Argument: Phoenix is world’s least sustainable city

I recently ran into an overview of a 2011 look at Phoenix as the “world’s least sustainable city”:

Phoenix, Arizona is one of America’s fastest growing metropolitan regions. It is also its least sustainable one, sprawling over a thousand square miles, with a population of four and a half million, minimal rainfall, scorching heat, and an insatiable appetite for unrestrained growth and unrestricted property rights.

In Bird on Fire, eminent social and cultural analyst Andrew Ross focuses on the prospects for sustainability in Phoenix–a city in the bull’s eye of global warming–and also the obstacles that stand in the way. Most authors writing on sustainable cities look at places like Portland, Seattle, and New York that have excellent public transit systems and relatively high density. But Ross contends that if we can’t change the game in fast-growing, low-density cities like Phoenix, the whole movement has a major problem. Drawing on interviews with 200 influential residents–from state legislators, urban planners, developers, and green business advocates to civil rights champions, energy lobbyists, solar entrepreneurs, and community activists–Ross argues that if Phoenix is ever to become sustainable, it will occur more through political and social change than through technological fixes. Ross explains how Arizona’s increasingly xenophobic immigration laws, science-denying legislature, and growth-at-all-costs business ethic have perpetuated social injustice and environmental degradation. But he also highlights the positive changes happening in Phoenix, in particular the Gila River Indian Community’s successful struggle to win back its water rights, potentially shifting resources away from new housing developments to producing healthy local food for the people of the Phoenix Basin. Ross argues that this victory may serve as a new model for how green democracy can work, redressing the claims of those who have been aggrieved in a way that creates long-term benefits for all.

Since the population of the United States has shifted in recent decades to Sunbelt cities like Phoenix, tackling sustainability in these more sprawling and hot places seems like it is important. I wonder how much this sustainability push would require curbing sprawl and if there are some critics who would argue places like Phoenix (or even the metropolitan regions of cities like Chicago and New York) can’t really be sustainable unless they severely limit sprawl.

In two trips to Las Vegas in recent years, I was struck each time by the landscape when flying into the city. I always enjoy seeing cities from above but Las Vegas (and presumably Phoenix as well) shows stark contrasts between deserts which suddenly turn into subdivisions, lawns, golf courses, and then opulent casinos. It is a quick reminder that some of these Sunbelt cities are carved out of the desert and this requires a lot of resources to maintain and expand.

NASA on Vegas and sprawl

NASA recently posted a video on Flikr showing 28 years of development in Las Vegas as seen from space:

When Landsat 5 launched on March 1, 1972, Las Vegas was a smaller city. This image series, done in honor of the satellite’s 28th birthday, shows the desert city’s massive growth spurt since 1972. The outward expansion of the city is shown in a false-color [i.e., red = green space like parks and golf courses] time lapse of data from all the Landsat satellites.

Sociology of gambling laboratory in Las Vegas

While Chicago might still be the urban laboratory of choice for some sociologists, a sociologist at UNLV talks about Las Vegas as a fantastic laboratory for studying human motivations and gambling:

We live in the largest gambling laboratory in the world. A sociologist who studies gambling in Las Vegas is probably like being a physicist and living in a vacuum. I tell all my students to sit on a bench and watch all the humanity. That’s why market research firms like to come to Las Vegas. In an hour and a half, they can meet 40 people from 40 countries and states. Humanity comes here…

You’re struck by the similarities and differences in various markets. Las Vegas is a sea of slot machines with a smattering of table games. Macau is a sea of table games with a smattering of slot machines. As a social scientist, you watch the different behaviors. In Macau, no one is consuming alcohol. There is always a calculus going on, where gamblers are demonstrating math skills while hoping to be smiled upon by the gods of chance. What’s fascinating is to contrast the Chinese gambler against the American or European gambler.Question: You recently authored a report that said Las Vegas could learn much from Houston. How?

Answer: Houston suffered a downturn when its main economy, oil production, moved overseas and became a global industry. The slump ended when Houston began exporting its intellectual capital.

Las Vegas could do the same thing as gaming becomes more international. In some ways, our companies are already doing that. Las Vegas can become the global command center of the international gaming industry. One way you do that is education. Of course, I’m completely biased but the gaming institute can play a leading role in this transformation.

I bet you could use gambling research in a lot of examples within a research methods class.

I’m intrigued by a couple of ideas mentioned above:

1. There are different cultural approaches to gambling. I should have known this but I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it before. It would be interesting to hear if Americans live up to typical stereotypes (confident, brash, etc.).

2. I wonder if social scientists would be allowed by casinos to conduct academic studies with gamblers/customers. I’m guessing this is likely off-limits unless the work could be beneficial to the casinos. If there are a lot of people already in Las Vegas who want to engage in gambling, why not let them do it in the context of monitored academic research?

3. What holds Las Vegas back from becoming a finance center? Gaming requires large flows of capital from both companies and visitors. To truly become a world-class city, this would seem to be a way the city could go by working with the money in innovative ways.

This reminds me of comments from sociologists after the American Sociological Association meetings were held there last August. Do most sociologists think the city is simply an oddity or are there real things that could be learned from the city (Sun Belt city, center of the gaming industry, ecological concerns, many foreclosures) and applied elsewhere?

Inside Higher Ed’s “Sociologists in Sin City” raises some interesting issues

Earlier this week, I offered some thoughts about the American Sociological Association meetings in Las Vegas and Inside Higher Ed also offered an overview of the conference:

There is something both jarring and perfectly apropos about bringing thousands of sociologists to Sin City. As the ASA press release delicately observed, “Las Vegas [is] vibrant and fascinating from a sociological perspective” – but it’s not difficult to conjecture why the conference had never been held here before. The very aspects of Las Vegas that might make it fascinating to a sociologist — the emphasis on consumerism and decadence; the unapologetic obsession with (and exploitation of) female flesh; and the city’s most celebrated pastime gambling, whose appeal is particularly mystifying to some with a background in statistics — are also the sorts of things that tend to be off-putting to academics, especially (or at least) in the presence of their colleagues. Little wonder that ol’ Lost Wages is one of the least-educated cities in the country. (As David Dickens, professor of sociology at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, likes to say: “Thank god for Fresno.”) And little wonder, too, that even those who have dedicated their careers to studying human society weren’t wholly enthused about being thrust into the heart of this particular society, however fascinating it might be…

Sara Goldrick-Rab, associate professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, emphatically agreed. “I found it hard to believe we sociologists would come to a place that clearly thrives on the exploitation of people’s financial and emotional insecurities,” she wrote in an e-mail. “The grotesque treatment of young women was visible and jarring.”…

Perhaps not incidentally, this faculty member was male – as was the graduate student from a highly respected private institution who suggested that any dislike of or discomfort with Las Vegas was limited to the conference’s female attendees. Also male: the grad student from a California public who smilingly boasted of having slipped a small bribe to the man at the check-in desk in exchange for a room with a good view of the pools (and the bikini-clad women therein) – which view, he said, he found rather distracting as he sat in his room preparing his presentation.

The article suggests several possible fault lines of opinion: between men and women (some of this is quoted above), those who like to gamble and those who do not, and those who work in Las Vegas (UNLV) versus elsewhere. But there was one particularly interesting thought from one of the UNLV sociologists:

Wade said it might not be a bad thing if the city made its visitors uncomfortable. Academics, she noted, tend to lead “pretty cushy” lives, and spending a few days in a difficult and even disturbing environment could prompt them to think about the “real people” who call the city home — and about the fact that, in many ways, Las Vegas is just a distilled and amplified representation of the world we all live in. “There’s a little bit of Vegas in all of us.”

I wonder how many sociologists would like to admit that as a possibility. But there is a point here: it is not as if exploitation, extreme gaps between the rich and poor, the objectification of women, and other issues are not present in other cities. Las Vegas, in its own unique way, seems to shove these issues in your face that doesn’t fit the typical academic experience.

Does this story suggest that sociologists are moralists, generally turned off by places like Las Vegas?

Reading that some people were unhappy to attend ASA in Las Vegas, it made me wonder whether ASA ever sends out surveys after the meetings to see how attendees liked the experience and what might be changed. If so, I don’t recall seeing one. Seeing that my car repair place always sends a survey afterwards, wouldn’t it make sense for ASA to do the same thing or do they not have to because they have a captive audience?

Another question: how exactly did Inside Higher Ed go about interviewing sociologists for this story?

Quick Review: ASA 2011 Las Vegas

The 2011 American Sociological Association meetings are still going on in Las Vegas. While I was only out there for the first half of the meetings, here are a few thoughts on the annual convention:

1. Las Vegas presents a series of contradictions and this irony should not be lost on sociologists.

1a. When you fly in and out, you really see how the city rises right out of the desert.

1b. I stayed a little bit off of The Strip and this daily walk was interesting in that the landscape several blocks away was really empty, desert lots and more rundown facilities. The airport backs right up to the south end of The Strip.

1c. The opening plenary session on Friday night included discussions of different sociological traditions including feminism and Marxism. The reception afterwards included a greeting from a Las Vegas girl in a feathery costume and a Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. impersonator providing entertainment. Can one easily go from discussing inequality and oppression to enjoying the fruits of capitalistic success? The answer appeared to be yes.

2. Some of the main themes I heard at the sessions I attended: an interest in explaining the Tea Party; some nervousness (?) about the reelection prospects of President Obama; explanations that Democrats won the recent recall elections in Wisconsin (despite media reports to the contrary).

3. The conference is being held at Caesar’s Palace, just a gargantuan facility. The main conference hall must have been at least 1,500 feet long. Two downsides to the conference setting: a lack of nearby coffee shops (the closest one had ridiculous lines on both Saturday and Sunday mornings) and it was difficult to walk to other nearby attractions. One thing I noticed: while typical ASA meetings tend to tie up the facilities in one or perhaps even two big city hotels, we were just a drop in the bucket of Caesar’s Palace.

4. The Strip has to be one of the most fascinating streetscapes in the world. The combination of heat, casinos, people drinking while walking, families, the homeless, and more is a sight to behold. Of course, it is more interesting because it is all inauthentic: this isn’t a neighborhood where people live but it is an endless stream of visitors.

5. I know the country is experiencing economic difficulties but I don’t think you could tell this by simply looking at The Strip. There were plenty of people of all ages and backgrounds walking around and spending money. If you wanted to find a place to study consumption and/or tourism, this would be it.

6. One thing I just cannot understand: why is there not public transportation from the airport to The Strip? While there is a monorail that runs behind the hotels on the northern end of The Strip, one has to take a shuttle or a taxi from the airport. I don’t know if these private firms have a lot of political clout but it seems like the city would want to help people get from the airport to The Strip as quickly and cheaply as possible.

7. People say the heat is a “dry heat” – I do think it makes a difference. While it was roughly 103 degrees during the days I was there and it was still 94 degrees at 10 PM one night when I was out walking, I definitely felt the humidity in Chicago on Sunday night.

More on people living beneath Las Vegas

I first ran into a story on people living under Las Vegas in The Sun (UK) two years ago. The most recent edition of Newsweek also briefly discusses this situation as part of a larger article about Las Vegas and the impact Celine Dion has had on the city:

At the south end of the Strip, near the iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign, a hidden concrete path leads into a 500-mile warren of wet, trash-strewn drainage pipes that function as an underground shelter for hundreds of the city’s most downtrodden. Several have been laid off from the same well-paid, benefits-packed service jobs that give Vegas its rep as a working-class paradise. The pipes are one of the few places police and hotel security don’t bother to tread, and since the recession, they’ve become increasingly populated, according to Matthew O’Brien, author of a 2007 book about the tunnels, Beneath the Neon.

Life here is spare and dangerous. Aside from floods that can fill the space in minutes, there is ever-present crime. Jody Alger, 48, an unemployed casino waitress, guards her tunnel with a BB gun. Another camp has two makeshift barricades at its entrance; inside, its 32-year-old inhabitant huddles on an old bed with a flashlight strapped to his head. In a nearby tunnel, John Tondee sleeps on a sagging leather couch that he found in a Dumpster. His clothes are in a messy pile, and his entertainment is a guitar with a broken string, which he uses for playing country gospel. “I’m at the point of coming out of here,” he says. “I’ve had enough.” Tondee says he’s a former maintenance worker who lost his job a year ago and couldn’t afford to pay the $675 in rent. “I’ll do whatever it takes to survive,” he says. “I’ll go around and wash windows.” At night, he used to dress in drag and walk down the Strip. But someone came into the tunnel and stole his 16 wigs. Now he has only one head of fake black curls left.

These two paragraphs are meant to set up a comparison between the glitzy and popular Celine Dion shows at Caesar’s Palace and the desperate times some residents are facing.

But from what I can gather, people living underneath a city is not a limited phenomenon perhaps tied to difficult economic times. The space underneath cities can be easier to access than people might realize: this story about Paris suggests all sorts of people end up exploring this area (though many of them are on tours of the Paris Catacombs). And the 1995 book The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City, which I first read for my undergraduate Introduction to Sociology class, is a fascinating look at how a number of people have carved out a life in a space that most would avoid.

ASA in Las Vegas update: union reaches deal with Chicago Hilton hotels

The American Sociological Association conference was moved earlier this year to Las Vegas. This was done because the Hilton chain in Chicago did not have a deal with the union of hotel workers. The Chicago Tribune reports today that Hilton “is the first major hotel chain” to reach a deal with the union after 18 months without a contract in place.

I know the ASA had to make a decision at some point and couldn’t wait around for the hotels and unions to reach a deal. Even though Chicago would have been an excellent location, Las Vegas should be fun in its own way.

Let’s hope the “new normal” in housing doesn’t look like Merced County, CA

A USA Today article about the “new normal” in US housing uses Merced County, California as its main example. The situation there is not good:

The median home price, $116,000, is down 68% from its peak in 2006. Three of five homeowners with a mortgage here owe more on their loans than their houses are worth, compared with about one in five nationally.

While the situation is particularly dire in Merced County, it is also not great in a number of other places:

Nationwide, home prices are down 30% from their 2006 peak. Moody’s Analytics economist Celia Chen says national home prices will regain that ground by 2021.

Some areas will take far longer. In 22 U.S. metropolitan regions, most in California and Florida, home prices won’t return to their 2006 peaks before 2030, Chen estimates. That includes such cities as Miami, Detroit, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Riverside, Calif.

And a USA Today chart shows the counties with the most mortgages underwater: Clark County, Nevada (where Las Vegas is located) is at the top with 71.1% of mortgages underwater. Overall, there are 17 counties over 50% and the top 30 on the chart are all over 46%.

This is a long-term issue for these places, particularly if housing values for the whole country aren’t expected to reach the 2006 peak until at least 2021.

Las Vegas Sun reports on ASA move to Las Vegas

Last week, the American Sociological Association announced that the 2011 Annual Meetings have officially been moved to Las Vegas from Chicago. This news made it into the tourism column in the Las Vegas Sun with some interesting commentary:

The public usually doesn’t have many kind things to say about unions because of the labor disruptions they can produce. But here’s an instance in which union tactics are playing in Las Vegas’ favor.

Last week, the American Sociological Association announced that it’s going to have its 106th annual meeting at Caesars Palace Aug. 20-23. The reason: A protracted labor dispute involving two Chicago hotels is showing no sign of resolution and the American Sociological Association Council opted against taking a chance that it wouldn’t be solved by August…

It’ll be the first time that the association has met in Las Vegas, and members seem delighted, not only because for the first time since 1990 the organization with 5,000 attendees will be able to conduct its event under one roof but because sociologists find Las Vegas to be interesting laboratory.

“Not only is Las Vegas vibrant and fascinating from a sociological perspective, but it’s also easily accessible for our members across the country,” Hillman said. “When we decided to move our meeting from Chicago, we put an emphasis on finding an alternate location that offered optimum convenience for our members. By selecting Las Vegas and Caesars Palace, we believe we’ve achieved that goal.”

Workers at Caesars Palace have union contracts, but they don’t expire until 2012.

LVCVA representatives have to be happy with the association’s decision, since it’s wanted to get more medical groups to give Las Vegas a try.

The next goal should be to work hard with the association to convince leadership to keep the event here. If the event shows a healthy attendance increase from previous years, the group would have to think twice about returning to Chicago.

A couple of things strike me as interesting in this report:

1. So the sociological meetings can be written off as a research trip? Las Vegas is a fascinating place and it will be interesting to see all of the sociologists out on the town. But most sociological work I have read about Las Vegas, mainly in the field of urban sociology, has been negative. Las Vegas is described as a simulacrum, a fake place that illustrates the worst of American consumption. Perhaps the convention people in Las Vegas don’t care what a group says about a place as long as they are willing to spend money there.

2. Is this report suggesting that sociology is somehow related to medicine?

3. Did the reporter look at how ASA rotates its annual meetings between certain cities? I would be shocked if the meetings are in Las Vegas again next year, not because it is a bad place or has poor facilities but because ASA seems to like to move around.

How a curved glass Las Vegas hotel can burn people at the pool

According to a story in the Daily Mail, the design of the Vdara hotel in Las Vegas is leading to burnt guests at the pool. Because of the concave design of the building plus its glass exterior, several guests have reported being burned by this “death ray”:

Due to the concave shape of the Vdara hotel, the strong Nevada sun reflects off its all-glass front and directly onto sections of the swimming pool area below.

The result has left some guests with burns from the powerful rays and even plastic bags have been recorded as melting in the heat…

The Las Vegas Review Journal quotes one hotel employee as saying the building’s design causes the sunshine to be diverted ‘like a magnifying glass that shines down’ over a space of about 10 by 15 feet as the poolside.

And as the Earth rotates, the spot moves across the pool area. The ‘death ray’ can increase temperatures by around 20 degrees.

The article also suggests the architects foresaw this problem but their initial solution didn’t solve the issue.

Interesting stuff – the unintended consequences of building a large, concave, glass building in desert conditions. This could lead to a cheesy movie or some pontificating about the folly of humankind trying to build in a climate like that of Las Vegas.