In Ladera, It's a Beautiful Day in the Intranet Neighborhood

Times staff writer

The emotion was as common as life itself.

Sarah Doyle, two months into motherhood, was beginning to climb the walls of her three-month-old home in south Orange County's new Ladera Ranch housing development, a trend-setting experiment that merges "new urbanism" architecture with a wired community of home computers.

"I was getting to that point of, 'I've got to get out and find some friends,' " Doyle said. So she posted a message on the neighborhood's private Ladera Life intranet: Any new moms out there want to take their babies for a walk to Starbucks? "A couple of gals responded and we started to meet and walk and talk," Doyle says. "Then we said, 'Anyone want to meet for a play group?' "

Nearly three years later, Doyle's initial posting has given rise to 2001 Babies, a social club of more than 40 families with children born in 2001, and two clones, 2002 Babies and 2003 Babies, which have helped Ladera evolve into just what its developers had hoped for: a modern suburban neighborhood built on human contact.

In this latest incarnation of the planned community, an evolution that began with 1940s developments in the Bay Area and on New York's Long Island, developers of the five "villages" of the 8,000-home Ladera Ranch are building the oxymoron of new traditional neighborhoods.

Among the development's innovations are tightly packed streets, lots of parks, front porches that encourage mingling, ecologically friendly buildings and a cluster of 14 homes designed to house families and small businesses.

These innovations are all linked through the Ladera Life intranet, providing a sustaining ingredient for any organization: communication.

Ladera Ranch residents post about 1,800 messages a month on the intranet, on subjects ranging from the mundane, such as people seeking referrals for contractors, to public safety concerns, such as complaints about neighbors' cars speeding through traffic circles.

"We went to great lengths to form organizations focused on building community pride and connections," said Paul Johnson, senior vice president for community development for the property owner, Rancho Mission Viejo.

"People want to live in places where they feel a part of it, where they can make a difference, and where they can stay a long time and raise a family and do it where they know, in a time of need, they're not an island."

Developers have been toying with wired communities for nearly a decade, with mixed results. A recurring problem has been establishing a self-sustaining intranet. One experiment outside Toronto ran into trouble when technological changes outpaced the system. Others stumbled when they relied on outside providers to run the system.

At Ladera Ranch, home buyers pay a one-time fee based on the price of the house, that finances neighborhood community services including the intranet. Homeowners also pay monthly association dues. In time, the developers will turn the organization over to the residents.

"We're carefully crafting the management structure and beginning to bring in neighbors to play the key roles," said Johnson. "Can we sit here today and absolutely guarantee that it will be here in 25 years? No, but we've given it every best possible opportunity to do so."

Academics believe such networks can foster stronger neighborhoods, allowing strangers to crash social barriers ranging from shyness to busy suburban lifestyles in which neighbors usually travel in separate social and professional orbits.

"People are commuting, stores increasingly are open 24 hours," said Keith Hampton, assistant professor of Technology, Urban and Community Sociology at MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning. "Before, 9-to-5 was when you were away from home, and you could predict when people were around."

With intranet postings and e-mail, virtual conversations -- and social planning -- are easier. The irony, he said, is that while the Internet is built on global connections, its most pronounced effect is local. One neighborhood he studied outside Toronto uses the developer-supported intranet to galvanize political pressure on the homebuilder to fix construction defects -- a marshaling of forces that would have been much slower and more fragmented without the use of message boards.

"One of the most striking things is that most work e-mail doesn't leave the building in which it originates, and much of it that does, does not leave the city," Hampton said. "It may actually mean there's a return of place and local community as a result of global technology."

So far, Ladera Ranch developers have built about 3,800 of 8,100 planned houses in a swale near the Santa Ana Mountains. About 3,200 of those households have signed up for Ladera Life.

Since the intranet went online in 1999, scores of local clubs have formed. Some have fallen by the wayside as initial interest waned, but more than 55 remain active, Ladera officials said. There's a wine-tasting club, a book group, a fund-raising guild to support Children's Hospital of Orange County and various athletic and cooking clubs drawing together some 1,500 people.

In each case, the initial connections were made electronically, and ongoing club business -- meeting schedules, special notices and site changes -- is conducted over message boards on the intranet, a private, password-protected system that operates like a local Internet.

"People are looking for certain connections," said Karen Inman, who manages the Ladera Life intranet for Community Technologies Inc. The firm has three employees assigned to Ladera Life, keeping the intranet running and helping novices with everything from figuring out the e-mail to building message boards.

"Part of [the success] is just having people on staff who just focus on getting people connected," Inman said. "If someone wants to start a book club, it might be a great idea to start with co-workers. But in this model, there is a way to make it happen with their neighbors. It may not be the person next door. It might be the person four streets over. How do you meet them?"

The overtures might happen in cyberspace, but the clubs themselves have become organic things. The wine-tasting club meets in members' homes on a rotating basis. The babies clubs used to come together in homes until they became so big they had to be moved to community rooms.

For joiners like Deidra Downing, the intranet has become key to a way of life they had trouble finding elsewhere. Downing and her husband moved into Ladera Ranch from nearby Aliso Viejo in April 2001, and in the process shattered their own isolation.

"In Aliso Viejo, we knew our next-door neighbor and maybe the person across the street and that was about it," said Downing, who was a project manager for an HMO before she became stay-at-home mother this summer to the couple's daughter.

Since moving in, Downing has become involved to varying degrees with a club devoted to bunco, a dice game; a dining-out club; the Ladera Ranch Hands group of volunteers; and the wine-tasting club.

"My social circle has expanded a hundredfold from what it would have been if I hadn't sought these people out," said Downing, who made the connections over the intranet.

Alladi Venkatesh, a management professor and Associate Director of UC Irvine's Center for Research on Information Technology and Organizations, has studied community building in Ladera Ranch and believes the intranet has helped neighbors come together on a grass-roots level.

"It's not a top-down kind of thing," said Venkatesh. "People are saying what they want in the community, and they are using the technology for that.... This actually is determining what kinds of stores are coming in, what the schools should be doing, what the schools look like."

Much of the discourse, he said, is by women, reprising a traditional role in neighborhood communications.

"They seem to be defining what the community functions are, how it functions and what role [the intranet] will play," Venkatesh said. "It's a very interesting part of it."

Notably absent is broader political discourse, and debate on issues outside the community. Residents said they don't see the intranet playing that role. Whenever postings appear with a partisan edge, they said, they are usually ignored.

In some ways, the Ladera intranet has been self-fulfilling. Many Ladera residents, particularly young parents, said they chose the new neighborhood because of its emphasis on family life and community. The intranet has made it easier to make those personal connections.

Jeni Pickard, 34, who spent most of her life in the Bay Area, moved to Ladera Ranch in February with her husband and two children. She said she linked up with other people in a matter of days.

"It's almost like high school," Pickard said the day before Thanksgiving as her daughter played with a half-dozen other toddlers in Ladera's Oak Knoll Clubhouse during 2001 Babies' regular playgroup. "It brings everything so close. It gives you the avenue to be able to find activities that you couldn't [living] in other places."

Babies -- now toddlers -- still form the heart of the group, and the children wheeled and squealed as the mothers talked and played with them.

But the adult relationships have matured, in many cases, into deep friendships. Some of the husbands gather for regular poker games. There's a monthly "night out" for the mothers, and holiday get-togethers. Some of the families have forged even deeper bonds, and take vacations together.

"People say they never thought they would make the kinds of friendships they have here," said Doyle. "We have made friendships that you never expect in your 30s."

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