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Las Vegas is learning from us

In a place with no rules, why is the Strip trying so hard to be just like the boring city you left behind?

I sat on a familiar bench, sipping a latte in the shade. Two women nudged foldable chairs to a cafe table nearby and began unwrapping their everything bagels. In the distance, I could see the Shake Shack logo rising above a leafy tree canopy. I was not in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park, however. I was sitting within a completely mundane snippet of city life in the middle of the Las Vegas Strip.

It has been 45 years since Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steve Izenour instructed their fellow architects to take notes from Vegas’s surprisingly effective design for everyday escapism. The scale of the Strip has changed, with the motels that Venturi, Brown, and Izenour wrote about replaced by mega-resorts. But most of what they preached in Learning from Las Vegas, from the “decorated sheds” promising a fantasy world within to the radically over-the-top signage hawking themed brands of hedonism, has stood the test of time—until recently.

In the last few years, the Strip has undergone a radical transformation. Those cavernous casino floors where one has difficulty discerning day from night are still there, of course, but along the Strip itself, many of their exterior walls have been demolished, replaced with bars, restaurants, and stores that give the resorts a relationship to the sidewalk. Finally, you can eat a meal outside, your food bathed in natural light. In addition to the casinos spilling out onto the street, the Strip has what might be considered public spaces (although they’re still privately owned, of course). There is even an actual park, the one with the Shake Shack, which, in the Vegas tradition of naming things after exactly what inspired them—New York New York, Paris, Rio—is simply called The Park.

But does any of this make it feel more like a real city? The Strip is not even, technically, in the city of Las Vegas, but in a special designated section of Clark County with its own set of planners and its own set of rules. Hotel developers specifically put down roots here to avoid taxes and regulations, including building restrictions. (Meanwhile, downtown Las Vegas, several miles and a different mindset away, is trying its hand at outdoor restaurants, more public spaces, and even a bike-share system.)

To properly survey the New Strip Urbanism, I walked the entire Strip, from Mandalay Bay to the Stratosphere, covering 4.5 miles, six cities, and four continents. I likely walked much farther than that, since, as I would come to learn, the shortest distance between any two points on the Strip is never a straight line.

While the Strip of Learning from Las Vegas was completely car-centric, designed for cruising between motor courts, the arrival of the mega-resorts carved out pathways for tourists that led to some of the country’s most ambitious pedestrian infrastructure. There are wide promenades, scenic skyways, outdoor escalators, moving sidewalks that travel both uphill and downhill.

But the Strip’s bombastic architecture and deceptively long distances between destinations don’t signal walkability, the core tenet of great urbanism. The big difference between an actual cityscape and the Strip’s engineered pedestrian experience is that Vegas’s walkways are designed to funnel walkers onto the game floors and into shopping malls. Taking the “path of least resistance” means you’ll eventually end up inside a casino; it’s a challenge to stay outdoors.

The Strip also has free transit—another important urbanism tool—in the form of three separate trams (they’re technically people movers, like you’ll find at airports), although the stations are not streetside but, of course, embedded deep within a maze of slot machines. The trams also serve only some of the casinos (New York New York is, ironically, a transit desert). The Strip is also served by Vegas’s public transit system, in the form of a double-decker bus named “The Deuce,” which is actually the better way to get around if your feet get tired, as the bus stops are right on Las Vegas Boulevard, a day pass costs $8.00, and you can purchase tickets right on your phone. The bus is highly recommended over your third option, the Las Vegas Monorail, which connects most of the casinos on the east side of the Strip, yet costs $12 for an unlimited day pass and offers only scenic views of the endless employee parking structures, some of which are as tall as the hotels they are designed to serve.

As I strolled (on sidewalks) and rolled (on trams), I realized that the most dramatic new Strip change is not more ground-floor retail and restaurants. It’s that Vegas is now replicating urban environments more commonly seen elsewhere. Not the indoor theme-park experiences Vegas is famous for, like the New York New York “Greenwich Village,” the Marais-like shopping street inside Paris, and, of course, the Venetian’s Grand Canal district, complete with working gondoliers. I’m talking about actual outdoor streets lined with bars, cafe tables, strings of incandescent lights, lawn games, and the requisite outpost of a popular burger chain.

You know, just like the place you hang out at home.

In addition to The Park (burger chain: Shake Shack), there is a new urban plaza outside Bally’s (Mark Wahlberg’s Wahlburgers), along the Linq (In-N-Out), and out front of the Monte Carlo (Bobby Flay’s Bobby’s Burger Palace). The newest trend to transform the Vegas Strip is not a volcano that explodes on the hour, but a refreshingly egalitarian option: beer gardens. There is one fronting Paris, one outside New York New York, two in The Park, and several in the Linq’s Promenade. There’s even one at the new ultraposh SLS Hotel (burger chain: Umami Burger).

(Summer visitors, do not despair: Even though these are all outdoors, the crippling heat is abated with climate-control technologies like comprehensive shade programs, patio misters, and three-foot frozen mai tais.)

This New Strip Urbanism hasn’t transformed all resorts. Some are still islands situated in a sea of asphalt, like the Luxor, which just doesn’t get the same kind of foot traffic on the southern edge of the Strip. The Stratosphere, at the northern end, is still a stucco bunker with zero relationship to the street.

Surprisingly, the resort that was designed to mimic the contemporary urban experience the most, CityCenter, does this the worst, with sterile towers, walls of metal cladding lining the sidewalks, and not a single place to gather outdoors. Completed in 2009, CityCenter is one of the Strip’s newer developments—and at the time was the largest private development on U.S. soil—yet when its cold, blank facade is compared to the busy coffee shop and bustling pizzeria of the Monte Carlo next door, it feels like the last gasp of the old Strip.

As the newest attempt to deliver urban vibes, the Linq’s Promenade probably nails it the best. I liked it so much that I went back at night to take in its brownstone-esque architecture and cobblestone-esque pavers meant to evoke Anystreet, Brooklyn. (And in case you somehow miss that reference, the glittering marquee of New York City-import Brooklyn Bowl will remind you.)

I understood what the designers were trying to do here: not just lure people off the Strip and toward the world’s tallest (for now) Ferris wheel, the High Roller, but also to inject more of a human element into Vegas’s ungodly scale. But it kept striking me: Really, in a place where there are no height restrictions, no signage ordinances, basically no planning rules at all, why would architects design something so unbelievably normal? As if you came all the way here to Vegas to eat a chain burger, sit on a picnic bench with a craft beer, and play cornhole.

Yet, somehow, even with the crowds congregating around the Bellagio’s world-famous fountains as they fired up their choreographed fire hoses behind me, the people enjoying the burgers and beers in front of me looked like they were having the most fun.

As I wandered past the Strip-side cove of Treasure Island (now simply “T.I.”), until recently the home of a scantily clad, swashbuckling pirate street show, I thought about the entertainment districts that U.S. cities had built to try to lure people back to their downtowns during the 1980s. That over-the-top architecture was clearly designed with Strip lessons—and Learning from Las Vegas—in mind. Soon cities scrapped these for more approachable diversions to draw people to their streets: sidewalk cafes, pedestrian plazas, parklets. It turned out that seeing other people, not wacky destinations, is what brought people back to cities.

In fact, the most radical move that the Strip could make would be to go all-in with its big-city emulation and put Las Vegas Boulevard on a road diet to wrestle back some real estate from vehicles and give it, instead, to pedestrians. As I stood on one of the dozens of elevated skyways that lift walkers up and over the street, supposedly protecting them from their fellow, car-bound tourists, I could see how easy it would be: one lane of vehicular traffic, one dedicated Deuce bus path, and a third lane designated “other”—for tourist-propelled transportation like bikes, Segways, and these bizarre rented electric go-carts I saw people driving everywhere. This would leave more room for wider sidewalks that would allow people to move freely up and down the Strip, and be filled 24 hours a day in the most visited place on Earth.

You can already see this change starting to happen, although you’ll need to walk off the Strip. As you take in the parking garage views from the monorail, you’ll also see another recent “urban” addition to casino infrastructure: rideshare plazas where guests meet their Ubers and Lyfts. These are completely separate from the massive taxi circles that are often given the more prominent real estate at the casinos—cabs are still king in this city—but the rideshare plazas are bustling with activity. With the eventual arrival of shared driverless vehicles—Vegas recently conducted the U.S.’s first autonomous bus pilot on a public street—providing a more efficient way for both tourists and employees to get around Vegas, the Strip won’t need so many lanes of traffic or parking garages. Just think of what the Strip’s designers could do with all that space.

While eating breakfast at Paris’s Mon Ami Gabi, one of the first Strip-adjacent outdoor restaurants and a very convincing take on a Parisian cafe, I watched a diner on the patio recognize someone they knew strolling by on the Strip’s promenade. They were both attending the same convention, and they shared a few minutes of conversation. It was a bit awkward due to the wide hedge separating the cafe from the sidewalk, but it was an exchange nonetheless. This true urban moment was far more engaging than any engineered spectacle.

Weaving back down the Strip in the weak morning sun, I passed Paris’s Beer Park just as it started to buzz with day drinkers stretching out at long wood tables in the shadow of the faux Eiffel Tower. Despite the allure of Vegas’s latest volcano-fountain-Ferris-wheel-pirate ship, the real “street show” on the Strip is actually people-watching. Finally, the Strip is letting us see more of each other.