Las Vegas Sun

November 27, 2014

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ASK MR. SUN:

Why do all the houses have block walls around their property?

Mr. Sun: I have visited your city over the past 25 years, and now that my husband and I are retired we are considering moving to Las Vegas. When we drive the streets all we see are block walls. Why do all the houses have block walls around their property? Is it for safety reasons?

•••

It’s for many reasons, really — including the city’s layout, land costs, traffic and transience.

In the early 1960s, Las Vegas neighborhoods looked much like the rest of the country, according to Robert Fielden, an urban planner who arrived here that decade. If there were fences, they were low, chain-link affairs to keep dogs corralled.

The transformation of the Las Vegas neighborhoods into a small walled city began in the early 1970s. As Fielden recalls, new developments in Spring Valley were the first to use block walls as an architectural signature.

But it was more than developers’ copycat tendencies that drove their spread.

“The way we laid out our city with subdivisions bordering main streets ... means many houses back up to busy streets,” said David Shield, director of the construction management program at UNLV.

A block wall cuts the noise.

Higher land costs also indirectly contributed to it.

“We ended up with a situation where we ... put large houses on small lots,” said Neil Opfer, an associate professor of construction management at UNLV. “With that, how do you convey that you have a bit of privacy? Block walls give people a little bit of privacy for the bit of side yard and back yard that they do have.”

As for why masonry block is used? The experts say it’s cheap and withstands the desert climate better than wood.

The resulting valley streetscape — block wall, sidewalk, street — has been criticized as monotonous, unwelcoming to pedestrians and antithetical to community.

“This is one of the things that we have built into the community that has kept us from developing a sense of community,” Fielden said.

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