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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Constructing Identity in Master Planned Utopia: The Case of Irvine New Town

  • Author(s): Ruggeri, Deni
  • Advisor(s): Southworth, Michael
  • et al.

This dissertation investigates the influence of landscape architecture and urban design on

the establishment of sense of place in Irvine, California, and the consequences of design

decisions on the residents' place-identity and attachment to their hometown. It opens with an

overview of the evolution of the suburban model and the theories of place identity and

attachment as environmental and social psychologists have interpreted them. It continues with a

brief account of Irvine's history and a discussion of the idiosyncratic elements that made it what

it is today: its master planned nature, the presence of a single owner and developer, an

experimental planning process whereby landscape architects and urban designers acted as

mediators between the various actors of the development process, and the interplay of design

and marketing that guided every planning decision.

This dissertation adopts a definition of place identity as a multifaceted "gradient," which

encompasses the emotional attachment that emerges from individuals' bonds with place, the

satisfaction experienced as their needs are fulfilled, the legibility and imageability of their

environment, and the social imageability and values that they share with other residents. The

author's assumption was that these dimensions of the person/place relationship contribute to

establish place identity, and that such place identity acts as a "gestalt." Thus, place identity

becomes more than the sum of each identity component, which is consistent with Harold

Proshansky's (1983) place identity definition as a "pot-pourri."

Through surveys, semi-structured interviews, cognitive mapping and traditional site

analysis, this research revealed that Irvine's unique urban design does contribute to such an

identity gradient, ultimately shaping the lives and identities of the residents of three of Irvine's

most popular villages: Northwood, Westpark, and Woodbridge. Out of all the placemaking tools

urban designers employ, landscape architecture is the one residents value the most. Despite the

developers' investments in architectural details and its obsession with stylistic "authenticity," it

is the landscape that dominates people's lives. To preserve its aesthetic appeal, rules and regulations are in place, which allow homeowner's associations to control every aspect of the

landscape, from the size and species of trees to the height of grass blades and the opening of a

garage door. This rigidity is a source of frustration among residents and raises the issue of

whether Irvine will be able to adapt to changing world economic and environmental conditions.

This research concludes by highlighting the unique challenges faced by suburban

communities like Irvine as they approach their mature stage. It also suggests ways in which

urban designers and landscape architects may be able to help move suburbia toward more

sustainable futures.

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