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Harlan: Use data-driven process to determine planning needs

March 15, 2013|By Jeffrey Harlan

While reading a Daily Pilot article ("Costa Mesa may fund new high school field," March 3) a few weeks ago about the city's proposal to fund a new running track and field at Costa Mesa High School, I was struck by the following comment: "At the end of the day, we [the city] want to be the destination for every new family in Orange County."

This ambitious declaration by Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger, an avid supporter of youth athletics, seems innocuous enough on its face. Who would be opposed to enticing more families to settle in Costa Mesa?

The problem with this comment, however, is that while it sounds aspirational and visionary, it is based on a major assumption — that attracting this one demographic is the primary key to Costa Mesa's future prosperity.

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It's common for real estate developers to subscribe to the idea that families are the heart and soul of all thriving communities and therefore merit the most attention in community planning. Unfortunately, this nicely packaged marketing narrative doesn't jibe with the reality of how Orange County is changing in general, and Costa Mesa in particular.

As I noted last July, the Costa Mesa community, like the county, has gotten older over the past decade or so. Our baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) account for almost 23% of our city's population, and that cohort is projected to increase in number over the next few decades.

And according to U.S. census figures, Costa Mesa grew only 1.1% between 2000 and 2010 (representing 1,236 people). During the same period, by contrast, Irvine and Newport Beach, two cities with more developable space, grew by 48.4% (69,303) and 21.6% (15,154), respectively. With population growth expected to slow countywide, Costa Mesa should not be planning for a huge influx of new families.

Understanding these demographic trends is important because it helps establish an objective context for making long-term community investments. When considering these investments — whether they are parks and recreation facilities, streetscape improvements, bike paths, schools and the like — we need to ask and answer two fundamental questions:

First, for whom are we planning? And second, what are we planning for these people?

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