Planning Commissioner Reflects on Life in the O.C.

Back in December, Hunting Beach Planning Commissioner Joe Shaw wrote an op/ed for Street Heat about the challenges in trying to do smart growth planning in the O.C.  Now that Shaw is a candidate for Huntington Beach City Council, it seemed like a good time to blow the dust off this excellent piece for all the readers that have joined us in 2008.

 Anyone interested in reading more of Joe’s work should head over to his website Greetings from Huntington Beach.

Greetings from Huntington Beach! Most of Orange County and Huntington Beach as well, was built on the back of the mighty interstates, which led to the massive development that is Southern California. I want to tell you a little about my town and our challenges as a pedestrian and transit friendly town.

Much of my city is defined by sprawl: subdivision after subdivision, culde-sac-ed and surrounded by walls, you know, the American Dream. Many of our streetscapes near our older subdivisions feature dismal, diminished sidewalks abutting walls, that seem to be mostly there as an afterthought. Few dare to walk these streets. Who’d want to?

Amazingly enough, Downtown Huntington Beach and Old Town–the parts of town that are walkable–are the parts that are the most derided by our residents as noisy, dirty and full of people, you know, urban. What many of our residents moved here to escape.


But these are the parts of my city that I love, there’s nothing better to me than walking around our downtown with my dog, which I do several times a day. Usually along my walk, I greet people that I see everyday, stop to catch up with people I haven’t seen, you know, like it used to be when people were connected to the place they lived.

People ride their bikes in droves downtown, downtown has events in the summer, a street fair on Tuesday nights, a farmer’s market on Friday afternoons, a famous pier and a sunset to-die-for nearly everyday of the year. We can get almost everything we need here by foot. We’ll soon have a drugstore. A grocery we can walk or bike to is on downtown residents’ wish list.

A big challenge for us in the future, as fossil fuels become more expensive and less available, will be to find away to retrofit our subdivisions, create more walkable streetscapes and promote sustainable mixed-use development that provides more services that people can access by foot or bicycle. The days of the stand-alone mall that you can only access by your SUV are numbered.

Our city has started to move in that direction, slowly but surely. We have a number of mixed-use projects in the planning pipeline. We’re in the final stages of creating areas along two of our major corridors for mixed-use zoning.

Unfortunately, many of the people here, as everywhere, are still living in a world that doesn‘t recognize that the suburbs’ best days are probably behind us. Even the environmentalists who have worked hard to save and restore our numerous wetlands, have yet to fully embrace the need for more density and mixed-use development in our city.

That’s why it’s important for us all to continue to talk about making cities more walkable, and finding mass transit solutions. The conversation we’re having with each other on blogs like this needs to filter out to the masses and create a demand for change in the way we develop cities.

Joe Shaw is a member of the City of Huntington Beach Planning Council. Joe also wrote a great piece called New Suburbanism. You can read all about Joe (and read some of his writings) at his website


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