Planning San Diego

Posted: April 3rd, 2015 | Art on the Land, Columnists, Featured | 2 Comments

By Delle Willett | Art on the Land

At the end of the 1800s the city of San Diego was not like any other major U.S. city. Enormous in acreage, the streets were still unpaved. With miles of oceanfront, there were no beaches south of Point Loma.

Introduction of the railway gave San Diego a tremendous boom and bust, but the city’s population grew less than 1 percent in the decade following the bust. By 1907 the population was less than the 40,000 it had been in 1886, and although San Diego was connected to Los Angeles by train and to San Francisco by ferry, it was still difficult to reach and didn’t have much to offer.

Nevertheless, San Diego’s climate and scenery made it stand out above all other communities.

Tasked to turn San Diego into a nationally competitive city on both an economic and cultural level, the City of San Diego established the Civic Improvement Committee (CIC), created under the auspices of the City’s Chamber of Commerce and Art Association. In 1907, the committee hired landscape architect and urban planner John Nolen of Harvard, Massachusetts, to complete a comprehensive plan for the city’s development. They called him back again in 1924 to update his initial plan.

83_14641 Serra Museum aerial - 1929web

The Serra Museum stands alone high above the future Presidio Park in this 1929 photograph (Courtesy San Diego History Museum)

Nolen was one of several men in the U.S. who sought to mitigate the effects of the rapid urbanization that was creating numerous ills of city life. He pioneered for clean air, the needs of children, and access to beautiful things for all.

He also advocated for cities to grow and expand, always with guidelines and goals in mind, developing in synchronization with its population growth instead of before its time, or, even worse, after the chance for planning had passed.

Nolen completed and published “San Diego: A Comprehensive Plan for its Improvement” in early 1908. Though the plan was never fully utilized, it had a significant effect on the development of San Diego’s future planning policies.

His extensive plan addressed the unique possibilities that existed for development and the mistakes that had already occurred; it outlined the major issues that demanded attention; and discussed the practical and financial nature of implementing his recommendations.

Nolen warned that if planning San Diego’s growth were to be done haphazardly, it would lose many of the advantages that nature had gifted it. He admonished the city for having a plan that was “not thoughtful. But on the contrary, ignorant and wasteful.”

Phase One of the North Embarcadero Planweb

The Embarcadero’s Visionary Plan incorporates John Nolen’s ideas Florent on Fifth Avenue and G Street (Photo by Delle Willett)

He criticized the destruction of San Diego’s unique, natural topography, the leveling of hills and mesas. The massive grading that had destroyed its picturesque canyons and valleys in an attempt to create straight streets.

He believed that addressing these main points would rectify past mistakes and allow San Diego to meet its full potential.

Nolen’s first recommendation focused on the need for a separate public plaza and civic space — a grand European-style plaza surrounded by civic buildings between Date and Cedar streets, with a wide boulevard that would have connected Balboa Park to the Civic Center and the bay.

He went into extensive detail on how and where the plaza should be erected and argued that a noteworthy plaza was essential for both aesthetic reasons and as a space for official and leisurely gatherings.

Nolen recommended construction of a Great Bay Front that would fulfill both the commercial and leisure needs of the city. The development of a multiuse waterfront, he explained, would give residents an aesthetically pleasing open space.

This waterfront would feature an 11-mile drive next to the bay, running from the southern boundary of the city, past Downtown and the County Administration building, past a suggested airport and on to the Naval bases in Point Loma.

He also proposed the historic restoration of Old Town, dredging the bay, the use of reservoirs for recreation, and the preservation of beaches.

Nolen believed that public and municipal spaces had to be set aside while the land was still undeveloped; that if his plans for the public plaza, civic center and bay front were implemented, then population and traffic would surely increase.

Horton Plazaweb

Construction continues at Horton Plaza Park (Photo by Delle Willett)

He reiterated his belief that cities should not be built according to preordained guidelines but designed after the consideration of the city’s particular physical circumstances and social needs.

In his chapter on street planning he said a city’s health, just like a body’s health, is dependent on good circulation.

His plan included five street types that responded to different functions. He solved the problem of gridiron plans by proposing a curvilinear street pattern where residents would be able to embrace the topography, not just tolerate it.

He designed specific treescapes for residential and business streets, boulevards and thoroughfares.

The type of tree and its placement, he suggested, would aid in deciphering the use of the street and ultimately improve traffic flow.

Nolen called for palm trees, explaining that the plantings aim to dress up the street and relieve its barrenness yet avoid shading the houses.

He recommended that planners recall the city’s history and utilize the Spanish language in street names and residential developments.

He was particularly concerned about improving the health of the city’s inhabitants. He implored the CIC to address the lack of small open spaces that might be used for recreation and recommended a system of parks dedicated to the preservation of natural features. By nature a play city, San Diego should have its own playgrounds, he believed.

Nolen also addressed the problem of rectilinear subdivision planning which resulted in awkward intersections, steep roads and oddly shaped blocks.

John Nolenweb

John Nolen
(Courtesy San Diego History Museum)

Although he was not directly responsible for designing Mission Hills, it is an excellent example of a community that followed his recommendations: a variety of street types, curvilinear streets that respond to the contours of the canyons and cliffs, heavily landscaped parkways, a community name and street names that reflect the history of the land and its location, the use of uniformly placed Queen Palm trees, slow growth and quality control.

While many of his ideas and recommendations were not implemented, we can thank Nolen for the development of Morley Field, Shelter and Harbor islands, the County Administration building, Harbor Drive, Lindberg Field and the landscape plan for Presidio Park. His dream of a connection from Balboa Park to the bay is nearly fulfilled with Park Boulevard, extending from the Park to Petco Park.

Although not like some of the world’s iconic plazas Nolen envisioned for San Diego, his recommendation is close to being realized with the renovation and expansion of Horton Plaza Park on the south side of Broadway between Third and Fourth avenues. The new plan includes revival of the existing 20,000-square-foot historic park as well as the creation of a new, approximately 1-acre public plaza created by the removal of the former Robinsons-May building. Combined, the new Horton Plaza Park will cover 1.3 acres.

We can also thank Nolen for the historic restoration of Old Town, dredging the bay, the use of reservoirs for recreation, and the preservation of our beaches.

Nolen’s suggestion that San Diego have a Great Bay Front is coming alive with the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan, the recent opening of Phase One and the Waterfront Park at the County Administration building.

San Diego is still working on Nolen’s recommendation that we have many small public parks and spaces: Currently in Downtown people are enjoying the Park at the Park, Children’s Park, Ruocco Park, Tweet Street Linear Park, Embarcadero Marina Park, and the Waterfront Park with its unique and hugely popular playground.

Nolen’s legacy has lived on through the San Diego Planning Department and CCDC as well as individual landscape architects who include: Vicki Estrada (Estrada Land Planning); Marty Poirier and Andrew Spurlock (Spurlock Poirier); Mike Singleton (KTU+A); Glen Schmidt (Schmidt Design Group); Mark Johnson (Civitas); Harriet Wimmer and Joseph Yamada (Wimmer Yamada); and George Hargreaves (Hargreaves Associates).

As stated on the city’s website, planning in San Diego has a long and proud history, dating back to John Nolen’s path-breaking plans for the city in 1908 and the Balboa Park Exposition in 1915.

San Diego has become a leader among cities for its visionary approach to planning. The innovative strategies it has created have received local, state, and national awards, and made San Diego a model for other cities to follow.

—Delle Willett is a PR consultant and a freelance journalist. She does pro bono work for organizations that empower women and work to end world hunger. Reach her at


  1. Vicki Estrada says:

    Very nice article Delle!

  2. Joy Lyndes says:

    Informative article!

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