Opinion: Irvine’s Master Planning Has a Long Way to Go: The Walkability Problem
Correcting an Outright Failure in Irvine’s Master Planning: Introducing Human-Scale Design into Communities Designed for the Scale of Automotive Travel
There is much to love about Irvine. It’s safe, clean, and has great schools, and I’m especially proud of the vast open spaces it has protected from development and the urban forest that permeates the entire city. But all the same, I tend to be rankled whenever I hear boasting of how well-planned Irvine has been. Because there’s also a lot about Irvine that leaves much to be desired. And right near the top of my list is how car-dependent we are in this city.
So, I was pleased when I recently learned that no less than current Councilmember, and former-Mayor, Larry Agran agrees:
“It’s the one regret I really have with our master planning here in Irvine. If there’s been one flaw or outright failure in our master planning process, it’s that we’re putting so much emphasis on support of the private automobile, subsidizing it in every way, including with the destruction of the environment.”
Agran said this during a question-and-answer segment following a set of announcements that he delivered during the June 7th Democrats of Greater Irvine meeting. A young person asking about policy options available to Irvine to help combat Climate Change concluded their question by saying they were “kind of convinced that car culture is basically like the devil.” Agran agreed. And I do, too.
But to understand the scope of this devilish problem, and how deeply embedded it is in the design of Irvine as a city, let’s take a moment to consider my own little slice of the South Lake neighborhood in Woodbridge. Below is a crude walkability map I worked out using distances and travel times by foot from Google Maps:
(As a quick aside, I’d love to see city staff render a version of this map for the entire city using a more sophisticated methodology.)
For all the above points on the map, Alton Plaza is the nearest option for groceries, restaurants, and shopping of any kind. And, for all but those within one block (roughly half a mile) of Alton Plaza, a roundtrip to our local grocery store takes 20-50 minutes on foot. Even those who can manage a total travel time of fewer than 20 minutes must twice cross Alton, an often-busy arterial road, to make the trip.
But Woodbridge has it good compared, say, to this corner of Cypress Village, which requires an hour or more of walking to reach a grocery store and return, either along and crossing busy arterials or along a noisy freeway and crossing an arterial:
Figure 2: Google Maps pedestrian routes from an unspecified random address in Cypress Village to the nearest grocery stores.
And when the city council approved an Irvine Company request to change land use rules for a 20-acre empty lot situated on Sand Canyon and Trabuco/Great Park Blvd from long-promised retail to medium-high density residential, there was a public outcry.
Figure 3: The site of what would have been Cyprus Villages much-needed local retail land use, with a mapped foot route from the same origin as above. Produced using Google Maps.
A whopping 217 public comments were made on the agenda item, with 98% of them opposed to the change in land use. Their pleas fell on deaf ears. But the urgency of their need is apparent. So how did things get so bad in a city that’s supposedly renowned for how well-planned it is?
When the Regents of the University of California hired architect William Pereira to create the first “master plan” for the new city of Irvine, he envisioned “a city of small-scale villages around the campus,” each of which “would be designed as a superblock” with “schools, libraries, community centers, recreation centers, swimming pools, and shopping centers [that] would be within walking distance of the residences.” And yet, within the first of these “superblocks,” University Park, there are homes with more than 40-minute roundtrips to access shopping by foot.
My research into the standards used by planners today for what constitutes a walkable distance came up with a handful of different answers that seemingly had no scientific basis. But I found no answer greater than a half mile (a 22-minute roundtrip by Google Maps’ reckoning). And in the calculus for a quick trip for groceries in your own busy lives, how often would a 40-minute roundtrip by foot beat out a 6-minute roundtrip by car? I think it could suffice to say that, for the walkability of a neighborhood, the closer the amenities, the more likely someone is to walk to them. And I think it could also suffice to say that William Pereira and those who came after him missed the mark.
As lauded as our village model so often is, our village shopping centers just aren’t designed to be easily accessible to pedestrians. Pereira had hoped to “build a model suburban city from the ground up to correct [the] problems [that suburban development had been criticized for in the 1950s and 1960s]” (idem). But he was using the same basic land-use model: you live here, you shop way over there. And that means that Irvine is very much captive to automobile dependency in its very DNA.
The lack of walkability in Irvine is a substantial contributor to many issues that Irvinites care about most. If you are concerned about climate change and/or traffic, for instance, then you want fewer cars on the road. And if you want fewer cars on the road, then you need accessible places that don’t require the use of an automobile. If you are concerned about the health impact of the sedentary lifestyle encouraged by the 21st century, then you need to build walking into people’s routines. And if you are concerned about social atomization, cultural deprivation, and a lack of community spirit, then we need to stop shunting the locus of the community away from where we live.
If a lack of walkability is in Irvine’s DNA, and if that lack negatively impacts our quality of life here, then I believe this means that our notions of what the Irvine village looks like must evolve. But this is no small challenge. Rather than organizing land use according to the scale of human life, Irvine organized human life according to the scale of automotive travel. So, the challenge is to insert human-scale amenities into a cityscape that was never designed for them, all while preserving those aspects of our villages that we love. We must bend our usual sensibilities for life in Irvine’s suburban villages, rather than break them.
And I have two proposals that I believe do just that. I bring up the following in the context of Woodbridge, but I believe they could also be applicable to many or most of our villages. And I know that they are the sort of innovations that we must begin to contemplate if Irvine is to rise to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
Proposal 1: Bodegas on the Loop
Given that Irvine’s car dependence is so engineered into its very layout, I was especially intrigued to find this video extolling the virtues of corner stores as a way to improve upon R1 zones. It’s by a former city planner Dr. Dave Amos, who is now a professor of City and Regional Planning at Cal Poly SLO and also runs a YouTube channel called City Beautiful on the subject. The video connects removing use restrictions against “neighborhood-scale commercial uses” to changes to R1 zoning in response to the housing crisis, such as allowing accessory dwelling units and splitting lots. Irvine doesn’t actually employ R1 zoning (exclusive zoning for single-family homes), but our neighborhoods often take the same shape as R1 zones anyway.
I was especially taken with the way in which such a “neighborhood-scale commercial use” can function as a fixture for the community:
“When I lived in Eugene, Oregon, I had an apartment down the street from a truly fantastic corner store. New Frontier Market is a converted single-family house with bike racks, benches, and trees out front — no off-street parking. Inside was a Eugene-style corner store, which meant staples with an organic bent. I could walk over, buy something, and get back home in less than ten minutes. It saved me countless drives to the supermarket and was a great place to say ‘hi’ to neighbors.”
And the video goes on to note that “about 45% of all trips taken in the use are shopping trips”:
The US Bureau of Travel Statistics tells us that “In 2021, 52% of all trips, including all modes of transportation, were less than three miles, with 28% of trips less than one mile. Just 2% of all trips were greater than 50 miles.” So, the effect of reducing traffic and the attendant pollution could be substantial.
“Many corner stores don’t have off-street parking, and residents may be concerned about increased traffic around the store. But corner stores also take cars off the road, as people can walk to get milk and eggs, instead of say driving from their cul-de-sac onto the neighborhood collector, then waiting at the traffic signal to get onto the congested arterial street. And corner stores, by their very nature, are local serving. People don’t drive into a neighborhood to access a specific corner store [emphasis added]. Their main selling point is convenience to the local neighborhood. They aren’t major regional draws.”
These would be “one- or two-story structures on a single-family-home lot. Often, they don’t have any off-street parking, or maybe a handful of spaces in the front or back. They’re designed to fit the scale and character of the neighborhood.” So, I believe that these needn’t be seen as radically undermining the aesthetic of our villages for the worse.
In fact, newer developments in Irvine have included limited commercial uses as neighborhood amenities. A friend lives in Novel Park in the Great Park Neighborhoods, where they have a coffee shop called “Cup” nestled within the community. I’m told that it’s a great place to greet neighbors and that it’s a pretty big draw for them. But she and her husband have often talked about how nice it would be to have a market and restaurant in the neighborhood too. Driving to the overcrowded Woodbury Town Center is a stressful and time-consuming prospect. What if everyone in Irvine could have the promise of a quick walk to groceries, and the biggest hurdle to that reality is a change in zoning law?
Proposal 2: Open-Air Trams on the Loop
This one was also inspired by a video – one hosted on the City of Irvine’s own YouTube channel, in fact. It’s Irvine Honors: The History Of Woodbridge. In it they talk about opening Woodbridge back in the ‘70s, and how they wanted to get people out of their cars so that they could see all of the amenities included in the village. So, they had people park away from the village and then ferried them in on open-air trams. When I heard this, I instantly thought to myself, “Why did they ever get rid of them?”
Imagine if electric-powered open-air trams ran around the Yale Loop and up and down Alton and Barranca – sort of in a figure-eight with an extra loop. Residents could sit back and enjoy our beautiful tree-lined streets while gaining walkable access to all of the shopping centers along Barranca and Alton, and several bus routes. I am personally in love with a restaurant in the Woodbridge Village Center called Sessions West Coast Deli. It is a 30-minute walk from where I live, making for an hour round trip. But I’d happily leave my car at home and walk to catch a tram, and then enjoy the romance of being carted through my beloved Woodbridge on my way to an excellent meal and a draught IPA! As with the bodega idea, I believe it would be a charming way to bring more of a community character to Woodbridge while allowing us to leave our carbon-spewing cars at home.
The dream of a lovely Saturday, and a better tomorrow
I have this vision of strolling down to the Yale Loop on a Saturday morning to grab a cup of coffee and buy my groceries for the day. Maybe I decide to have one of our corner store’s locally famous breakfast burritos at the attached sidewalk café. I wave hello to neighbors I know as I catch up on their news, and watch people rolling by on one of our open-air trams, heading out to do what shopping the corner store can’t satisfy. Later that evening, there is live music and an ice-cold draught, as there often is on Saturday evenings – nothing excessive or a nuisance, but just a charming addition to the vibrancy of our community here in Woodbridge.
Taken individually, contemplating fixes for each of the dire issues affecting life in the 21st century can seem daunting. The scale of problems such as climate change, the housing and homelessness crises, traffic and transportation safety, the obesity epidemic, and political polarization is immense. That scale is global, national, epochal, and life-or-death. But what if we can help do our part to combat these gargantuan ills by re-situating our lives and our society back into the human scale? We can dare to imagine an Irvine in which we encounter our neighbors during the regular conduct of our lives, forging bonds of community as we free our congested roads considerably of polluting automotive trips. We can redeem Irvine for that “outright failure in our master planning process” that Councilmember Agran spoke of and cement Irvine’s place as a leader among American cities. That is an Irvine I would be proud to call home.