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Celebrating 100th anniversary of pioneering urban plan

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"San Diego has the location and the physical foundation in general for an important, perhaps a great city. Its people are awake to its needs, and are resolved to meet them. It stands, therefore, upon the threshold of a truly sound and far-reaching development; for, when to superb natural advantages and human enterprise are added a sound public policy and a comprehensive plan of action, who can doubt the outcome?"

-- John Nolen, 1908

In 1908, John Nolen, landscape architect and urban planner, drafted his report entitled "San Diego: A Comprehensive Plan for Its Improvement." Nolen, who shaped his plan around the natural beauty, benevolent climate and urban character of San Diego, recommended that San Diego build a civic center plaza and develop its bay front with a "paseo" joining the bay to Balboa Park.

While implementation of the 1908 plan, augmented by a follow-up in 1926, did not come entirely to fruition, San Diego continues to be shaped by Nolen's ideas for America's Finest City, and urban planners continue to be inspired by his ideas.

Now, on the 100th anniversary of the Nolan plan, many of San Diego's civic and land planning organizations, including Urban Land Institute, are celebrating his accomplishments and highlighting the continued vibrancy and relevance of his plan for San Diego.

"While Nolen's plan was drafted 100 years ago, he looked at the city from a long-term perspective. What is most important about Nolen today is that he initiated the long-range planning effort for our region," said Tony Pauker, chair of the Urban Land Institute San Diego/Tijuana District Council, an organization that provides leadership in the responsible use of land to enhance the total environment. "This plan is a prime example of the need to have good land planning and the importance of looking at long-term issues in land planning."

Nolen approached his planning process with this same vision, as well as with a desire to create a city that responds to the needs of all people, not just certain controlling interests.

"City planning, like any other large public project, depends upon the adoption of plans that take into account what is best not merely for one class of the community nor for a special interest, and not from the point of view of one year only, but considering the welfare of the city in the long run and the people as a whole," wrote Nolen in the 1908 plan.

In January, ULI San Diego/Tijuana will host a breakfast seminar to highlight the work of John Nolen.

As part of the seminar, ULI's panelists will examine other works by Nolen, and will discuss how faithfully San Diego has implemented his recommendations for the city.

Students from the NewSchool of Architecture will present an analysis of Nolen's work in San Diego, and Philip J. Bona, assistant vice president of architecture and planning for Centre City Development Corp., will discuss the implementation of key Nolen Plan elements interpreted for today's San Diego.

Finally, Vicki Estrada, principal of Estrada Land Planning, will discuss San Diego Regional Canyonlands Park as the embodiment of the open space element of Nolen's 1908 Plan. Though not a new concept, San Diego Civic Solutions, of which Estrada is a member, took up the Canyonlands Park cause a couple of years ago and has been advocating for a regional park that would link San Diego's canyons, both physically and symbolically, ever since.

Urban Land Institute is a long-time advocate for smart growth principles and policies and concentrates its efforts on education rather than lobbying to encourage "smart" planning and development.

The group's annual smart growth awards encourage and recognize sustainable building and planning practices and its popular annual Trends Conference focused on a myriad of sustainable real estate issues this year.

In 2008, ULI will hold a regional mayors' conference to promote a regional planning dialogue.

"At a time when San Diego is experiencing such growth pains and considering major planning issues, including the airport, our downtown waterfront and regional transportation planning, to name just a few, it's important to keep Nolen's recommendations in mind, especially his advice about making decisions that are best for the region as a whole, not just special groups," Pauker said.

100 years later, Nolen can and should still be considered among the who's who of San Diego real estate.


Kovach is a senior account manager with TW2 Marketing.

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