Smart city services: How a dot com is transforming Las Vegas

Tue, 2013-05-21 09:52 -- Jesse Berst

If you have been following the progress of urban transformation over the past few years, then you have undoubtedly encountered the story of Zappos.com and its plan to renew Las Vegas old downtown area.

Many publications have documented the project, including Business Insider and CNBC. Most recently, educational venture capitalist Tom Vander Ark has penned an overview for Education Week where he (no surprise) focuses on the educational aspects. It's a useful overview, especially if you want to read more and get links to the initiatives Executive Leadership Academy, its "Getting Smart" school design workshop and its MIND Research Institute for science and technology support for teachers. And it's a useful reminder that when we think about smart city services, we should not forget education. In the long run, education may be the most important smart city service of all, for adults as well as for children. -- Jesse Berst , Smart Cities Council Chairman


After touring the Vegas remake effort dubbed Downtown Project, Vander Ark writes that "an explosion of activity encompassing art, culture, business formation, and new school development are now part of a $350 million five year project."

Of that, according to the Downtown Project website:

  • $200 million will go to real estate investment
  • $50 million into small business development
  • $50 million into education
  • $50 million into tech startups

Vander Ark goes on to characterize it as "the most interesting and eclectic urban development project I've encountered."

So what exactly is it?

The brainchild of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, the Downtown Project mission, according to its website, is to help transform Las Vegas into "the most community-focused large city in the world." They envision a dense urban core – with residential density of greater than 100 people per acre with lots of ground-level gathering spaces.

That's because, unlike many urban revitalization projects, this one doesn't have a lot of derelict, abandoned buildings to repurpose. Instead, there's a lot of vacant land. There are also, according to the project website, a lot of entrepreneurs with ideas for new businesses, but nowhere to put them until new buildings are constructed.

The solution? They’re employing something referred to as flexible urbanism. "We’re planning to temporarily transform underused, high value urban areas by installing repurposed shipping containers to house small businesses such as cafes, boutiques, bars, galleries and more. These plans will incorporate community space, outdoor seating, and retractable shade structures while activating vacant lots in the heart of our Downtown."

According to the website, "Container Park" should be up and running this fall, although the Las Vegas Sun reports the original idea of using actual shipping containers has been mostly abandoned.