July 30, 1997 - From the July, 1997 issue

In Lieu of Statewide Growth Management A Livable Communities Movement Evolves

By Rick ColeSouthern California Director, Local Government Commission


Rick Cole: “Now that the Southern California economy is recovering, a remarkable reform movement is looking for an alternative to the resumption of the growth wars of the Eighties…”

During the recent recession, Governor Pete Wilson made excuses for abandoning his statewide "growth management" initiative by joking that he wished he had some growth to manage. Now that the Southern California economy is recovering, a remarkable reform movement is looking for an alternative to the resumption of the growth wars of the Eighties—and they aren't waiting for Sacramento to come up with answers. In just the past three months, hundreds of civic leaders have attended a series of subregional summits to chart a different path for the new era. Their energy and ideas represent a major opportunity for "planning" to regain its relevance and its reputation in Southern California.

Under the banner of Livable Communities, this groundswell is rapidly gaining converts not only within the planning profession, but from a wide range of community leaders concerned about connecting land-use and transportation improvements to the challenges of economic development, public safety, human services and education. In recent forums from Ventura to Cathedral City, in places as diverse as Santa Monica and Brea, exciting new enthusiasm is flowing toward an indigenous Southern California brand of the international movement for building cities around people instead of cars. Dozens of local cities and districts are embracing compact, mixed-use, pedestrian and transit-oriented development strategies, inspired by success stories like Pasadena, Santa Monica, Monrovia, Huntington Beach and the Whittier Boulevard corridor in East L.A.

The Livable Communities approach emphasizes not only a New Urbanism form, but a reinvigoration of community democracy. Painfully aware that "public hearings are places where no one listens," advocates for Livable Communities are promoting collaboration over polarization and focusing on problem solving partnerships instead of decision making processes. 

Skeptics question whether this is really a new approach or simply a rediscovery of common sense principles of good planning. It is both. It clearly echoes the early, heady days of town and regional planning before it ossified into a professional priesthood. But it also looks forward to the possibilities opened up by profound local, regional and global change.

While New Urbanism has become fashionable in regions like the Bay Area and the Southeast and Northwest U.S., it has struggled for a foothold in Southern California. Part of the explanation has been the disdain that some in groups like the Congress for the New Urbanism have shown toward Los Angeles as the irredeemable Great Satan of Sprawl (although that influential group held one of its first conclaves here). Part of the explanation lies in our region's oddly parochial attitudes toward learning from others (we are especially mistrustful of examples from places like Portland and San Francisco). 

But if distant New Urbanist icons like the communities of Seaside and Kentlands have failed to make much of an impact, local community success stories have truly captured the imagination of influential Southern Californians. Orange County leaders may dismiss models from Seaside, Seattle or even Santa Monica. But they are taking a hard look at the new downtown under construction in suburban Brea. Breans (as denizens of that mainstream community call themselves) have not embraced "Livable Communities" because it is fashionable in national planning and architecture circles. They have invested substantial time and resources in building a town center because they want to enjoy the benefits of economic vitality, community pride and affordable housing that they hope will flow from their City's having a heart.

The Brea example is not an isolated one. Similar town center projects are underway in such diverse locales as Temecula, Cathedral City, Thousand Oaks and Dana Point. Even exurban patchworks of subdivisions and shopping centers like Lake Forest and Norco are talking along the same lines. The movement is ironically exerting an influence on purely private developments like Town Center Drive in Valencia which uses Livable Communities buzzwords to sell a City Walk form. Imitation streets and public spaces are springing up from Tustin to Calabasas. 

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More remarkable has been the headway being made by the Livable Communities movement in inner city and older suburban areas. Residents and small business owners in Los Angeles neighborhoods like Highland Park, Leimert Park and North Hollywood have championed the Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative not because downtown planners are preaching a new gospel, but because they hope that planting trees, installing bus shelters and reviving street life can help restore and stabilize their communities. Cities like Huntington Park, Hawthorne and Santa Ana are interested because their residents are heavily transit-dependent and their immigrant populations are accustomed to compact, walkable commercial districts. Older downtowns are enjoying a renaissance from Riverside to Redondo Beach and from Upland to Uptown Whittier.

The movement has yet to blunt the ubiquity of big box development, gated subdivisions and outlet malls. But one of the most promising elements of the Livable Communities approach is its emphasis on persuasion over polarization. By defining itself more by what it supports than what it opposes, it has not developed powerful adversaries among development interests. In fact, more and more developers seem cautiously open to retooling their formulas to respond to a changing political and economic climate. 

This represents an historic opportunity. In his new book, "The Reluctant Metropolis," author Bill Fulton complains that while support for the old "growth machine" has waned in Southern California, no alternative vision has risen to replace it. Livable Communities represents the most significant candidate on the horizon. The timing seems ripe. The economy is recovering. The delusion that the solution lies in moving further out has been discredited by the meltdown of places like Moreno Valley. Few relish a return to the exhausting growth wars of the past. 

With the 21st Century less than a thousand days away, Southern Californians are looking for new hope. There may be returning confidence in our economic future, yet there are still deep doubts about our future quality of life. The Livable Communities movement is rising to meet that challenge. Even though the media has yet to discover it and cynics give it little chance, both have been known to be wrong before. 

Before Earth Day launched the environmental movement or Proposition 13 sparked the tax revolt, few gave credence to their enormous potential. But when each reached critical mass, they suddenly made the impossible into the inevitable. For the Livable Communities movement in Southern California, that is the task ahead.

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