It is extremely difficult to form a new city in California, or any other US
State for that matter. The studies required to justify taking jurisdiction away
from a county government really means taking it away from what is in essence
state control, since county governments were originally set up under state
jurisdictions, and controlled by state laws and regulations.
This is evidenced by the financial strings state and county governments hold
over cities; mainly in terms of its planning and zoning regulations, but also
the share of tax revenues to various local services, such water and sanitary
The birth of a new city in the Goleta valley was a vision that took years to
realize, and huge amount of patience and persistence to bring together a unique
admixture of its citizens—from Mexican immigrants to hi tech engineers, to
university-educated environmentalists, and Defense Department employees; from
supporters that wanted more municipal improvements such as flood and highway
improvements, to those that wanted it to remain a sleepy bedroom community
serving the adjacent City of Santa Barbara.
Forming a brand new city was the most challenging example of community
building I experienced in my life because it meant bringing together enough of
its residents in a common vision of their community. Seasonal farm workers that
harvested large lemon and avocado groves lived side-by-side with University of
California Santa Barbara students and their professors in the unincorporated
Because of this diversity there were an almost equal number for and against
the formation of a new city. But it finally happened on the fourth try—February
1, 2002. The high crime rate in Goleta’s Old Town—the historical center of the
Goleta Valley since it was settled more than 100 years earlier—was documented in
the Redevelopment District Agency study commissioned by Santa Barbara County.
There were more bars than restaurants and it was home to several gangs. There
were also serious environmental concerns, as high traffic totals were causing
air pollution, and successive floods during the 1990s following an earlier
drought required greater flood controls.
Just the fact that it became a city enabled Goleta to contract with the
County Sheriff to provide a neighborhood police service accountable solely to
Goleta residents. This resulted in Goleta being listed as one of the 50 safest
cities in 2017, eleven years after its formation, according to a
survey by Safewise, a security firm.
The re-design of Old Town Goleta also seemed an ideal location to practice
some of those precepts of True Urbanism, or New Urban Design, all labels
attached to what is now a worldwide movement that sought to make cities more
How hard could that be, though we didn’t realize the state’s Environmental
Quality Report (CEQA) would require flood improvements before anything else was
done. We didn’t realize in a word what an effort it would take, and continuing
struggle it still is, to bring together so much diversity of opinion and
conviction into a well-functioning and sustainable community that epitomized
what pro-city residents wanted in a new city.
First step was to organize a design conference to provide design and
planning alternatives for the future—something county planners supported after
three failed Goleta cityhood elections. It was obvious that without a community
effort to create a town center with a unique identity that contrasted with
neighboring Big Sister city Santa Barbara, Goleta’s cityhood might never
The American Institute of Architects was co-sponsoring eight simultaneous
design charrettes across the country and in Hawaii at the time, in an attempt to
create design outcomes using these new urban planning techniques. All were
retreats that brought design professionals such as architects, designers, and
urban planners together to envision and help to re-design a project area—such as
a district or town center.
The Goleta Old Town design charrette, a French term for a gathering of
designers and interested parties to create an innovative atmosphere in which a
diverse group of stakeholders can collaborate to "generate visions for the
future" to use Wikipedia’s description, was also hooked via Internet to the
seven other design charrettes so we could share ideas and outcomes. All were
weekend-long marathon sessions that began early and went late into each evening
of those two days, creating a feverish intensity that only an assembly of very
creative individuals can foment.
The idea of a design charrette was exciting in itself. It is a well-known
architectural concept first adopted by students of Paris’s Ecole des Beaux Arts,
Frances’s major design school, in the 1800s. They were used to cramming for
exams at the last minute while riding in a charrette, or horse cart to the
exams. So this was an exciting chance for local students, environmentalists, and
some developers that wanted to participate in what Goleta might become for
These retreats were co-sponsored by the American Institute of Architects, or
AIA, and included Honolulu and Charlottesville, Virginia, home of the Jefferson
designed University of Virginia and Jefferson’s nearby Monticello home, of
course. I remember Charlottesville was surrounded by a rusting industrial belt
needing resuscitation that could benefit from mixed-use design concepts of the
new urban planning, just as Old Town was surrounded by auto-dependent suburban
malls and shopping centers with few pedestrian conveniences.
We were able to assemble 100 design professionals and civic activists such as
myself. It was a vehicle to begin the process of envisioning, or re-visioning a
future for Old Town and the Goleta valley community.
We basically locked ourselves into a large industrial building and broke into
eight committees, each tasked to come up with a different design concept for
that weekend. The eight results covered the gamut of ideas for Old Town, an area
of no more than 20 city blocks and population of 5,000. The designs ranged
from a totally pedestrian environment only accessible to public transportation
with room for pedestrian-oriented businesses and entertainment to draw them out
of their autos, to one that permitted automobile access, (which local small
businesses badly wanted to sustain their small businesses), but with more off
street parking and lots of green landscaping.
Margaret Connell, a recent Goleta city council member who supported the Old
Town revitalization plan and wanted Old Town to be part of a new city center,
voiced some of her concerns because much of the work has remained undone since
cityhood: “…So Goleta Old Town feels more embedded than the more recent housing
and worksites, and it also suffers from some disadvantages of being “old.” It
lacks sidewalks through much of the older residential areas, though the city is
taking steps to remedy this. There are many children who live here, but there
are very few parks — a pocket park on Nectarine, a larger one on Armitos Avenue,
and a four-acre, active-recreation park on Kellogg Street, which is still being
developed,” said former council woman Connell.
The major environmental concerns were a lack of alternative transportation
(such as busses and bike lanes) to manage traffic flow during peak rush hour
that could still service Old Town residents and businesses. Flooding was also a
major concern, in spite of periodic droughts, since Santa Barbara and the south
coast had suffered several devastating floods during the 1990’s that ended a
prior eight-year drought.
The flood that broke the 1993 drought was called the March miracle because 11
inches of rain fell that month, even closing the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport
for several days that had been formed from a saltwater estuary.
Old Town’s main street was flooded as well one night with at least a foot of
water from a torrential rainfall that overflowed the two creeks bracketing Old
Town’s boundaries. That is why flood control improvements, such as an enlarged
and channelized creek bed, were required in the CEQA (California Environmental
Quality Act) report as the first step in any redevelopment effort.
The droughts and consequential flooding also made everyone aware of the
limited water supplies in California, even though some areas that year had
experienced the greatest rainfall totals since the 1880s.
This is why the work of the new city of Goleta has just begun. The community
plan balances environmental with livable concerns, but there was a casualty of
the 2007-2009 Great Recession that caused an unexpected disruption of Goleta’s
future infrastructure upgrades; especially in Old Town, which is adjacent to
Santa Barbara’s municipal airport with its own accessibility problems.
California, to solve its budget problems from the Great Recession, dissolved
all 404 Redevelopment District Agencies in 2011, which removed the tax financing
that Old Town was counting on to fix some of those transportation problems and
relieve the traffic congestion. That has put many of the planned improvements on
hold until alternative financing is found.
So has Goleta become a more livable city? Its residents think so, though
affordable housing will always be a problem. Local Historian Walker Thompkins’
description of the Goleta valley as a pastoral paradise is immortalized in his
book, Goleta, the Good Land
that is still available on Amazon’s website.
The livable cities movement, which is what it has become as cities now
compete to attract the best and the brightest people and best jobs, has evolved
into a ranking contest. The annual rankings of the most livable cities are
published by several well-known lifestyle publications and organizations,
including the AARP Livability Index, Monocle
"Most Liveable Cities Index", the Economist
's "Global Liveability Ranking", and "Mercer
of Living Survey".
Unfortunately, not a single US city on the Economist’s list makes the top 10
in a study of the world’s 140 major cities. Melbourne, Australia topped it in
2016, with Perth and Adelaide Australia also in the top ten. Honolulu, Hawaii is
the only American city mentioned at all. It makes the top ten list of most
improved cities over the past 5 years.
Is their bias showing? A ranking
released by the Economist
Intelligence Unit, attempts to quantify the world’s most “livable” cities—that
is, which locations around the world provide the best or the worst living
conditions. The index, measured out of 100, considers 30 factors related to
safety, health care, educational resources, infrastructure and the environment
to calculate scores for 140 cities.
“Those that score best tend to be mid-sized cities in wealthier countries,”
said the Economist survey. “Melbourne tops the list for the sixth year in a row,
and six of the top ten cities are in Australia or Canada. But Sydney,
Australia’s largest city, drops out of the top ten due to fears over terrorism.”
So the safety of its residents and the threat of violence and terrorism seems
to have knocked American cities off the list, and put Australia at the top of
most livable cities rankings. How do we solve the increasing dangers from
violent extremism and domestic violence that make so many American and European
Goleta's Old Town revitalization is still a work in progress, in other words.
Goleta became a city in 2002, but is still wrestling with the idea of putting a
new City Hall in Old Town rather than continue to rent space in an industrial
complex farther to the west in the midst of malls and office complexes. It
remains to be seen just what the new city of Goleta will look like 15 years
after its formation, and whether it is able to embody the livable planning
principles we envisioned in the design charrette.
And what are other institutions that might bring us more peace and freedom in
the world with its droughts, mass migrations, inequality and civil unrest in so
many countries? How can we nurture more viable communities and neighborhoods?
There are modern social movements and community development tools that can bring
this about. We will describe some of them in the next chapters.
Harlan Green © 2019
Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen