Researchers are finding that parts of Southern California are in a unique position to transform the region's endless sprawl into walkable communities with vibrant downtown centers.
In fact, it may be inevitable.
You can thank the "boomburbs."
Many of these outlying cities--so labeled in a recent Fannie Mae Foundation study--were quiet commuter outposts not long ago, but have grown to become home to more than 100,000 residents each.
These cities tend to remain loosely configured, but pockets of dense development are emerging. Experts at the foundation say those areas can be strung together into charming "walkable" downtowns.
"This is a new kind of species of suburb," said Robert E. Lang, director of urban and metropolitan research for the foundation.
Of the 53 boomburbs nationwide, almost half are in California. Two--Lancaster and Santa Clarita--are in Los Angeles County; three--Oxnard, Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks--are in Ventura County; and seven are in the Inland Empire--Corona, Fontana, Moreno Valley, Ontario, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside and San Bernardino. Six are in Orange County: Anaheim, Costa Mesa, Fullerton, Irvine, Orange and Santa Ana.
In the Northeast and Midwest combined, the study located only one--Naperville, Ill., near Chicago.
Southern California's boomburbs already have some walkable districts: 4th Street in Santa Ana and Brea's revitalized Birch Street downtown, for example. But the report says more can be done to create pedestrian-friendly areas.
The typical boomburb was born in the latter part of the 20th century and is in one of the suburban-dominated metropolises of the West. Many grew out of master-planned community developments and of the need to form large water districts--something less common in other parts of the country, where well water and septic tanks are more likely to be used.
Some cities labeled boomburbs in the study, however, date back decades earlier and were originally more self-contained towns than commuter-dominated bedroom communities. These include San Bernardino and Riverside.
But unlike satellite cities in the East--such as Newark and Camden, N.J.--boomburbs have tended, especially in the postwar era, to be suburban in character.
More than 18% of the people in the Southland live in the area's 18 boomburbs, which were attractive to many because they afforded what seemed limitless opportunity for low-density growth. Now these cities are nearly out of land. So they are destined to take on more urban qualities, the report says.
Demographic projections show people continuing to flood into the Southland after all the vacant land is gone. Los Angeles and Orange counties are predicted to run out of vacant land between 2010 and 2025.
The boomburbs have grown bigger than some of America's traditional big cities. Santa Ana is now larger than Pittsburgh and rapidly approaching Miami. Anaheim is nearly the size of Cincinnati.
Some builders see opportunity in blighted boomburb commercial areas for developments that combine stores with apartments. "In the past, developers laughed at that kind of thing," said Hal Lynch of RGC Corp., a home-design firm in Newport Beach. "Now we find there is a big demand for it."
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Metropolis in the Making
Southern California has more "boomburbs"-- highly populated suburbs--than any region in the country. Those suburbs are positioned to take on more urban characteristics, with "walkable" downtowns surrounded by residential areas.
Year 2000 % change City started* population since start Anaheim 1950 328,014 2,153 Corona 1950 124,966 1,122 Costa Mesa 1960 108,724 190 Fontana 1960 128,929 780 Fullerton 1950 126,003 803 Irvine 1980 143,072 130 Lancaster 1950 118,718 3,203 Moreno Valley 1990 142,381 20 Ontario 1950 158,007 591 Orange 1950 128,821 1,185 Oxnard 1950 170,358 690 Rancho Cucamonga 1980 127,743 131 Riverside 1950 255,166 446 San Bernardino 1950 185,401 194 Santa Ana 1950 337,977 642 Santa Clarita 1990 151,088 37 Simi Valley 1970 111,351 96 Thousand Oaks 1960 117,005 3,888
*The Fannie Mae study traced boomburb growth since 1950. For cities whose origin was later, data from the next census were used.
Source: Fannie Mae Foundation