Visualizing Boundaries in the Las Vegas Valley

Lisl Kotheimer (MLA II)

Project Overview

With the implementation of the Santini-Burton Act [1980] and the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act [1998][SNPLMA], the Bureau of Land Management [BLM] was asked to make over 70,000 acres of public-domain land in the Las Vegas Valley available for future privatization and infrastructural development. As of June 2009, approximately 47,000 acres in the region have been privatized and researchers project that by 2035 new development will bring a population increase of up to half-a-million people (Sonoran Institute, 2010).  While this population increase is well in alignment with the development-driven economy of Las Vegas, it is quite a significant change in terms of the water and natural resource limitations of the region.

The purpose of this research is to document the development and landscape conditions that occur at the intersection of public domain land [held by the BLM] and privately developed land in the Las Vegas metropolitan region.  By examining sites that are located within the boundaries of the Santini-Burton Act and the SNPLMA, this project seeks to provide a better understanding of how these policies have influenced development practices and seeks to reveal any latent potential in the landscape, or an opportunity for the reorganization of political, social, ecological, and infrastructural conditions. By documenting the interface between public and private land, this research seeks to provide a unique perspective of commercial development, landscape, and infrastructure in greater Las Vegas in order to inform speculations on how the region may develop in a fundamentally different way during the 21st century.

Project Information

Over the past 50 years, the economic success of the Las Vegas region has been underpinned by the ability of commercial developers to acquire large contiguous swathes of land to build profitable master-planned lifestyle communities and entertainment centers. With the rise of the marketplace in the 21st century, it seems that the success of the Valley, more than ever, will continue to be determined by development strategies and new and innovative consumer economies. Despite the implications of the 2008 credit crunch and a suffering housing market, greater Las Vegas continues to subsist by its growth-driven economy, continuing to employ as much as 30% of the population in construction, real estate and related fields.[1]

The Santini-Burton Act and the SNPLMA define a horizontal limit to the growth of the region – essentially a ring around the central-city in which the majority of development will take place over the next 25 years. With the interests of commercial developers in mind, the intent of these policies is to provide for the orderly “disposal” of BLM land without over-burdening municipalities with the task of providing supporting infrastructure to support new development.[2]  As public-domain land is increasingly privatized, the BLM strives to maintain a balance between the natural resource needs and recreational interests of the urban population while also monitoring the effects that expanding urbanism has on habitats and ecosystems at a broader scale.[3]  According to the SNPLMA, proceeds from the sale of public-domain land are put toward the acquisition of lands that are considered ecologically sensative.  Preference is given to transactions within Clark County, but a great deal of the proceeds from the SNPLMA go toward the purchasing of land in the Lake Tahoe region of Western Nevada.[4]  Nonetheless, the extensive amount of undeveloped land in the Las Vegas metropolitan region is managed by a mix of public and private entities with very different land-related priorities.

The implications of half-a-million more people on 70,000 acres of land in the Las Vegas region are vast.  The construction of approximately 200,000 new homes (mostly in the Southwest portion of the Valley between the Santini-Burton and SNPLMA lines) will require a significant change in water resources for Southern Nevada.  In alignment with the ideals of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (2009), the Southern Nevada Water Authority plans to construct a multi-billon dollar 300-mile pipeline to deliver additional water resources to the Las Vegas metropolitan region instead of implementing more stringent water conservation measures at a local scale. The Water Authority looks to increase supplies in order to meet the needs of the future population and promises enough resources to support the next 25 years of homebuilding.[5] The proposed Clark, Lincoln, and White Pine Counties Groundwater Development Project (GDP) prolongs a paradoxical relationship between Las Vegas’s economic mainstay and the region’s lack of water resources. The financial and ecological implications of the GDP are potentially vast while the project’s long-term value to the urban population is uncertain.

Much of this investigation is focused on the Southwestern portion of the Las Vegas metropolitan region, where BLM parcels are most abundant and homebuilding is most prolific.  The BLM land is fragmented by small private ranches that were likely established prior to the Santini-Burton Act and SNPLMA (the policies were also intended to cease the transfer of small tracts of land due to the high administrative costs of such transactions).  The current zoning plan for this area of unincorporated Clark County represents the majority of land as single-family residential housing developments – forecasting much more of the same type of development that has occurred over the past 50 years.

In a region where landscape and natural resources are primarily valued as the subject of trade or commerce, this research looks to provide a unique perspective for landscape, infrastructure, and development in greater Las Vegas.  In this research, landscape is understood for its many roles in the urban environment: as the subject of commercial development, as a valuable resource for the urban population, and as a surface where the collective physical, economic, and social processes of urbanization unfold. Drawing from current discourse in Landscape Urbanism, particularly from texts by Charles Waldheim, this research speculates that landscape is the most flexible and resilient framework for structuring future development and infrastructure in Las Vegas.[6]  The boundaries defined by the Santini-Burton Act and the SNPLMA are one small part of the “invisible compositional reality” of greater Las Vegas, which preceed as one of the many organizing elements for the playing out of urban and landscape processes.[7]

Upon visiting this rapidly urbanizing area of Las Vegas, the enormous scale of transformation that will take place in the next 25 years was immediately evident.  I chose to visit a collection of destinations, which included municipal parks and large infrastructural sites that are adjacent to new development and some of the remaining fragments of BLM land.  By taking an inventory of ecological, cultural, commercial and infrastructural activity within these sites my intent was to reveal conditions that result from a history of commercial development practices guided by policies such as the SNPLMA. The goal was to photographically document the interface between private development and BLM land; the interface between public recreation space and infrastructure; and in many cases, the autonomy of public land, private land, recreation space, or infrastructure that occurs within this urbanizing region.

One thing that I found most evident is the large-scale anthropogenic transformation of the landscape that seems characteristically optimistic – clearly anticipating the influx of half-a-million people. Construction vehicles are plentiful, but their influence seems imperceptible given the expanse of land that is being prepared.  Generally, the infrastructure is awaiting the new urban population to activate it.  The highways are over-sized, numerous residential lots are already graded, and the streets are paved wide enough to park cars along both sides despite there not being any houses.  Due to broader economic goals such as job creation and safety, public infrastructure always seems to be one step ahead of the commercial component of development. In this region, infrastructure is put in place at a rate and scale that anticipates large-scale development without much regard to the underlying ecology or the human inhabitants that will eventually be living in the region.

[1] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics


[2] “Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act of 1998,”


[3] Bureau of Land Management, “About BLM,”[4] “Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act of 1998”[5] Sonoran Institute, “Growth and Sustainability in the Las Vegas Valley,” 2010,[6] Charles Waldheim, “Landscape as Urbanism” in Charles Waldheim, ed. The Landscape Urbanism Reader, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006, pp. 38.[7] Sanford Kwinter and Daniela Fabricius (2001) “The American City, Urbanism: An Archivist’s Art?” in Rem Koolhaas, Stefano Boeri, et. al. Mutations. Edited by Barcelona: ACTAR