Harlan: Imagine the next 60 years in Costa Mesa


This summer, Costa Mesa will commemorate the 60th anniversary of its incorporation. It will be a time to celebrate the city’s growth and prosperity, from its humble, farming roots as the tabletop community of Goat Hill to the nearly built-out urban city of 120,000 people.

And it will be a time to rejoice together, reflect on the city’s past successes, and learn from the few missteps that inevitably accompany six decades of decision-making.

More importantly, it’s an opportune time to consider what we want Costa Mesa to be in the next 60 years. Studying our historical past and examining today’s circumstances, how can we plan for another few generations of prosperity? What do we want and how are we going to get there?


About six months ago, I wrote about how the city’s effort to update its general plan provides the perfect occasion to explore these broad and profound questions. Developing a community-wide vision would have been an excellent, collaborative exercise to conduct prior to the November election.

Maybe now, with the political dust firmly settled, we can finally come together and have the conversation in earnest. The recent rhetoric from our mayor and City Council members calling for a more inclusive and collaborative dialogue needs to be backed up with genuine action. This would be a significant step in the right direction.

So far I’ve yet to hear a clearly articulated community vision from anyone on the City Council. Balancing the budget, making government operations more transparent, and getting the city’s fiscal house in order are all laudable (and necessary) short-term tasks. But they do not constitute a vision.

The question that needs to be answered is: For what purpose? Budgets are balanced and operations are improved to do what, exactly, in the long run?

It’s a mistake to believe that a community’s vision should come solely from City Hall. Many cities grew, evolved and defined themselves through the work of enterprising and visionary people, often ordinary citizens who committed themselves to building something of value in their communities. Costa Mesa has many shining examples of developments, programs and institutions — South Coast Plaza, MIKA and the Orange County Fairgrounds come to mind — that were once just visions, only to be fulfilled by a group of dedicated individuals and partners.

Developing a vision is not done in a vacuum. Of course we have to deal with practical realities of our current circumstances. But that should not preclude or dissuade us from imagining an improved community and put it down in writing. The challenge is thinking critically about Costa Mesa for future generations, not just our own.

What does that future look like?

From a physical standpoint, for example, it means considering how we move around our neighborhoods and within the region. Are we satisfied with our present mobility options or do we want to increase opportunities for safe walking, biking and public transit? And if we expect our population to increase, how do we physically accommodate this growth? Do we plan for more smaller-scale infill development, or maybe higher density on our major corridors near transit?

From a social perspective, how do we envision engaging with each other on a daily basis and gathering together as a community? In this rapidly changing electronic age, what kinds of places do we want to create that harness the power of technology and help strengthen social connections?

And from an economic angle, we should think about how to protect, retain and promote thriving businesses, especially those that are historically rooted in Costa Mesa. What kinds of employment do we want to attract here, and how can we compete with our neighbors for this investment?

These questions are just a few examples of what we should contemplate in crafting a community-wide vision. I hope that through the general plan update process and planning for the city’s diamond anniversary, we can galvanize Costa Mesans and create a broad, forward-thinking, and collective vision.

Now that would be an achievement worth celebrating.

JEFFREY HARLAN is an urban planner who lives on the Eastside of Costa Mesa.