Irvine Was Biggest ‘New Town’ Experiment

Ellen Bell, Irvine World News, February 11, 2014

In 1960, architect William Pereira was presented with an unprecedented opportunity. Not only had he been assigned to design a major university, but to master-plan the community that would surround it.

The concept of the New Town, a residential environment that contained all of the elements needed for its citizens, had been tried before with varying success. Not only would Irvine be the latest community to embrace this utopian ideal of optimal living, but it would be the largest.

The vast landholding of the Irvine Ranch, which extended from the Santa Ana Mountains to the Pacific coast, had remained virtually intact since its purchase by James Irvine in 1864. This was a rare exception in subdivided Orange County.

In the 1950s, the post-war population boom crept southward from Los Angeles, and a wave of fragmented development began to cover the north Orange County landscape. On the Irvine Ranch, the once dominant agricultural powerhouse was facing the challenge of paying higher property taxes in a time of declining profits. By the late 1950s, Southern California had become one of the fastest-growing regions in the United States. Residential development seemed inevitable.

The Irvine Co., run by the James Irvine Foundation, was determined to maintain control of the land. Instead of selling portions of the historic ranch, the company chose to develop some of its land itself. As a result, one of the nation’s most ambitious urban development projects was led by a nonprofit organization that had most of its experience in agriculture and cattle.


At the same time, the University of California system was looking for a new campus to meet growing demand. Several sites were considered for a new campus, but the Irvine Ranch was seen as the most desirable. The UC Board of Regents and the James Irvine Foundation were hesitant about the project. However, Irvine Co. President Arthur McFadden and James H. Irvine’s granddaughter, Joan, supported the new university. They believed it would be the perfect centerpiece for potential residential development. In the end, Pereira’s dynamic personality and passionate enthusiasm for creating a “city of intellect” persuaded the UC Regents and the Irvine Co. to proceed.

Pereira’s preliminary plan was theoretical. Instead of focusing solely on the structure and placement of buildings, Pereira’s report described his vision for what life would be like on the new campus. He presented a design that was in the shape of a wheel, with six academic quadrangles surrounding a 16-acre central park. The advantage of this circular design was that major academic buildings would all be within a 10-minute walk of each other.


Ray Watson PlanningPereira’s initial plan called for a 10,000-acre community with the new university at its center. He envisioned a symbiotic relationship between the campus and the city, with each enriching the other. The plan described a fusion of campus, housing, retail and employment all within a city that preserved the natural landscape.

As former Irvine Co. President Ray Watson wrote in Pereira’s biography, “Pereira brought the overarching vision that set enduring guideposts for others to follow.”

The Irvine Co. soon realized the need for development beyond the original report and authorized Pereira to create a general plan for the southern portion of the ranch. The former agriculturally focused company also reorganized internally, creating its own internal planning staff of architects and engineers. In 1964, using concepts from Pereira’s original plan, the Irvine Co. submitted the Southern Sector Master Plan, which was expanded to 34,089 acres.


The master-planned community, or New Town, was a popular concept in the early 1960s. Years of unplanned suburban growth had created an aversion to sprawling bedroom communities with little civic identity or focus.

New Towns such as Columbia, Md., and Reston, Va., modeled this new concept, with residential, educational, industrial and recreational services that were balanced and easily available to residents.

The acreage of the Irvine Ranch provided a massive blank slate for its planners, and the new town of Irvine would be the largest in the nation. The land was divided into three tiers: residential community development in the 35,000-acre coastal portion, agriculture in the 20,000-acre central region, and recreation in the 33,000-acre mountainous region to the north.


For new residents to feel the “sense of place” that Pereira first described, the concept of villages was created.

Smaller residential clusters were designed to pare down the sheer size of the New Town into easily identifiable places. In his book, “The Irvine Ranch: A Time for People,” Martin Brower explained that each village would be “made up of several neighborhoods including its own commercial, recreational and educational facilities. This would give residents a feeling of identity, a place of ‘home’ within the larger urban complex.”

The villages would be connected by “environmental corridors” or passageways that would lead to shared citywide services. This would eliminate intrusion from external traffic and maintain the zoning integrity of the neighborhoods. The villages would be separated but not isolated because of the environmental corridor links.

The Irvine Co. planners created industrial and commercial centers to complement the villages and provide a tax base for the new city. They used identifiable landscape design and a consistent circulation system of roadways. The goal was to help people connect with their neighborhood, rather than feel lost in the immensity of their surroundings.


The Irvine General Plan was first created in the 1960s and then expanded in 1970. It was always intended to be a flexible plan that would withstand the changes of inevitable growth. The modified plan of 1970 expected a mega-city in the future with an eventual population of 430,000 residents.

As a result, roads were built wider than necessary and extensive water and sewer systems were constructed to avoid potential utility overload.

Forty-three years after its incorporation, Irvine is still guided by the original concepts of its master plan.

The combination of three factors have led to the success of this still-growing community of more than 230,000 citizens: the optimistic vision of urban planners who wanted to create the ultimate residential experience, a landholding large enough to accommodate their ideas, and a privately held company with enough capital to get the project off the ground.

Land. Legacy. Life.®