escape over the mountains and accumulates in the valley."

Many of Las Vegas’s attractions are clustered in the Strip, which is not actually inside city limits (it’s part of the unincorporated community of Paradise). But there are signs that downtown is being revitalized, in large part because of Zappos’ plan to move from a Vegas suburb to the area. Founder Tony Hsieh hopes to make the city center something of an urban hub, nourished by the 2,000 Zappos employees (and other high-tech workers) who will be looking for nearby places to eat, drink, and play.

Of course, it might be hard to convince all the people living in suburbs and gated communities to spend more time downtown. But at least tourism-centric Las Vegas has a fighting chance at curbing its sprawl, unlike another Southwestern city--Phoenix--with an entire economy centered around continued building growth. And there’s only so far out into the desert that Las Vegas can grow before it runs into a serious problem with its water supply, even with a $3 billion water pipeline in the works.

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