Why does the US have huge cities in the desert?


Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Phoenix, etc. I can understand part of the appeal (like Las Vegas), and it’s not like people haven’t lived in desert cities for millenia, but looking at them from Google Earth, they’re absolutely massive and sprawling. How can these places be viable to live in and grow so huge? What’s so appealing to them?

In: 15164

Phoenix began as a farming and mining community, but it grew on the strength of industrial development during and after World War II. Albuquerque is primarily industrial thanks to a neighboring military base, with military development providing the same sort of seed. Vegas was a mix of industrial development (also thanks to the Air Force), proximity to the Hoover Dam, and legalized gambling in Nevada (which helped it become an entertainment hub).

In more modern times: land. Those areas (well, Vegas and Phoenix; Albequerque less so) have vast tracts of open, unused land around them that allows those cities to grow and expand very cheaply, unlike cities near the coast (particularly cities on the *west* coast, which are all surrounded by mountainous areas). That results in a low cost of living and doing business, which attracts businesses fleeing higher cost of living in coastal cities like New York or San Francisco.

Air conditioning. And in the case of Phoenix and Las Vegas, access to cheap power. Even Southern cities like Miami and Atlanta benefited from the proliferation of AC, and their population expanded rapidly in the least half of the 20th century.

2,000 years ago the indigenous people in the Phoenix area started building an extensive irrigation system making the land arable. Was actually flooding which collapsed the Hohokam society.

A couple addition things. One being that the trip west took a long time weeks even mo this depending on the size of the convoy so they would need to stop regularly to rest. Those rest stops would be around where you would have to stop and those stops would usually be relatively close to some water source. Over time those rest stops started becoming towns then the other things took over like cheap land/ “freedom” etc. Las Vegas specifically grew because of A. The Air Force base employing a lot of people and B. It was a town where anything goes (more or less) but other desert town sprung up because of mining

Air Conditioning. If somehow air conditioning vanished these places would empty out real quick.

Vegas was once just a middle of nowhere remote town that had next to nothing. It was a train stop on the way to Los Angeles for fuel and a hiding spot for criminals who were trying to keep a low profile since there was no local police or sheriffs. Then when the Hoover Dam began being built some Mafia opportunists started to open up casinos in Las Vegas. This would be a way for them to both earn and launder money easily since gambling was legalized very recently and only in Nevada at the time. Now as the population grew, a city was formed with basic services like police funded by taxes. This forced the mob investors to move their casinos just slightly outside the city into the unincorporated territory called Paradise Nevada which is right outside Vegas. Is technically next to it and surrounded by Vegas, but isn’t Vegas. They built their new fancier casinos there and it became known as the Vegas Strip despite not legally being in Vegas, allowing them to evade city police and use their own form of security and avoid taxes. They also sued several times when the city tried to absorb the area successfully so Paradise technically remains separate to this day. So the Vegas Strip, while located in the Las Vegas valley and being the city’s most famous attraction is not even part of the city. Nowadays with big corporations running the casinos instead of Italian gangsters, the area functions seamlessly with the rest of the city and cops do exist there. It’s still separate though.

Currently in Phoenix. The main driver here according to those who live here is the houses are actually empty half the year. Many are a second house owned by people in WA or other northern states. They come here in the winter when the weather is really nice, and the cold is fairly mild. Obviously this isn’t all of them but that is apparently why things keep growing, all th money the the 2+ houses folks bring in is significant.

Good question. Was thinking the same (but opposite) about Australia. We have a vast central desert but no significant cities and no one would want to live there if there was. I guess if we’d had massive subsidies in the form of huge military bases then maybe Alice Springs would be a million person metropolis but I can’t see it.

There’s the Colorado river which provides water to the area but it’s gonna run dry sometime this century

A lot of “why is the US different” boils down to the fact that we’re populated by Europeans, but mostly *after* Capitalism, irrigation, and transportation were established.

Manifest Destiny can’t be understated, either. “Go west and grab land that’s ‘free’ for the taking (those natives don’t count)”.

So why do we have large cities in the desert?

* Because someone saw an opportunity for profit there, and there was nobody able to stop them from claiming it.

* Irrigation and Transportation (rail, then cars) made it feasible.

And, of course, the Colorado River is a very important piece of the puzzle.

These cities were not necessarily established in the ancient way of, “gee, this looks like a nice place and I could live here”, they were settled after it was possible to look at a large scale map and say, “hmmm, we can bring the water from here and rail from here and hire workers from there with promises of land out there…”

Most European cities had to be somewhat self-sufficient and defensible. US cities never did.

My ex’s grandmother and her family moved to Albuquerque because she had tuberculosis and at the time the only treatment for it was a dry climate. Because it was a desert area, there was also less pollen that could be a problem. That’s changed with the increase in population. More people moving there meant they also wanted plants they were familiar with and those introduced species needed water and produced pollens.
Back in the 80s my FIL said the city was on top of an aquifer and they would never run out of water. I don’t think that’s the case now.

I mean.. Dubia.. Egyptian Cities.. Doha.. Baraihn (Spelling).. Kuwait.. so many places with desert cities that are huge… sometimes land is cheap and easy to build and as long as you can get supplies there, then you can build.

I lived in Albuquerque for about 6 years and it at least has a river running through town (the Rio Grande). Near the river it’s pretty green, though it definitely gets pretty dry beyond some distance that includes most of the city. What really confuses me is why water-intensive farming/industry goes to cities in the desert with limited water supply. Albuquerque had a big Intel fab that was practically single-handedly depleting the water table because it used so much water.

I may be completely wrong about this as it’s been 15 years since I learned this in school (and the UK as well) but one other aspect that I haven’t seen from the comments yet are Mormans.

Not saying they’re the only reason, but they kept being driven out of towns so they eventually set up their own places away from everyone (I. E. The desert) and just kept either founding new places or being driven out again (memory is a bit foggy). They were involved with at least Salt Lake City and Las Vegas if I’m not mistaken.

Why is Dubai so big?

Warm weather year-round in a dry climate? If I was American that’s where I’d move..

As someone who lives in Phoenix:

1. No natural disasters
2. No snow
3. Relatively low cost of living but still in a major metropolis

When Albuquerque was founded, it was on the excellent farmland produced by the Rio Grande. The Spanish explorers spoke of its excellent crop yelds and access to timber.

Especially compared to the surrounding areas, it was really the only place that any sizable community could form. But Mexican and early American Albuquerque remained relatively small due to its isolation, that is until 1880.

Albuquerque grew rapidly as a railroad town and as a repair depot. From the 1880s-1930/40s.

But as the railroad work declined. Work from the nearby Air Force base kept high quality jobs in town as well did route 66 and the later cross roads of I-25 & I-40.

The continued existence of the Base and national labs, the amount of traffic on the high ways, cheap air conditioning as well as usually pretty pleasant climate as allowed Albuquerque to continue to grow.

Albuquerque is built “in a desert” only because it’s farmlands have now been paved over and it still serves as the best hub in the Southwest.

Albuquerque was actually founded by the Spanish Conquistadors in 1706, so there was infrastructure already in place when the Americans moved in. Not to mention that being in the mountains means that the summers are more mild than the lower altitudes.

Can’t speak for all of the cities, but Albuquerque has actually been around for over 300 years (it’s 20 years younger than Philadelphia). The Rio Grande has supplied enough water for most of its existence, and it has been a trade crossroad throughout its history (El Camino Real, BNSF railroad, 2 US interstate highways) plus the military presence.

The water situation isn’t great, but it is in no way dire