Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Paradise Overlaid

I recently spent several days in Orange County.  My wife and I escorted my mother on a trip down memory lane, visiting favorite places from her youth and early married years.

Having read much of Kevin Starr’s history of California, I know that Southern California was a near-Eden for the first generations of Americans settlers.  The Arroyo culture of Pasadena, Fort Tehachapi, the early utopia of Anaheim, the Riverside colony.  I knew those places had existed a century ago.  I also knew that they had been overrun by the automobile in the 20th century.

I’m not being critical of the coming of the private automobile.  It truly brought personal freedom.  The problem is that it was expected to give car owners the freedom to take Sunday drives.  Instead, it gave them the freedom to commute thirty miles to work and to spend much of their weekends driving around doing chores.  And then the road builders fell into the Robert Moses fallacy, the belief that just one more road project would solve all traffic problems, failing to understand that most new roads generate more new traffic than they can carry.

And gradually the walkable, self-sustaining communities of early Southern California were submerged under a sea of backed-up freeways, tracts of suburban homes, and aging strip malls.

I hadn’t planned on looking for the remnants of early Orange County during my trip.  But to my surprise, they found me.  Probably because they were hiding right where my mother had collected her favorite memories in the years right after World War II.

The beach communities of Newport Beach, Corona del Mar, Balboa Peninsula, and Balboa Island, particularly the latter two, have marvelously walkable neighborhoods.  The well-maintained homes are on tiny lots, so the streets are consistently interesting.  The only shortcoming I’d note is that walkable retail areas are smaller than I would have expected.  Perhaps the residents are too willing to drive to the mainland for their shopping needs.  Or more likely, so many of the homes are reserved for weekend or vacation use that there aren’t as many retail dollars being spent as one would think from the number of homes.

Even more surprising to me, downtown Orange was a quaint but highly functioning retail district.  A plaza in a central traffic circle with a fountain and orange trees, reuse of historical buildings, well-filled blocks of retail, and neighborhoods that are only blocks away.

The only concern I would express, and it’s a minor one, is that the walkable district has shrunk over the years.  We found the home in which my parents spent the first 18 months of their marriage.  As my mother tells the story, my father had the car for the workday, so she’d walk nine blocks downtown to do daily shopping and to chat with shop owners.  The same neighborhood today was filled with cars, even on a weekday morning, and it seemed unlikely that anyone was walking nine blocks to do shopping.

What does it mean that these urbanist communities have survived even as much of the county was submerged by a freeway culture?  To some extent, it means that the historical preservation sentiment is alive and well in Orange County.  But to a greater extent, it means that the market find value in walkable urban.

In turn, that means new urbanist developments would also find market acceptance, even in Orange County.  That is a valuable lesson.

And if walkable urbanism has value in car-happy Orange County, it should have value almost everywhere.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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