Sprawl, climate crisis combine to hit disadvantaged communities the hardest

sprawling suburbs
Clark County sprawl. (Photo: Nevada Department of Transportation)

Driving from work to home in Clark County is a series of unmemorable, unconnected, empty spaces and parking lots — in other words, urban sprawl.

Sprawl has accelerated since the 1970s, especially in the Southwest where cities were built for cars. It’s been further spurred by economic incentives that favor single-family homes and a strong cultural preference for suburban housing developments away from the inner city.

But sprawl has high environmental and economic costs.  Residents of sprawling cities generate more carbon emissions than urban dwellers due to the large amounts of driving and the prevalence of bigger, detached buildings that use more energy. 

Concern about more unchecked sprawl in Southern Nevada has escalated around the proposed Clark County lands bill, which opponents say would dramatically expand sprawl outside of the Las Vegas Valley by selling off public lands and allowing almost 300,000 acres of development – doubling the size of urban Clark County. 

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto released a draft of the Clark County lands bill earlier this month after Clark County commissioners approved a resolution asking Nevada’s federal lawmakers to transfer land to Clark County through a congressional bill.

The Nevada Climate Justice Coalition (NCJC) — which includes the Sunrise Movement, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, and the Sierra Club — formed immediately after to fight the bill, which its members see as an environmental and social justice issue that disproportionately affects economically disadvantaged communities.

A top concern for the organization is the urban heat island effect, which causes higher temperatures in cities because of the abundance of blacktop and pavement and is further intensified by rising summer highs and more severe heat waves brought by climate change.

“We want to focus on solutions for the urban heat island effect before we even think about further development,” said Alma Romo, the Las Vegas coordinator of Mi Familia Vota, an organization focused on Latino voting rights and a member of the coalition. 

Las Vegas is the fastest-warming city in the country, having already experienced 5.7°F of warming in the last 70 years. The Arriba Las Vegas Worker’s Center, an immigrant workers’ rights organization with a number of day laborers as members, regularly holds information meetings on how to prevent heatstroke and other heat-related illnesses throughout the summer.

“We know that our Latinx communities tend to work and live in conditions with higher levels of environmental risk,” Romo said.

In the Latino community, Romo said a big concern with sprawl is the close relationship between the rise of traffic pollution and asthma.

A 2017 study by the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada (RTC) found low-income minority families in Southern Nevada are increasingly living around high-capacity urban roads. According to the Nevada Statewide Asthma Control Plan, 30 percent of African American youth reported having asthma compared to about 24 percent of whites.

The American Lung Association continuously ranks Southern Nevada poorly when it comes to air quality, which has resulted in higher rates of asthma in general. The Clark County Department of Air Quality also lists the basin surrounding the Las Vegas Metropolitan Area as the only one in Nevada that does not meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality standards for ozone.

“People work two jobs and it’s hard to take care of their sick children,” Romo said.

Another concern is the lack of public transportation to areas of the city where Latinos work. Some of the fastest growth is in ZIP codes in Clark County are at the boundary of the valley, with little to no transit service, according to the RTC.

“It’s a challenge for the community to access these locations and it forces folks to have to walk well beyond what we consider a reasonable walking distance or to have to find other transportation like friends and family,” said Jacob Simmons, senior principal transit operations planner for the RTC. 

In general, higher density makes public transportation more efficient and cost-effective, but Clark County has what Simmons calls “leapfrog development” — high-density areas surrounded by miles of underdevelopment. And that can make operating transit in all areas of the city difficult, he said.

“A situation like that is particularly challenging,” Simmons said. “Again there is a need in one area but it can’t be served effectively or efficiently.”

Sprawl results in growing economic inequality among metros, where people are increasingly sorted into either poorer (sprawled) or richer (compact) regions, with higher rents but are closer to their jobs. Low-income people who depend on public transportation are forced to walk further distances, a troubling issue during the valley’s increasingly hotter summers.

“During the summer when the temperatures are higher, that’s when we tend to receive the most complaints and people are more sensitive to walking distance — understandably so,” Simmons said. “Rising temperature makes walking for transit or nontransit purposes more challenging overall.” 

Climate change has the potential to increase the cost of water utilities due to higher treatment costs, which disproportionately impacts lower-income families. Las Vegas was one of 35 metro areas to see raised rates on average from 2018 to 2019, increasing by 0.43 cents, according to a recent annual study from Bluefield Research.

“We expect warming temperatures to have an effect on the amount of water in the Colorado River,” said Southern Nevada Water Authority general manager John Entsminger during a panel on climate change, adding that the river is 95 percent of the water supply for 70 percent of the population in Southern Nevada. Entsminger said routing water over larger distances in the valley also takes more energy.

On the local level, those warming temperatures are compounded by the urban heat island effect and a concern for the Southern Nevada Water Authority. 

Chemicals used to treat water in Southern Nevada include chlorine, Entsminger said, which has the potential to form “trihalomethanes” a dangerous cancer-causing chemical. Rising temperatures accelerate the formation of these chemicals.

“We’ve spent tens of millions of dollars installing filtration systems in all of our reservoirs to push out the formation of those trihalomethanes,” Entsminger said, “We’ve probably spent almost two million dollars in the last 15 years adapting to rising temperatures at the utility-scale.”

Public infrastructure costs also rise with the expansion of roads and suburbs and often result in problems attracting government funding for amenities in low density and often minority neighborhoods.

Rep. Steven Horsford said infrastructure investment is a top concern for his district which encompasses parts of North Las Vegas — a city with a high rate of poverty and a high concentration of minority communities.

He has been holding a series of community roundtables devoted to hearing public concern about the Clark County lands bill, which is now in the hands of Congress.

“We need to have a different paradigm and discussion,” Horsford said, adding that as of now he is not committed to any bill. “We should be addressing development from a standpoint of climate and its impact. We need to make sure there is accessibility factored into it, especially transportation.”

Horsford said he believes public policy should factor in climate change and be crafted in a manner that “restrains sprawl and facilitates sustainable growth,” adding that he favors a focus on infill development.

“Ultimately we need to have a balanced approach,” Horsford said.

Jeniffer Solis
Reporter | Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies. While at UNLV she was a senior staff writer for the student newspaper, the UNLV Scarlet and Gray Free Press, and a news reporter for KUNV 91.5 FM, covering everything from the Route 91 shooting to UNLV housing. She has also contributed to the UNLV News Center and worked as a production engineer for several KUNV broadcasts before joining the Nevada Current. She’s an Aries.