According to the United Nations, more than half of the world’s people live in cities. That ratio will grow to two-thirds by as soon as 2050. As the global population shifts, the world will have to address how to make life in cities more fit for a pleasant, sustainable human existence.
What makes a city good, or great, for that matter? For some, metropolitan greatness might be measured by productivity, wealth, poverty or some other tangible data. Yet what good is wealth or lack of poverty if the people who inhabit the city aren’t happy?
A study by Italian economists, lead by Stefano Bartolini, found that a major gap has grown between rising incomes and happiness in the United States. They attributed the gap to our nations’ declining “social capital: the social networks and interactions that keep us connected with others.” Obviously, they didn’t mean online social networks like Facebook; they were talking about personal, face-to-face connections.
When I first moved to Las Vegas about 15 years ago, the first things I noticed were that the city was very spread out, neighborhoods had walls around them and no one talked to their neighbors. There wasn’t much to do in public spaces with other locals, either. Most of the public investments have focused on building our tourism infrastructure and following the car commuter model of other modern-day U.S. cities. It’s no wonder Las Vegas is ranked among the unhappiest cities in the country.
Cities around the world are beginning to reject such a sprawling-yet-unconnected model because it has proven to be a recipe for misery. Indeed, cities experimenting with new models have seen dramatic improvements by making simple yet profound changes, such asBogotá, Columbia’s transformation.
What Las Vegas needs more than any city in the world is a better sense of connectivity. City planning plays a major role. Reducing traffic and making the city’s streets more walkable and bikeable are key elements, along with improving public transportation and creating more public places where people will naturally connect. But these needed changes will require a serious commitment to sustained public investment in these areas.
The Arts District, First Friday, the Smith Center and other improvements downtown are a step in the right direction, but we need more. One project before the Las Vegas City Council right now is a publicly-owned soccer stadium downtown that is designed to bring in a Major League Soccer expansion team to the city. This project has a lot of potential to help make Las Vegas a happier city. In other happier cities with an MLS team, like Seattle, the game day experience connects people in exciting ways. There are parties and a march to the match where people literally take to the streets and parade to the stadium. Downtown Las Vegas has the potential to bring this kind of local connection with the development of a soccer stadium.
All of this comes with varied economic rewards. Creating a city where people walk the streets and connect with another builds a city where local businesses thrive and jobs abound. It’s also a city that attracts businesses from out of state to locate and grow here.
It’s up to Las Vegas’ leaders and our citizen’s residents to embrace this new paradigm and put a model in place to make Las Vegas one of the world’s great cities, and each one of us can be a voice of support.