Planning communities (or sparrows in the courtyard)

Vegas_1 From a Keno form at our table at the Bellagio:

Regulations require that these rules be followed. 

The key question for my presentation at the Urban Land Institute had to do with planned communities.

In the old days, all planning was good, and more planning was better.

Now there is a feeling that too much planning is bad, that it tends to make a community feel inert and lifeless.  The case in point here is the planned community from Disney called Celebration.

In the early days, it was felt that Disney had gone too far.  The early Celebration was tight,  grim, and overregimented.  Disney found that by loosening up the community actually increased the value of homes there, that people’s love of the unpredictable was bigger than their fear of the unpredictable.

Pam and I were debating the questions of how much planning was enough when two sparrows flew  into the courtyard just beyond the restaurant’s window.

The courtyard is sealed off from the world outside the hotel.  (Evidently, the sparrows had found a way to sneak in.)  It is filled with a great Banyan tree.  Water leaps in arcs.  A little train trundles on a track high above the visitor’s head.  Many of the world’s great wonders have been reproduced in miniature.  The last gesture aside, this view scape teems with dynamism.  But the sparrows offered something extra, a new order of dynamism.

But that’s the rub.  Two sparrows.  Perfect.  Three sparrows.  Bad?  How many sparrows is one sparrow too many. 

Las Vegas is struggling with the "how many sparrows" problem.  After all, the world that sprang from Bugsy Siegel’s vision was always highly controlled.  Where it not for the adventures in sex and gambling, this place would have been as overmanaged as Disney.

Post modernism and the installation of New York skylines, Paris monuments and Cirque  performances mixes things up a little.  The tedium of resort culture has given way to new kinds of spectacle. 

But it’s clear there are not enough sparrows and that the entire enterprise risks becoming palid and stale (i.e., pale).  Can Las Vegas hope to keep its place as a favorite American playground now that some consumers, Brooks’ famous Bobos, have declared that they want all of the city’s buzzing confusion and then some.  And what happens when the Bobo’s mentality and worldview trickles down to millions more Americans, as it surely will.  Where is Vegas then?

The good news is that as the world demands something more vital and less manifestly planned, new models of administrative decision making have sprung up.  My host at the Urban Land Institute , Adrienne Schmitz, told me that there is at least one architect working on the problem of what he calls "controlled accident."  His name is Richard Heaps and he works at Street Works. 
More planning models will surely follow. 

In the meantime, sparrows that help to make the Bellagio courtyard feel more lively will be working there on a strictly volunteer capacity.  The old regime remains in effect and you are asked to remember:

Regulations require that these rules be followed. 

6 thoughts on “Planning communities (or sparrows in the courtyard)

  1. Matt

    Are sparrows native to Southern Nevada? (In other words, are you sure they weren’t part of the plan?)

  2. john sergeant

    dear Grant,

    I’m doing some research for a book about credit cards and we’re trying to discover if ethnography or ethnographic marketing has any existing role in banking. Might it be possible to give you a ring? Im in London (UK)

    best wishes,

    John S

  3. Candy Minx

    Good one Matt. Um, a couple hundred species of birds at least stop and get drop a few feathers in Vegas while migrating. I know Canada Geese take a break there. I like Vegas the faker and planned the better. I find Vegas to be one of the most spiritual places. It is maya manifested…everywhere it is obvious this is all an illusion and Vegas seems like an homage to maya. The faker the better and it feels pretty good to get home after a couple party days there. I once did a segment for CBCNewsworld about what it was like to be “alternative” in Vegas. I interviewed punks, goths among others and it was weird to record how actually “normal” Vegas side looks like. And how “outsider alternative” lifestyles suddenly seemed so well adjusted compared to the Strip.

  4. Grant

    Matt, good question, maybe there is a sparrow wrangler somewhere here at the hotel. What a great job. Thanks, Grant

    John, I don’t know anyone who has done work in this area, but I suggest you get in touch with Susan Abbott in Toronto. See her Customer Crossroads blog at

    Candy, Sounds sensational, you have to post it somewhere, if you can. Best, Grant

  5. Grant

    Jared, small is right, I don’t have any more information about the guy. Sorry! Best, Grant

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