Prior to visiting a series of planned communities in and near Southern California's San Fernando Valley, I envisioned them as they were depicted in Greg Hise's book, Magnetic Los Angeles suburban enclaves dotted with single-family homes, cars lining the wide curvilinear streets, children walking hurriedly to school. I almost expected my vision to blur slightly and force my surroundings to take on hues of white and black, matching the old photographs which told the story of the Valley's birth to a number of postwar self-contained suburban communities.
The day's tour began with Westlake Village. Upon exiting the 101 freeway where it crosses the line between Los Angeles and Ventura County, we were transported to a classic example of 1960s planned suburbanism. But what we discovered was more characteristic of a retirement community than a serene master-planned suburb of lakeside condos and suburban homes. The community park was underutilized, the small office and retail uses embedded in the center of the neighborhood were overwhelmingly vacant. There were two other people in sight on a cool, breezy Saturday afternoon in late August. The walking paths winding between private residences were altogether devoid of human life. Public spaces ripe for human interaction and commerce remained in tact, but there was little evidence of current use.
The next stop was Panorama City. This time we did a windshield survey of the area, driving along Van Nuys Boulevard, the commercial arterial that became the area's regional shopping center, and touring a couple of the winding internal streets. The architecture and layout of the residences were indicative of the mass-produced homes built during the postwar era. Henry Kaiser's planned community also included industrial uses that employed a large share of the neighborhood's first generation of working-age residents. But the agricultural landscape that hemmed in the once self-sufficient and self-contained community was gradually eaten up by a growing population. Automobile dependence and the decline of large-scale industry had forced regional interdependence within the Valley. In today's Panorama City thrived a community of working-class Latinos and Filipinos who had made Kaiser's version of the suburban dream their own reality.
Heading north to Valencia, the monotonous suburban landscape lulled me to sleep. I was caught somewhere between reality and a waking dream-state. From the backseat of the car I was propelled to any number of familiar suburbs I had experienced in my childhood and travels as a young adult. Occasionally, I was jerked awake by surrounding conversation or a quick turn of the car, and I would have to remind myself that I was in Southern California, not suburban Chicago, or Atlanta, or Jacksonville, or Denver, or DC, or
What I saw that afternoon in Valencia which is within the bounds of the City of Santa Clarita caused me to rethink New Urbanism's attempt to create a "better" American suburb. Neither the garden suburb nor the new town development has fully realized Ebenezer Howard's Garden City principles. America's urbanization and the bursting of the real estate bubble rendered obsolete the goals of Nolen and Stein's suburban designs of the early 20th Century. So where does the hope lie for New Urbanism?
A visit to Valencia's new town center addressed my question. Originally constructed and unveiled in the late 1990s, Valencia's downtown had all the elements of a prototypical New Urbanist development. There are a variety of mid to high-density residential units within a five-minute walk of the center, a smattering of offices and commercial businesses, and a city center replete with coffee shops, public art, hip restaurants, and a movie theater. The internal streets were narrow and in a modified grid pattern.
But despite Valencia's noteworthy attempt of achieving a pedestrian-orientated neighborhood, it was difficult to overlook the busy arterial splitting the residential and commercial portions of the development. Once again, we witnessed the nostalgia for pre-automobile urban environments manifest itself in design philosophy. But does the movement represent a truly new idea, or will the fate of New Urbanism follow that of towns and neighborhoods that were built on similar principles until the 1920s?
Maybe the historic master-planned community will be revisited, or perhaps the idea should be abandoned all together. The country continues to rapidly urbanize and Americans are increasingly mobile, so why do we need civic, commercial, and office uses within walking distance of our homes? Are we chasing a dream of a more livable community or a cultural abstraction, the latter which may only be obtained by squinting our eyes against the realities of modern design?