As a city planner for more than a quarter century, of which nearly 16 years have been in the City of Santa Monica, I have had the opportunity to observe and appreciate that a great place does not happen by chance. A place evolves through the activities of people over time: planning, building, demolishing, rebuilding, planting, digging, growing, preserving, and planning again. Places benefit from those that pay attention to fine details that are loved by generations; or are scarred by the less admired creations of others, sometimes for decades. That which precedes us forms a physical environment that we, as city planners, work with by helping the community express an ever-evolving vision. Our job is to safeguard and enhance all the community has built over time through a communal vision. After many years, perhaps decades, the community and future planners will judge whether we got it right.
By awarding its 2017 “Great Places in California” distinction to Downtown Santa Monica, the California Chapter of the American Planning Association (CCAPA) recognized that we got it right. CCAPA will spotlight Downtown Santa Monica at its annual conference in September through its program that recognizes places that are “memorable to the community and to individuals and create a strong sense of place.” The awards jury reviews nominations, looking for unique, visually interesting places that encourage human contact and social activities. In an urban context, a great place embraces its natural environment to full advantage, makes it comfortable for people to walk and bike, and is supported by transit options.
Thanks to more than 100 years of effort by City leaders and partners in the community, it is clear that Downtown Santa Monica is a place with all of those characteristics. It’s a true town center for the community, and a regional, even international magnet. A fundamental element of our downtown’s greatness is that it is “real,” meaning that it has evolved, both organically and intentionally, based on planning principles and individual initiative, rather than emerging as a fully formed development that conveys a sense of artificiality.
Imagine Downtown Santa Monica as an early sub-division of blufftop parcels being purchased by a diverse group of individuals, each looking to build a future in a beautiful coastal setting where the possibilities probably seemed as limitless as the sand on the beach below. To this, add the guidance of planning concepts, some of which have stood the test of time, while others have been attempted and discarded. Those that have endured reflect certain truths that never change: they provide for the social needs of human beings and take advantage of the area’s natural beauty and fortunate climate. It could be said that the enduring planning concepts for Downtown Santa Monica have reflected sustainability in the truest sense of the word.
In Downtown, one experiences layers of history and individuality that are expressed in every building, landscaping detail and roadway improvement. Behind each of these layers is deliberate planning and infrastructure investment that has distinguished Downtown Santa Monica from the suburban form of many Los Angeles County cities and neighborhoods. The intense interest in planning the next layer, the Downtown Community Plan, demonstrates that this community understands the role of planning very well and continues to have a strong sense of ownership and passion about Downtown’s future.
Recognition by the leading planning professionals in the State of California as a “Great Place” is an honor and distinction. Congratulations to the Santa Monica community, from its early to its present leaders, who have nurtured Downtown Santa Monica carefully and thoughtfully through good and bad times to deserve this honor.