Kaid Benfield Archive


Life is good in Santa Monica - is there a lesson for the rest of us?

Kaid Benfield

Posted February 5, 2009 at 3:18PM

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      Santa Monica at dusk (by: David Liu, creative commons license)

I spent the last few days at a meeting in Santa Monica.  The meeting was intense, but the setting could hardly have been more hospitable.  And it occurs to me that a community looking to reshape itself into a smart growth form could do a heck of a lot worse than to emulate this independent Southern California city of 90,000, surrounded by the morass that is greater Los Angeles.

What is it about Santa Monica that makes it work?  Part of me wants to slap the other part of me on the head and say, it's the beach and the weather, stupid.  Beach.  Weather.  Case closed.  But lots of other beach towns don't feel nearly as good or work nearly as well as real communities.  So let's grant the obvious but also look at the physical elements that make SaMo work.

          NRDC's Santa Monica office (by: Charlie Brewer, creative commons license)  the roof deck on NRDC's green building (by: Tim Street-Porter, for US Green Building Council)

One might start with NRDC's exceptionally pleasant SaMo office on 2nd Street, which my colleague Spencer Campbell was kind enough to show to my group on a tour the other night.  It's certified LEED-Platinum, as good as it gets for greenness, and in a highly walkable environment close to most everything.  Designed by noted new urbanist architects Liz Moule and Stefanos Polyzoides, with its green features supervised by Rob Watson, it's pretty wonderful.

   3rd St Promenade (by: Crashworks, creative commons license)  3rd St Promenade (by: Klaus Nahr, creative commons license)

Just a block away is SM's justly famed Third Street Promenade, a terrific pedestrian steet that works for residents, visitors, and merchants alike.  This is a community made for walking.

   cafe on Main Street (by: NH567, creative commons license)  shop on Main Street (by: christian svanes kolding, creative commons license)

Not far away is Main Street, another commercial street, but one that feels decidedly more low-key and neighborhood-serving.  I walked along it several times, including to and from my friend Ted's house, where some of us watched the Super Bowl.

   Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus (by: LA Wad/Chris, creative commons license)  bus-only lane in SM (by: LA Wad/Chris, creative commons license)

   private residence in SM (by: Cyrus Farivar, creative commons license)  condos in SM (by: Hendie Dijkman, creative commons license)

One of the things I like best about Santa Monica is its scale.  It has plenty of density, using land efficiently and promoting walking and transit use, but it is human-scaled.  NRDC's office is typical, with a two-story facade and another story set back and added behind that.  Yes, there are high-rises here and there in Santa Monica, but more mid-rises than high-rises, and plenty of individual houses that feel like, well, normal houses.  it doesn't feel like a place dominated by large buildings.  It feels like a place for people.

Ted, who has kids in school, reports that the neighborhood schools are good, too, and easy to walk to.

   the SM Pier (by: Cathy Cole, creative commons license)  the SM Pier, up close (by: Ryner12/Julia, creative commons license)

   the beach at SM (by: LLudo, creative commons license)  steps away from the city (by: smif, creative commons license)

And then, yes, there is the beach.  And the famous Santa Monica Pier, with just the right amount of honky-tonk kitsch to be fun, yet not so much as to make you feel like you are in a fake world or some sort of undesirable place.  Every community should have a place like that.  And I love, love, love, the Palisades Park on the cliffs above the beach.

          Palisades Park (by: Brian Locicero, creative commons license)  stroll along the Palisades (by: zioWoody, creative commons license)

I've been coming here for 35 years.  It has changed and evolved without losing its appeal or its terrific functionality as an urban-but-not-too-urban place.  And it's a great model for the rest of us.