Growing a city is like catching a monkey

Government’s support and hinder cities in a whole range of ways. Often the most important support that governments give to cities is indirect. Some things, like catching a monkey and supporting cities, are best approached in a round about way.

Take the example of two American cities; Vegas and Santa Fe.

Las Vegas is the only American city founded in the twentieth century to reach over a million inhabitants. It is an astonishing place. It has 5 of the ten largest hotels in the world. You can gamble in the airport. The 7-11 is decorated with flashing lightbulbs. It is the location for huge sporting events, amazing restaurants, and luxurious spas. It is also in the middle of the desert.

Although Santa Fe is home to the oldest continually occupied public building in the United States it has not been a large city for long. In 1912 it had only 5,000 inhabitants. It is now known for the hundreds of art galleries that dot the city, including the fantastic Georgia O’Keefe Museum. It is a designated UNESCO Creative City and you can only take two steps down Canyon Road before you come across a gallery opening.

In their different ways both cities seem to be spatial manifestations of American independence. There’s nothing that you can’t buy in Las Vegas and there are no limits to your imagination in Santa Fe. People indulge their base desires in Vegas, unchecked by the law, and they allow their minds and muses to wonder in Santa Fe, unconstrained by the mundane concerns of bureaucrats.

But scratch the surface and you find a distinctly American story of government support for rapid urban growth.

Las Vegas owes its existence to a few things; notably people’s desire to gamble and organized crime’s desire to clean their money. However, the reasons a town in the middle of a dessert hundreds of miles away from anything has become a by-word for gambling are more subtle. It was the construction of both Route 91 and the Hoover Dam that gave Vegas the boost it needed to become the urban dynamo it is now. Workers flocked to construct the Dam and then returned to Vegas to stay in hotels and gamble their money away. The hotels also benefited from almost free electricity and water from the Dam.

Santa Fe similarly benefited from indirect government support. The construction of a series of military bases and the infamous Los Alamos brought money and people to the area. The New Deal program, which is mostly famous for investment in infrastructure, also brought grants for artists. The small cluster of artists in Santa Fe were suddenly able to find payment for their work. As in Vegas, this government support led to the development of a cluster of local enterprises that did something that nowhere else in the region did. In Santa Fe this meant artists, in Vegas this meant casinos.

In neither case was government action meant to stimulate urban growth. Policy makers were worried about national security, improving American infrastructure and job creation. However, both Las Vegas and Santa Fe were able to respond to these government initiatives and become distinctive independently minded cities.

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