Teaching Las Vegas

A tourist ecopark in Las Vegas seems counterintuitive, but then so is the city itself—a palm-fronded pleasure zone in the harsh Mojave Desert. With its restored wetlands and educational exhibits on local environmental history and conservation, the Springs Preserve aims to harmonize the world headquarters of hedonism with its dry surroundings. Through trails, gardens, and exhibits, the 180-acre $250 million park, which opened in June, enlightens visitors about the region’s long-term water worries and teaches them how buildings and landscapes can be adapted for desert life.

“We need to be of the desert, not just in the desert,” says Mark Hoversten, whose landscape architecture studio at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, helped guide the early planning for the site, owned by the Las Vegas Valley Water District, which contains a natural spring that gave the city its name. Las Vegas means “the meadows,” and in previous centuries it was a welcome sight to Anasazi Indians, traders on the Old Spanish Trail, and Los Angeles–bound rail passengers. But the city that grew up around the spring sucked the last drop of water from it in 1962. Today it gets most of its water from nearby Lake Mead, whose level is also steadily sinking.

Springs Preserve doesn’t lament the city’s im­pending water crisis though; it tries to help solve it. A team of architects and planners collaborated on a tightly written program for the park, which is owned and run by a nonprofit group. All of its water is recycled for plumbing and irrigation. Its restored wetland area, the Cienega, collects wasted runoff from area lawn irrigation to replenish the dried-up springs, and Santa Fe–based environmental engineering firm Natural Systems International turned it into a habitat for more than 35 species of wildlife. The Desert Living Center, its central educational component, is constructed with straw-bale insulation and rammed-earth walls, and filled with exhibits that educate visitors about desert-adapted building techniques. “Las Vegas has been a crossroads of the past,” says project architect Jeff Roberts of Las Vegas–based Lucchesi Galati Architects, which designed the Desert Living Center. “It is a crossroads of today. So we conceptualized it as a crossroads.”

Some locals scoff at the idea of a tourist attraction as a learning tool—especially one with an admission price of $18.95, or $14.95 for Nevadans, although the gardens, trails, and children’s play area are free. But school groups, not tourists, are the key audience. “Having kids go through there is probably the most important thing,” concedes skeptic Geoff Schumacher, a Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist. Each child in the Las Vegas Valley is likely to tour the facility three times by high school graduation, according to Von Winkel, the preserve’s acting research manager, so eventually its lessons will take root in the community. “It might take a generation,” he says. “We’re here for the long run.”

Find out more facts about this subject on the Reference Page: October 2007

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