A Road Map to a Green Tomorrow

Can a UNLV professor’s proposed “sustainability atlas” show Las Vegas a pathway to the future?

Illustration by Ciera Pedro

Illustration by Ciera Pedro

Granted, the 379-page Scottsdale Sustainable Systems Atlas does not make for scintillating beach reading, nor did it make its principal author, Ken McCown, a much-buzzed-about guest on the talk-show circuit. But the detailed report served as a primer on the long-term sustainability of Scottsdale, Arizona.

And, if all goes according to plan, McCown, the director of UNLV’s Downtown Design Center, aims to produce a similar sustainability atlas by this fall for the Las Vegas Valley. The goal is to give citizens, urban planners and elected officials a clear snapshot of how the metro area works—and how it might function in the future. It does so through a granular-level look at water usage, transportation, pollution and other issues.

“The atlas is a tool for economic development and business recruitment,” McCown says, “a way to show we have our systems in check.” The new atlas will include nearly 400 pages of text, graphs, charts and regional maps, delineating each issue with jargon-free text and graphic design geared to pique interest and aid comprehension. It would be available on a website, as an app and as an old-school, bound book.

McCown tackled the Scottsdale atlas when he was an associate professor at Arizona State University’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, as well as an adjunct professor at ASU’s renowned School of Sustainability. The project, which had a $43,000 budget, came to him in 2007, when the City of Scottsdale added a sustainability element to its general plan. McCown brought the project to ASU, teaching it as a fall seminar for architecture, planning and landscape-architecture students, and as a studio course in the spring of 2008. He completed the atlas that summer with the help of four students. “Scottsdale prioritized the atlas,” McCown says. “The city has become a leader on sustainability issues in the metro Phoenix area.”

Working with city data, new research and input from entities such as utility and waste-management companies, McCown and his team covered water, energy, agriculture, transportation, ecosystem, and waste and pollution systems.

“We looked at the impact of things like climate, energy, drought and the urban heat-island effect,” McCown says, “and we had some interesting findings.” Almost three-quarters of municipal water, the study revealed, was used outdoors. The atlas also illustrated the problems energy companies were having keeping up with Scottsdale’s growth—including the growth in energy-thirsty home electronics.

The Las Vegas atlas, which would cover the entire Valley, has the endorsement of the Southern Nevada Regional Planning Coalition, which McCown says will make it easier to find partners and funding. “The City of Las Vegas could fund this project,” he says, “but I think we’re looking at a public-private partnership here.”

The atlas’ most important impact, McCown believes, will be to help everyone in the Valley understand what is—and is not—sustainable here. “The atlas helps citizens be on the same level as planners when it comes to making choices about our resources,” he says. “Both sides need to know what the major issues are, and what is appropriate for the community.”