August 18, 2011

Nevada’s Frontier Urbanism: Beyond the Las Vegas Strip

Nevada’s unique brand of urbanism grew out of its history, politics, culture, and physical terrain. It remains a fantastic landscape and even its cities evoke the frontier. This “Frontier Urbanism” is the American Dream built on Libertarian ideology and preserved in Nevada.
Nothing is more American than Manifest Destiny. It embodies the roots, the "rugged individualism" that the nation prides itself on. Anglo-Saxons were "destined" to make their way across and inhabit the width of this new continent. Only God could stop them. It was 1776, and a new era of freedom and democracy was expanding westward towards California. Wagons and explorers blazed trails through rough wilderness. Every person had the opportunity to make his way in the free country. While Europe industrialized historic cities into modern metropoleis, America had a blank canvas. The American West, and specifically Nevada, is a living history of this American-ness played out on the open range.
By the end of the 19th century the entirety of the West had been inhabited. Today, our politics has evolved and the rugged individualism manifests itself in subtler, tamer ways. In Nevada, the frontier that was once conquered by pioneers remains only halfconquered, with a unique collection of quasi-urban, suburban, and rural-urban conditions. With cities increasingly homogenous (they can be described simply as "the city") it is areas like Nevada that keep the traditions and ideas of yesteryear alive. These Western towns are also relics of a time, not long ago, when unfettered capitalism was rivaled only by our territorial instinct. Nevada’s towns were vehicles for an insane gold rush in unclaimed lands. Towns included main streets with the most wonderful of false fronts, behind them the opium dens, cathouses, and saloons of the "wild west." The "live free" attitude is alive and well in its purest form on the open ranges of Nevada.
Libertarian ideology of "no government is good government," defines Nevada and its landscape today. This differs from the mid-western family-values-oriented strain of conservatism, where cries for government involvement in social issues dominate the discussion. In Nevada, people just want to be left alone. They hate taxes, planning commissions, and building codes. This bodes well for the architectural adventure seeker. The resulting “Frontier Urbanism" is a freeform, hodgepodge lack of planning which retains the feel of the frontier, even in the most urban areas. This is a direct result of the political ideology of Nevada: No new taxes, minimal service, and minimal regulation.
When thinking about relocating to Nevada’s rural Humboldt County, potential residents are warned about the perils of living on the modern frontier. On the planning department website, users are encouraged to download “The Code of the West.” It cautions prospective land buyers about water rights, rural road conditions, lack of cell phone service, sensitivity of utilities, grazing rights, and many other issues not present in most areas.
You may not have access to a supply of treated domestic water…If your road is unpaved, it is highly unlikely that Humboldt County will pave it in the foreseeable future…Nevada has an open range law. This means if you do not want cattle, sheep or other livestock on your property, it is your responsibility to fence them out…do not expect county government to intervene in the normal day-to-day operations of your agri-business neighbors...Easements may require you to allow construction of roads, power lines, MINING, etc. across your land…The water flowing in irrigation ditches belongs to someone. You cannot assume that because the water flows across your property, you can use it.
It reads like a stern planning department bureaucrat warning of the perils of this difficult terrain. It also serves as a vivid look at the current conditions of America’s last frontier. The land is very lightly developed, if at all. When the trailblazers seeking the coast stopped passing through, development slowed, nearly freezing. Unlike other parts of the country, the majority of Nevadans do not want that to change.
In Reno, the biggest northern city, streets operate on a loose grid in the downtown, but quickly melt into the landscape. It is not a typical suburban development grid breakdown, however. There is simply a lack of cohesion. Each part of town has a different layout. Many are very loose, meandering through the landscape. In the neighborhoods around University of Nevada, quasi-residential areas interlock with half-gridded off-campus housing. Defining the landscape across McCarran Blvd. is New Frontier Urbanism, 2000's style sprawl. This is the American Spirit, updated. The car is the new wagon, the road the new trail, the sky still big, all in a wild-west landscape. One such development is Damonte Ranch, a mammoth collection of eerily similar looking homes arranged in a blob-like street system on old Damonte Ranch. These are the new false fronts, re-conquering the west. By the way, it’s also half deserted.
Within each different piece of Reno’s ungridded collage, you will find differentiation at street scale. Whether it is a tattoo parlor next to luxury condominiums next to a casino, or a Mexican restaurant next to an art gallery next to a motel, the lack of planning and design review makes for a unique and diverse landscape. It is reminiscent of the old west’s varied false fronts reading "blacksmith," "bath house," and "saloon." Today's false front is often more sculpted, three dimensional, and contains a healthy dose of neon and garish color. Each town has a main street resembling something between an old west town and the Las Vegas strip. At building scale, the downtowns are a historical goldmine. They remind us that Nevada is still very much dependent on two industries, gaming and mining. The cities look the part, with neon and older bulb-illuminated signs glowing on top of authentic wooden false front buildings right out of western film. Carson City is the state's capitol. A town of 60,000 with a railroad museum, it has a handful of casinos at its core. The local political battle is funding for a public-private partnership to revitalize downtown with a new parking garage for the Carson Nugget, the city’s biggest casino.
Political heritage is not the only force molding Nevada into a fantastic landscape. The harsh desert makes it one of the least developed areas in the US, next to Alaska. Nevada got its start when gold seeking "49'ers,” headed towards California, stopped at the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Sierra is a jagged, snowy mountain range and many settlers died on its passes. As pockets of gold and silver were discovered in the rough Nevada desert Miners and surveyors moved east looking for new lodes. This was the 19th century, and the state was virtually all wildernesses. Towns would pop up almost overnight to provide access to the new mines of precious metal buried in the hills. A network of towns was created to get supplies deep into the frontier, each town smaller than the next. The pop up nature of the camps gives Nevada an extraordinary number of ghost towns. The network did not last, but some of the larger towns are now rural outposts to this day.
Las Vegas is in some respects a pop up frontier city. The mining towns were founded throughout the 19th century and like Las Vegas, they captured the zeitgeist. Las Vegas is the largest US city founded in the 20th century; it grew extremely fast, much like the mining camps did. Its history parallels the boom and bust cycles of America. Las Vegas was founded in 1905, and Ford's Model T popularized the car in 1908. In 1911, Las Vegas was home to 800 people. It boomed post-WWII along with the American dream. In the 60’s Howard Hughes started the trend of corporate investment in Las Vegas. The population began to soar, and “gambling” turned into “gaming” in the 1980’s. It is currently home to the country’s highest metropolitan foreclosure rate. For these reasons, Las Vegas has long been a topic of urban discourse. The Strip is the gold standard for the commercial vernacular drive-by architecture. Outside of the strip, you will find a city completely designed for cars, much like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre city. There is no historical city center that was built before the car. The city is a very clear arterial grid. These roads run east-west and north-south, much like a typical gridded city, but with much more distance between each road. The blocks are designed for driving. Within each of the grid's squares, there are unique systems of smaller roads, depending on the development. The roads are very wide and accommodate multiple lanes of traffic easily. Las Vegas exemplifies the frontier urbanist paradigm of cars on the open range, moving about as freely as possible in a city of 2,000,000.
Nevada’s unique brand of urbanism grew out of its history, politics, culture, and physical terrain. It remains a fantastic landscape and even its cities evoke the frontier. This “Frontier Urbanism” is the American Dream built on Libertarian ideology and preserved in Nevada.


wayne said...

Great Post! I love Humboldt County's warning to dubious city slickers. Too bad it's not posted along with every "Welcome to Nevada" sign at the borders.

N_O_R_T_O_N said...

"it must be acknowledged that Nevada is the place to which many of our worst nightmares are eventually consigned. It might be more accurately called the Nation’s Unconscious: it is where we put the things that we don’t want messing up our lawns. The most important of these are nuclear waste and the sex trades. [...] Visitors slide through it in silver cars on the single great highway to traverse its northern expanse, and they get out to gaze with rapt horror at the emptiness, thinking, “If you wanted to die, all you would have to do is choose a direction and walk...” Numerous attempts to establish towns along this highway have failed, and their remains can be seen at the side of the road, where off-ramps lead to nothing but shuttered and derelict buildings, mostly convenience stores and gas stations. These buildings take several years to be covered by dust completely, and it is possible to judge the building’s age by how far up the front door the sand has crept." - Emily Mitchell, "States" in Design Observer.

dontknockitecture said...

Wayne, thanks.

N_O_R_T_O_N, Im reading that quote as 100% endearing, no?

ridwan said...

I got to go on a guide trip 1/2 day at the 'Mid recently.
I brought my wife along and she caught her first trout ever!
It was fun but we had wind to deal with that day.
It made us work harder on our casting.
I caught 3 fish in the 20, 21 inch range.
I thought a pelican was gonna eat it before I could land it! Good times!

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sanjeewani said...


Very interesting article. great post.