November 3, 2005

Opinion-Editorial

THE PLACE WHERE URBAN SPRAWL ENDS

Billed as “the place where urban sprawl ends,” the 93,000-acre Irvine Ranch became the 20th Century state of the art in privately developed master planning. To be sure, the original vision has proven an enormous success for the Irvine Company, providing homes for over 200,000 people, while preserving over half of the original land as permanent open space, wilderness and parkland. Yet, since architect-planner William Pereira first envisioned a “university community” in 1960, the Ranch has evolved into a new form of sprawl: what might be termed Suburbia of Parkway-Isolated Enclaves. A world given over to the automobile, the residents of the safe and quiet cul-de-sacs are freeway-close and provided convenient commercial and office centers surrounded by oasis-like parking lots. What was “Smart Growth” four decades ago, however, no longer looks so smart in a landscape of disappearing wilderness and traffic gridlock.

As the buildout of the Irvine Ranch reaches its conclusion in East Orange, the Irvine Company has an opportunity to again embrace the cutting edge of urban design and architecture. The “Parkway-Isolated Enclave” model has turned much of the County into lushly landscaped anonymity among our thousands of neighbors. Walking to the post office requires crossing six lanes of Sport-Utility Vehicles. Parents must chauffeur their brood to school for fear of what they might encounter on the way. What Irvine Company planners have sought to provide is Pereira’s vision of “community,” through the often-used euphemism “village centers.” By isolating people from places, by requiring automobiles as our main intermediary, community becomes something we commute to instead of live in. Traditional neighborhoods, those built before the advent of the car, provide clear examples for how to bring a sense of community back into the OC landscape – East Orange should become the Irvine Company’s 21st Century Urban Village.

Traditional neighborhoods evolved over time as walkable blocks of diverse housing types proximate to schools, parks, shops and offices. The Italian hillside village of Grassano, located along the Appian Way, illustrates the model of homes at varying densities designed around palazzos, churches, civic buildings, shops, and the “Terra Grassa,” or fertile land. Savannah, Georgia’s rigid grid pattern includes 24 tree-shaded park-like “squares” surrounded by neighborhoods called “wards” that ensured each had a natural meeting location. More recently, Kentlands, Maryland has been developed as a premier “New Urbanist” community by the planning firm of Duany Plater-Zyberk, that integrates a shopping mall with a traditional main street, in walking proximity to neighborhoods, including higher density residential and live-work units.

The provision of open space along with urban development, no matter how walkable, does not ensure the community will function as an environmentally sustainable whole. Principles of landscape ecology require large tracts of undisturbed natural vegetation to be separate and buffered from urbanized areas. The present Irvine Company proposal for East Orange sprawls all over the hillsides in a low-density “Parkway-Isolated Enclave” manner, calling for up to 1,200 homes along Santiago Canyon east of Irvine Lake. This would severely fragment the preserved habitat of the Irvine Ranch Land Reserve, as well as cost millions in providing services and infrastructure to an undeveloped area. New residents would have to drive three miles just to pick up a loaf of bread. As well, the rural-recreational potential of Irvine Lake and Santiago Canyon would be irreversibly harmed. True Smart Growth calls for a rethinking.

By bringing the Urban Village concept to East Orange, the Irvine Company could have a smarter plan that would concentrate mixed-use development at the convergence of the toll roads with Santiago Canyon Road, leaving the Canyon wild and recreational. An understated village of homes and shops would fit wonderfully with the East Orange ambience where horse paths climb through quiet canyons to the high peaks of Saddleback.

With costs soaring for developers, compact, clustered, mixed-use villages have become the preferred economic model, as well as a great place to live. The Urban Land Institute in their “2006 Emerging Trends in Real Estate,” note that lenders and investors have become more comfortable with mixed use, calling it, “in vogue.” Rancho Mission Viejo, the other large-scale new town for OC, recently settled a lawsuit with environmental groups on a plan inspired by the Urban Village model, called a “Win-win solution” by the mayor of San Juan Capistrano. The Irvine Company should be proactive in providing the City of Orange a fiscally balanced, environmentally responsible prototype Smart Growth community. May the Villages at East Orange finally fulfill the promise made by Irvine Ranch as “the place where urban sprawl ends.”


Jack Eidt
Director of Planning
Wild Heritage Planners