Can We Shape a Better City?

The utopian promise of the citizen planner

For more than four decades, the architect Robert Fielden has been our city’s most tireless champion of quality sustainable urban planning. He’s seen the Las Vegas Valley evolve from dusty gambling outpost to sprawling metropolis, and he’s helped create the look of modern Las Vegas with projects such as the Summerlin Library and the College of Southern Nevada’s Charleston Campus. Fielden has always been happy to shepherd writers around town—me included—to discuss what the city is doing right and what it’s doing wrong when it comes to making quality places. Too often we who write about Vegas portray it as a community bereft of community. With insight and charisma, Fielden has tried to remind Las Vegans that community does exist here, that it’s worth fighting for, and that urban design has an important role to play.

Las Vegans may be most familiar with Fielden from his many radio essays on KNPR. Now he brings the same insightful voice to a new book, Creating Place: Remaking America Green. In the book, as always, Fielden is both a clear-eyed critic and a connoisseur of utopian hope. He distills what he’s learned into an examination of where America’s skills at place-making have faltered and how we can make better, more sustainable places here in the Valley. The book makes a persuasive argument that communities pay a steep price when they place few restrictions on development and allow builders to maximize profits. “They offer a more economical lifestyle to residents,” he writes. “But overall the quality of life is much lower also. There’s no free lunch.”

But Fielden doesn’t merely diagnose the problems of modern development; he writes the prescription, too—one that puts a whole lot of responsibility in our hands. Communities need to create structures for discussing their strengths and weaknesses, and the opportunities and threats they face. Fielden says we’ll need to start the discussion with some hard questions about our natural environment, our history and our culture.

He’s right to begin with the idea of communities creating a vision for themselves. But after laying out that vision, setting more specific goals and doing all the research to answer those questions, what is a community left with? Sure, conversation is key—and today citizens do have the opportunity to speak out at planning commission meetings. And developers and architects do often seek input from citizens at charrettes and town hall meetings. But these scenarios still tend to paint citizens as passive and ignorant, largely deferring to the greater wisdom of Those Who Know Better. Plus, all too often this sort of talk starts out with inspiration, skips the perspiration, and moves straight to NIMBYism and plain old inaction. Fielden encourages a healthy activism—going so far as to suggest that local amateurs jump into the planning fray with articles and books of their own—but if this new army of citizen planners is going to take back the city, its foot soldiers will need to do more than just write (probably not very good) books. The citizen planners Fielden envisions would need to see their plans implemented—they need some hope that those plans can be implemented.

How can we ensure that freshly planted grassroots ideas don’t die in the heat of economic and political reality? First of all, we’ll need ways to connect with local developers, builders, architects and city planners. We need ways to limit the contiguous acreage developers can purchase. We need ideas about how to give local communities of interested citizens a larger stake in shaping the rules by which those communities are made. We need mechanisms to bring citizens and their government and developers together. We need, in short, a plan for action. Otherwise we’ll wind up with a bunch of people with half-written books on neighborhood parks or community gardens collecting dusts while large-scale Las Vegas development continues apace, same as it ever was.

Maybe we can start small. The next time a parcel of land—anything larger than a single lot—comes up for development, perhaps the city or county can appoint a temporary, project-specific committee of a dozen volunteer neighbors who would work with a developer or designers to ensure the project responded to neighbors’ needs. Let’s say this could be a blighted property or a potential public space. Only if the committee signed off on the development plan could it then be forwarded to a planning department or commission. This may be a way to bridge Fielden’s army of armchair planners with the municipal bureaucracies that actually approve new construction.

Such a move would help give concrete rights and responsibilities to citizen planners. Fielden’s vision is ambitiously democratic but not altogether fanciful: It’s like an extension of the DIY movement, only instead of start your own garden or make your own clothes or can your own fruit, it’s more like build your own city. Look around: About two-thirds of every building constructed in Las Vegas looks like it could have been designed with a few clicks of a mouse in half a day. It works, sort of. The lights come on, the roads are straight, the toilets flush. We’re good at that, maybe too good.

But maybe city planners and designers need help with the rest of it, those minor matters of beauty and inspiration. Maybe they need us. For those of us who dream of inhabiting beautiful cities, it’s time to think of ourselves not merely as shapers of our interior space—our kitchens and bedrooms and by all means our bathrooms—but shapers of the space we share.

In a town given to monumental master plans, it’s important to believe that we can shape the spaces around us—and that they are worth shaping. In so many ways, our lives are sculpted by the environments we inhabit. The more thoughtfully we shape those environments, the more satisfied we’ll be with the way they shape us.