The Greenwash Brigade

Las Vegas’ new City Center: greenwashed or not?

Jim Nicolow Nov 27, 2007

In response to:

The Greening of Las Vegas

Weekend America,® Nov. 17, 2007

Jim Nicolow’s take

Holy crap! We’re holding up Las Vegas as a model of sustainability? A city that would dry up overnight without imported drinking water to flush its toilets, imported food to stock its casino buffets, imported energy to run its air conditioned sleek glass towers, and imported gasoline to ferry its citizens across the growing expanse of exurban sprawl? This story made my soul ache.They rejoice at the creation of a new 76-acre collection of “sleek glass towers” in the desert, suggesting this is a model of sustainability? Excuse me, I misspoke. They’re not just “sleek glass towers” in the desert. They’re sleek glass towers in the desert with added shading devices…and some sustainably harvested wood from China!

Hogwash. No, greenwash.

This is like celebrating a school bully who pledges to cut back on beating up his classmates to every other day rather than every day as a model of nonviolence.

The definition of desert is, “a barren or desolate area; especially, a dry, often sandy region of little rainfall, extreme temperatures, and sparse vegetation.” “Desert” comes from the Latin desertum meaning “an unpopulated place.” Talk about an inconvenient truth. Las Vegas is the ìlargest city in the world founded after 1900″ because the area simply does not have the ecological resources to sustainably support a large population.

We need to drop this flawed notion that any number of people can live in any region “sustainably” if they simply begin to deplete their resources (or those imported from another region) at a slightly slower rate. That’s not sustainability. Sustainability is living in a way that can continue in perpetuity. It’s balance. A city of half-a-million people living in the middle of a desert is not a model of sustainability. This new infusion of 7.5 billion dollars will further increase the region’s drain on imported resources, not reduce it.

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I’m all for recognizing the efforts of individuals and organizations who are doing the right thing, and I do recognize that the designers probably incorporated more green strategies than the shading, cogeneration, and use of ‘sustainably’ harvested Chinese lumber referenced in the story.

However, I question the premise that a 7.5 billion dollar investment in Las Vegas provides an instructive example of sustainability. Green buildings coupled with brown urban planning won’t lead to true sustainability.

This reminds me of the 70’s passive solar Earthship houses that used very little energy but were 30 miles from the nearest store, requiring a 60 mile round trip to buy a loaf of bread. After factoring in transportation energy use, they would have a larger carbon
footprint than an inefficient urban apartment.

Surely there are cities that could provide a more instructive, holistic model of sustainability than Las Vegas? What about Portland, Oregon’s urban growth boundary; or Kalundborg, Denmark’s example of industrial ecology?

Janne K. Flisrand responds:

“A project this size can move markets.”

Cindy Ortega says, “Then what happens is it goes into Home Depot, and all of a sudden when you put your addition on your home, you have the availability of those materials and so that’s the whole purpose of large projects moving the needle on sustainability.”

Nope. City Center probably isn’t sourcing materials through Home Depot & a denizen of architects is researching every tube of glue, every piece of wood, every ounce of paint used, and most are purchased wholesale. Home Depot employees who tell us Christmas tree lights are in aisle four aren’t verifying that materials meet LEED standards.

I do want to give Home Depot credit. They are working hard to get environmentallyfriendly products on their shelves. But – they’ve got work to do in the staff training department.

The last time I was in Home Depot, I asked someone in an orange apron whether the pressed board contained urea formaldehyde glues. They looked at me like I was from Mars. Well… “We’re getting more green products all the time.” Maybe the architects should train Home Depot employees?

So, yeah. Huge projects create demand for certain products. But, commercial building materials are pretty different from what’s in Home Depot aisles. Where they do overlap, I look forward to the day someone in an orange apron can teach me which washer has more recycled content, as well as which one will work.

Heidi Siegelbaum responds:

Holy crap is right. Las Vegas could only be a sustainable city in a parallel universe. Its location, rapacious growth, delusional water policies and the City’s vigorous sell of excess as an enviable social value is anything but sustainable. City Center’s green building is a trumpeted red herring. Sustainable Las Vegas??

  • 70% of Las Vegas’ water is used for outdoor lawn watering and golf courses, not the famed Las Vegas strip. We’ll see if the $2/square foot incentive offered by the Southern Nevada Water Quality Authority pays off in its “pretty please with a maraschino cherry on top” approach to voluntary conservation
  • The city is sucking groundwater in a politically charged fight with the Great Basin’s ranchers and farmers. Lake Mead, from which Las Vegas draws most of its water, is at half its normal capacity
  • Las Vegas has among the highest per capita water consumption in the world
  • 336 acres is developed each week in Las Vegas

Sustainable Cities respect their realistic carrying capacity, build local assets, are self reliant and ensure future generations have adequate resources. Maybe Las Vegas will find an innovative way to turn the Great Mojave’s sand into drinking water?

On October 24th of this year, a summit was held on Environmental Sustainability and Las Vegas (opens PDF) where the conversation seemed to focus on “managing” natural resources but alas, a viable– much less sustainable– Las Vegas will require a radically different approach.

Dennis Markatos-Soriano responds:

Y’all make some great points. Las Vegas has a long way to reach sustainability, and it feels silly to connect the desert city to environmental responsibility. However, while I am not inclined to praise Las Vegas’s initiatives over those of Portland or New York, I do appreciate the steps that they take to mitigate their environmental footprint. And given the fact that some people do live excessive lifestyles, it is important for all of us to foster policy that will at least make them pay the social costs of their private actions (and hopefully help moderate their most damaging habits). Such policy includes a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system allocating greenhouse gas emission permits. Specifically for Las Vegas, I have an idea to help change its unsustainable image:

Rizhao is a coastal city in eastern China (its name means “city of sunshine”) that has built its identity as a solar model for the world. Almost every household in the central city has a solar water heating system on their roof, cumulatively producing energy equivalent to thousands of tons of coal. Las Vegas could make a similar commitment to becoming a solar capital, putting their perpetual sun to great use.

Every decision moves the market, so I encourage Las Vegas and other communities to improve their footprint. In that vein, I celebrate its new City Center, and hope that the building is only the beginning of an overwhelming nationwide shift that positions the U.S. as a leader rather than laggard in achieving a sustainable future.

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