Fifteen Events That Have Shaped California’s Human Landscape

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Creation of Suburbs, 1864

Most of California’s 54 million people live in suburbs, and the resulting landscapes have fundamentally refashioned the visible scene. The state’s most extensive suburban landscapes ring Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego where the vast majority (70-80 percent) of the urban population lives beyond the boundaries of the central city (Kenworthy and Laube 1999). Similar sprawling collections of dispersed housing, two-car garages, backyard patios, commercial strips, and shopping malls can also be found from El Centro to Redding. Much of today’s suburban landscape has been created since 1950, although the roots of California’s suburbs extend well back into the nineteenth century. The penchant for escaping central cities was already apparent in the vicinity of New York City as early as 1810 (Brooklyn Heights) Jackson 1985, 25-50). In California, the 1864 completion of a rail line from San Francisco to San Jose spawned the first generation of suburbs (Burns 1977, 1980). Bay Area elite were attracted to the pastoral lifestyles and low density housing of planned suburbs such as Burlingame and Atherton. It was the beginning of a landscape-shaping process that continues unabated almost 150 years later.

California’s suburbs have enduringly altered earlier landscapes. Where suburbs have sprouted in valley settings, they have often consumed huge tracts of agricultural land. Indeed, over 25 percent of the state’s best soils are now covered by urban or suburban land uses. For example, Los Angeles County lost over 45,000 acres of citrus land to suburban growth in the ten years following World War II (Nelson 1959, 80; Banham 1971, 161-77). As suburbs multiply, suburbanites bring in thousands of exotic trees, plant extensive lawns, displace native animals with their suburban pets, and forever alter the fundamental ecological setting (Price 1959; Streatfield 1977). Foothill environments, including many around the Bay Area as well as inland Southern California, have also been dramatically altered by suburban growth (Banham 1971, 95-109). Natural vegetation has been encroached upon, and drainage and topography have been reconfigured to suit the needs of the California hill-dweller. Frequently, such settings are also the scene for fire and flood damage, a reminder that the natural landscape is not infinitely malleable to meet human needs.

Why are suburbs where they are on the California landscape? Dozens of suburbs owe their origins to the geography of nineteenth-century interurban rail lines that radiated from major cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles. Indeed, southern California boasted over 1100 miles of rail network and these links encouraged suburban growth in places such as the San Fernando Valley, Pomona, and Anaheim (Bottles 1987). Other suburbs popped up near industrial activity that sprouted beyond the boundaries of traditional cities (Hise 1997; Matthews 1999; Viehe 1981). For example, Brea and Fullerton appeared near oil fields, Burbank grew in response to the movie and aerospace businesses, and San Jose benefited greatly from high-technology industries in Silicon Valley. Real estate promoters have also shaped the growth of the suburban landscape. Southern California’s real estate boom of the late 1880s produced more than 60 new suburbs. While some vanished, communities such as Glendale, Monrovia, and Redondo Beach owe their origins to such activity (Nelson 1959; Streatfield 1977a). Throughout the state, however, the automobile and its associated road network have undoubtedly exercised the greatest influence on the location and spatial extent of California’s suburban landscape (Foster 1975; Meinig 1979). Between 1920 and 1950, the automobile’s flexibility encouraged the infilling of open space between older discrete, suburban communities on the edge of major cities. Since 1950, powered by spreading freeway construction, the automobile has enabled much more suburban growth often 40 to 60 miles or more from the central city (figure 6). Today, Tracy and Manteca have become Bay Area suburbs, while Temecula and Moreno Valley are within the ever-spreading reach of Los Angeles (Mcintire 1998, 44-49).

A surprising variety of settlement patterns and street layouts are associ­ ated with California’s suburban landscape (Palen 1995). The curving streets, abundant foliage, and large lots of the state’s elite suburbs form one enduring settlement model (Burns 1980; Jackson 1985, 178-81; Streatfield 1977b). Boasting social and spatial exclusivity as well as an abundance of environmental amenities, settings such as Hillsborough (near San Francisco), Montecito (Santa Barbara), and Beverly Hills (Los Angeles) illustrate the pattern. Indeed, Palos Verdes, a seaside elite suburb near Los Angeles was the carefully planned brainchild of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Another common suburban settlement pattern is the repetitive grid of cardinally oriented streets, rectangular lots, and mass-produced single-family housing. This distinctive settlement pattern expanded greatly after World War II as pent up demand for housing, a new scale of real estate and building promotion, and an accommodating federal government (FHA loans and the GI Bill spurred home construction.

Figure . Figure 6. Suburban sprawl clinging to Interstate 680 in Contra Costa County.

The 1950s and 1960s witnessed large development projects in such localities as Lakewood Village south of Los Angeles and Daly City and Foster City near San Francisco (Banham 1971; Burns 1977; Price 1959). Many of California’s suburbs, however, have sprouted since 1970, and these developments have featured more eclectic settlement patterns. Some have been shaped by large-scale coordinated planning (Mission Viejo) of street layouts and land use, while others (San Bernardino and San Jose) offer a varied, spatially extensive collection of street plans and population densities, often depending on income levels, local topography, and the tastes of developers (Abbott 1993, 123-48; Kling, Olin, and Poster 1991) (Figure 7). Some feature the familiar grid, but many subdivisions also offer curvilinear layouts, cul de sacs, and a greater mix of single and multiple-family units.

Suburban architecture is similarly varied. Residential districts reflect different preferred building styles, depending on income and age of home construction (Abbott 1993, 123-48; Banham 1971; Meinig 1979; Rubin 1977). Bungalow-style housing, for example, signifies a neighborhood usually created between 1900 and 1925. Single-story ranch-style housing tracts multiplied in the 1950s and 1960s, covering many additional square miles of the California landscape. Elsewhere, higher density suburbs suggest that rising land costs and changing lifestyles of the past thirty years have created more demand for apartment, condominium, and townhouse living.

Added to this increasingly diverse accumulation of residential architecture are the varied commercial, retailing, and industrial landscapes that shape the suburban scene today (Banham 1971; Bottles 1987; Preston 1971; Longstreth 1997). Commercial strips and suburban shopping malls create a landscape that is mass-produced, franchised, and packaged to meet every need of the California consumer. Newer suburban complexes, such as those in Orange County and Silicon Valley, also offer an ever-growing variety of land uses that is creating a new landscape some have even described as “postsuburban”. ·Perhaps signaling a common American future, these places are characterized by multiple regional­ scale shopping malls, entertainment complexes, a mix of office parks and space-extensive industrial facilities (often oriented to the global information economy), a bewildering network of freeways and multilane surface streets, and a residential landscape, with both single and multiple-family housing, oriented around convenience, consumption, and personal privacy (Kling. Olin, and Poster 1991). As with so many other elements of the California landscape, these features have created a visible scene already being widely replicated far beyond the bounds of the Golden State.

Figure . Figure 7. The expansive and repetitive landscape of the California suburb is exemplified by this tract in Lemoore.

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