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The Nevada Independent

Smart growth, not sprawl, is the smart solution for Nevada

Linda Stout
Linda Stout
A distribution center under construction in North Las Vegas on Wednesday, March 29, 2017. In cities, heat is amplified by manmade materials. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Las Vegas needs an alternative to the traditional “pave paradise and put up a parking lot” approach to growth. One year ago, legislators supported the Southern Nevada Economic Development and Conservation Act (SNEDCA). Stalled for now, it packs an impressive array of wilderness protections. Sadly, the bill would potentially extend growth  boundaries by about 30,000 to 40,000 acres and bulldoze vast swaths of desert habitat to build single family homes or commercial hubs. The solution to Las Vegas’ growing pains are sustainable urban planning and rapid decarbonization, not more suburbs and parking lots. In the age of climate change, our best options are smart growth and infill development.

Sprawling young cities like Las Vegas were designed for cars. Worsening droughts, water shortages, wildfires, and heatwaves are directly fueled by tailpipe exhaust and electricity generation. SNEDCA reinforces patterns of car dependence and sprawl, jeopardizing Nevada’s mandated climate goals to reduce emissions 28% below 2005 levels by 2025, 45% by 2030, and net zero by 2050. 

Considering the rising cost of climate disasters, this proposed bill is unlikely to deliver long-term economic stability. From 2010 to 2020, Nevada experienced 12 extreme weather events costing the state $1 billion in damages. That price tag will continue to rise unless we reduce emissions. By meeting our targets, we would save between $172 and $786 million in economic damages by 2030 and up to $4 billion by 2050.

Climate disasters do not impact communities equally. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Las Vegas is among the five fastest growing cities within counties facing high to very-high risk of natural disasters. While excessive heat is not officially considered a natural disaster, it is a threat multiplier. The RTC’s Extreme Heat Vulnerability Project fact sheet shows there were 568 heat-related deaths in Southern Nevada between 2009 and 2018.

As the number of excessive heat days increase, so do the serious health threats. Sprawl and rapid urbanization widen heat risk disparities between people in urban and suburban neighborhoods. According to the 2021 research report by Climate Central on the urban heat island effect, Las Vegas’ average downtown temperatures are 5 degrees higher than surrounding areas. Peak afternoon temperatures are even hotter, 15 to 20 degrees higher than suburbs with more trees and less pavement. Concrete and asphalt surfaces absorb and radiate heat, and lack of green spaces prevents cooling.

From the outset, our suburbs were designed with policies of exclusionary housing and redlining, as experienced by residents of North Las Vegas and Las Vegas’ East and West side. Sprawl is fundamentally rooted in social inequity and racial strife. People impacted most by discriminatory housing practices often have the fewest resources to deal with heatwaves. On any given day, more than 5,000 Southern Nevadans are unhoused and many are turned away when shelters reach maximum capacity. The housing crisis has pushed people out of their homes and closed doors to affordable housing near places of employment and public transit. 

Zoning laws perpetuate white flight and urban blight by restricting new neighborhoods to single family homes instead of mixed use development. Roughly 62% of Las Vegas in 2019 was zoned for low density, single family homes, according to Marco Velotta, senior management analyst at the Las Vegas Planning Department. To reshape zoning trends, in 2021 Las Vegas adopted a state-mandated 2050 Master Plan that promotes mixed-use and transit-oriented development. Up-zoning from low to high density, helps correct past exclusionary practices by allowing development of taller and denser buildings, especially in suburbs. 

Infill development prioritizes equitable infrastructure, affordable housing, accessible public transit, and reduced car dependence. Fewer cars and shorter trips mean cleaner air and healthier living. Smart, walkable communities prioritize car alternatives like cycling, walking, and public transit. Existing road infrastructure is readily adaptable for expanded transit routes servicing downtown, UNLV, CSN, and the airport. 

Phasing out high emission vehicles and incentivizing a rapid deployment of energy efficient  public transit, trucking, and light rail will be transformative. Southern Nevada’s Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) is aiming for 100% zero emission buses by 2035 and is awaiting their 2022 arrival of three zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell electric buses, the first in the fleet. Recent federal funding will help RTC improve existing facilities, develop dedicated transit lanes, and expand their popular bike share program.

Effective climate policy is proactive, not reactive. It improves public health and quality of life while leaving Nevada’s wilderness intact. To reverse decades of sprawl, reduce emissions, and save money, Nevada needs zoning regulations and public infrastructure investments that favor high density and mixed use land development along with well designed public transit. 

Prioritizing collaborative, community discourse by consulting with urban planners, low-income-housing advocates, and environmental justice advocates is essential to fair and just policymaking. Adapting to a warming world means changing habits and policies for how we live and grow. Smart growth, not sprawl, is the smart solution for Nevada.

Linda Stout is the parent of four young adults and a longtime Las Vegas resident. She is a retired educator, artist and climate activist.


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