In 2000 Southern California became home. Drawn to Orange County during a construction boom, America’s final frontier had become active again. Unlike the traditional westward migration patterns of the past, my journey was from West to West. Western Canada had endured similar development patterns to California—gold rush migrations and natural resource exploitation, all giving rise to new settlements and eventually urban centers.
Initial impressions of LA and Southern California are common amongst most visitors. Distances are vast, the pace of life hectic, and automobile rules the day. Arriving with a mindset ingrained in academic theories about landscape, it was hard not to observe Southern California as a commodity. A physical place gradually being eaten up by the processes of land development. The natural beauty of the California coastline that allures visitors and new residents, was also the fuel for the development industry that employs engineers, architects, and landscape architects.
An initial introduction to large-scale development “California Style” was Talega, located three miles inland from the coastline of San Clemente. More than 3,500 acres of existing hillside set to become home to over 9,000 future residents in just over 10 years. This was difficult to comprehend. It became apparent that this form of development, at a grand scale, was part of a process that had taken place in Orange County long before I had arrived. Predecessors to this development model included Laguna Niguel, completed in 1989 (9,600 acres); Coto de Caza, completed in 2003 (5,120 acres); Ladera Ranch, completed in 2006 (4,000 acres); and the ongoing developments along the Newport Coastline totaling over 4,500 acres. Therein exists the paradox between love of nature, and the need for development to ensure economic sustenance. Eventually I concluded that the landscape architect’s role is best served as a steward of the natural environment, with the crucial responsibility of keeping the development process responsible and well-balanced.
This leads to the final dilemma: When will all the land run out? At what point will the remaining developable land be gone? Los Angeles and Orange County have a finite limit to which they can expand. Mountains to the east, the Pacific Ocean at our doorstep, and a 125,000-acre Marine base to the south. Perhaps the heyday of large-scale conventional tract development is in its twilight phase and out of this will evolve new ways of expanding living opportunities for future residents of California. Constructing upward will be the only way to go as we grow within our geographical constraints. The classic California bungalow as we know it, with front and back yard, will eventually make way for a sea of multi-family dwellings and high-rise urban infill.
The West was once viewed as a vast, boundless space to be inhabited, and it is now, in some regard, disappearing. To see how development patterns have altered the landscape of Southern California, see https://www.disappearingwest.org/map/ .
In 1885, Horace Greeley, founder and editor of The New-York Tribune said “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country.” Perhaps it is now time to re-coin the phrase: “Go Up, California,” and follow the examples of the World.
Curtis Neukomm is a field specialist in the Laguna Beach studio.