Sunday, April 30, 2006

Researching Irvine

Reforming Suburbia
I teach a variable content graduate class titled, “Sprawl,” based entirely on so-called big idea books. To get the juices flowing we always start off with the highly provocative and often entertaining Suburban Nation. This year, we also read the avowedly neutral anti-sprawl survey Limitless City and 2 new books with more honest perspectives, the so-called pro-sprawl Sprawl: A Compact History and the case studies of Reforming Suburbia. The last is a detailed study of the 3 master planned communities of Columbia, Maryland, The Woodlands, Texas, and Irvine, California. Its author, Ann Forsyth, led my favorite ACSP field trip of all time to Columbia at the Baltimore ACSP meetings in 2002.

This post focuses on Irvine, a city of maybe 150,000. After reading Prof. Forsyth’s largely historical account, the piqued students requested a field trip this last March. I am nothing if not devoted to my students’ every effort to learn, so it was on. (Two days before the field trip to Egypt, which distracted me from reporting on this earlier.)

Bad Irvine
I’ve seen Ann talk about Irvine and what is clearer in her remarks than her writings is that she expected (as I recall) to not like it much, and perhaps even to find that residents weren’t terribly impressed either. (She does mention a couple of times in the book that Irvine was the only development of the 3 that many observers said they “hated,” but doesn’t really elaborate there.)

Superficially, it is easy to guess why. It was and is master planned by a private, strong-willed, profit-driven firm, The Irvine Company. Every detail is by design yet it is, in whole and part, esthetically uninspired. There is no downtown to speak of. It is so car-dominated that the speed limit on the many thoroughfares, all of which traverse residential neighborhoods, is 55mph. Those neighborhoods back onto the main streets wall first, most unfriendly. Similarly, all subdivisions built since the mid-1990s are gated. The commercial areas can be conveniently accessed by car only. In a host of key respects, it is at best excruciatingly banal.

Good Irvine
And yet ... residents adore it here, even before the land owners got rich. Part of the fun of reading these sections of Reforming Suburbia is trying to explain why. Oversimplifying, the negatives I’ve listed – over which there is little disagreement – are not what these residents value most. They like that Irvine is predictable, stable, and transparently family-friendly. The public schools are great by whatever criterion you choose (maybe too large, if you prefer small, or too competitive, if you prefer nuturing). The jobs-housing balance favors jobs, as it has two or three huge employment centers. Nearly every main street has bike paths; each cul-de-sac has a pedestrian and bicycle cut-through.

Economically, it is rather homogeneous. (Ethnically, substantially less so. As perhaps it should be, this isn't always obvious, but I was at an annual neighborhood softball game at a friend's in Newport Beach not long ago, just a couple of miles from my house, and it only took 5 minutes to realize that the something that seemed unusual was how uniformly white the players and onlookers were. A single Asian stuck out prominently, which would not be the case in the decidedly more mixed Irvine neighborhoods.)

The OC you see on television is Newport Beach, Laguna, Coto de Caza, all considerably more exclusive and elite. D.J. Waldie writes in Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, that the first residents of the working class suburb of Lakewood, “were not quite middle class, and thus needed the illusion of predictability.” I am still not sure what he meant but Irvine is precisely middle class, however defined, and nothing if not predictable.

In addition, every neighborhood has an excellent elementary school within walking distance and neighborhood parks. The youth sports world is uber-organized and widely utilized, especially for the under-12 set. Irvine's University High School is one of the best in the state, sending graduates to all the ivy leagues (and other celebrity venues, as evidenced by Will Farrell and Zack de la Rocha). If you can pay the price, it is inclusive, easy-going, neighborhood-oriented, kid-friendly, inviting, and participatory -- and where, if the parents work too much, they seem to do so less than their neighbors in Newport.

Of course, given the demographics, it is also a transparently run city, cycling between progressive and conservative. The progressive initiatives have little redistributive content, aimed instead at public safety, infrastructure, and education performance. (The water district is famous world-wide for its water recycling programs, in place since the 1960s. Most high rise commercial have dual water systems, using recycled water for toilets, and virtually all public landscaping relies on reclaimed water.) This is not a community that wants to change the world so much as maintain what they have at the service level they can afford, which they find good. (That isn't to say that local political battles aren't fierce or petty. Just that, compared to some, they appear to be fought more openly.)

Much like a good designer mood-elevating drug, the Irvine built environment has purposefully and surgically trimmed off most of the rough edges that define the highs and lows of residential life in pursuit of a middle ground of consistent comfort. That balance of neither interesting nor unsurprising is neither casual nor accidental. Each tradeoff has been managed rather vigilantly.

Field trip
The typical UCLA graduate planning student does want to change the world. That is why she is in planning and that is why she chose UCLA. So how did they like Irvine?

This was entirely a foot and car tour, with no official presentations. I picked a sample of old (i.e., 30 years) and new neighborhoods, small and large commercial areas, and a route that crisscrossed as much of the city as time permitted, ending in the open-air early Irvine-era, Pereira-designed shopping mall of Fashion Island in Newport Beach. (William Pereira, perhaps best known for San Francisco's Transamerica Pyramid, also laid out the original plans for Irvine and UC Irvine. Some of Reforming Suburbia’s strongest sections concern its review, using archival materials, of the conceptualization and planning negotiations over the layout of these communities.)

Evaluating these different environments on Irvine’s terms, the students -- much like Forsyth -- seemed impressed, against their better judgement, and occasionally surprised. They expected lower densities and overt suburban drudgery. Here, the high market value of land has kept lot sizes small, even for single family homes. There are also substantial multifamily developments. The newer neighborhoods especially (e.g., Northwood) have evident gradients of single-family to condos to multifamily apartments closest to the public open space. There are a few developments of tract homes (the city is 100% tract homes) that are architecturally interesting, such as some Taylor-Woodrow designs, though most are not particularly.

As current residents of the big city, they noticed other details, such as the pronounced quiet (off the thoroughfares), the substantial amount of well-kept public and neighborhood landscaping, the absence of elevated power lines (buried), the pool and park for every neighborhood, and so on. Sure, it looks boring and centerless. Maybe it even is boring and centerless. Still, I think they better understood its attraction to people who moved here with a specific set of goals. And that on a certain level, not often appreciated or emphasized in their courses on affordable housing and community development, it can be said to work fairly well – for those who want the lifestyle and can afford it.

Reforming Irvine
Essay question: Is Irvine good or bad? Explain.

Answer: What do you mean by good or bad? It is what it is. Could it be changed for the better? Absolutely, but it may be hard to get agreement over which direction to go with each and every tradeoff that would require.

Explanation: Urban southern California and then Orange County are places of great contrasts, as one expects of any major metropolitan area. Irvine is less so and that seems to be part of its attraction. It is ethnically diverse but in a way that suggests how little of the continuing conflicts over ethnicity, and even migrant status, are about skin color or country of origin as much as economic circumstances. Yet Irvine is not unusually wealthy by suburban standards and people still need to work hard, and to drive their children to work hard, to stay in place.

Forsyth presents her cases, in part, as designs intended to fight sprawl, or at the least to provide alternatives to the excesses one often associates with the seemingly unplanned, piecemeal, wasteful suburbanization of the 1950s and 60s. In the instance of Irvine, the principle virtue of this idea was to make money. If that motive wasn't vulgar enough, the entire enterprise is top down, deterministic, and effectively indifferent to the realities of racial and especially low-income exclusion.

There are many normative and positive research stories (in the naked suburb) for which Irvine would be a good lab. I've done some of the latter but seem to be suggesting that the former may be more revealing in understanding the modern suburban condition. This city, and cities like it, have been criticized by scholars and planners alike for being too much of this or not enough of that, on balance, or for some detail that grates. To her great credit, Forsyth's examination is considerably more nuanced.

As she says, one has "to see past the first impressions."

Has D.J. Waldie, as eloquent as anyone I know on the underappreciated signficance of individual experience and compromise in suburban life, especially in communities of more modest means, written about Irvine? That would be interesting.

1 comment:

randall crane said...

The 2007 incarnation of the sprawl class met with Mr. Waldie last month in Lakewood City Hall. He is a great talker about things suburban, with stronger and more incisive views than his writings tend to convey -- especially on governance issues. I asked his thoughts on Irvine, which turned out to be extensive. His main points were that (a) Lakewood developers had tried to keep the development unincorporated, to maintain more control, but quickly failed and that (b) the Irvine company tried very hard to apply this lesson, and keep the development unincorporated, but failed just as quickly. The latest version of this strategy is a massive expansion of Las Vegas that is purposely included in the city, but in a way to dissipate the development's political power by dividing it among 5 council districts. As for Irvine today, he is generally sympathetic with its efforts at "place-loyalty," though these are done more by the developer than by city hall.


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