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Future OC

For years Orange County was the home of the future. What happened, and what's next?

Walt Disney shows Disneyland plans/Courtesy of OC Archives

For those of us raised on the forward-looking vision of Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland circa the mid-to-late 20th century, the lack of a unifying vision of the future so far in the 21st century is a bit unsettling.

Back in the day, the future was an exciting place, fuelled by the fantastic visions of optimistic writers like Ray Bradbury. By now, many of us expected to live in plastic Monsanto houses, drive nuclear-powered cars (or at least ones that fly) and vacation on Mars. We expected to at least have personal jet packs, as almost every journalist who tried out the water jet pack in Newport Harbor this year seems to have noted.

Maybe our lack of forward thinking is in part because we don’t have an iconic date to set our sites on, or a unifying goal to achieve. I’m too young to recall JFK’s speech where he set the goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth, but my youth was informed by the space race that it inspired.

Later, it was the year 1984 as the spectre of Orwell’s Big Brother loomed. And remember how far in the future Prince’s 1999 (as in “Let’s party like it’s…”) once seemed? That joyful New Year’s Eve was to be followed by the next year’s Y2K scare, which we all somehow survived.

But today it seems like the only date that has registered in the collective zeitgeist is December 21, 2012, the Mayan doomsday that far too many people believe is imminent. Maybe it’s difficult to get excited by the future when faced with the “may you live in interesting times” curses of climate change, uncertain economics and an international scene that seems poised to rise from a simmer to a full boil.

Blame it on dystopian views of the future found in science fiction films or perhaps on the general downsizing of our national vision, but the future hasn’t been all that it was cracked up to be.  

But it wasn’t always so.

Back in the ‘60s, the monorail wasn’t just a ride, it was a promise of things to come. Tomorrowland was home to Space Station X-1 and the Monsanto House of the Future, which included a microwave oven, cordless phones and a huge flat-screen TV. Walt was planning for an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow when he died, a feat of futuristic urban planning that never reached its full potential, even if Florida’s EPCOT did include elements of his extraordinary vision.

Though Disneyland’s land of tomorrow is still a place of wonder, it now seems safe, even retro. The New York Times recognized the shift as far back as 1997: “As today’s idea of the future has become less romantic, Disney, as myth maker, has recognized that yesterday’s idea of the future is, for many, much more inviting.” And at the same time, Time magazine said of Disney’s retro future: “It’s not a novel observation to point out that our culture has become increasingly backward looking.”

Build It and the Future Will Come
That may be so, as far as big picture vision goes, but as a community long based on real estate development, Orange County has been planning, building and growing toward the future. Whether it’s a housing tract, a concert hall or a shopping center, we always seem to be looking forward to the next big thing.

It even seems that master planning itself was perfected in Orange County, or at least the process was. Take the city of Irvine.


Henny Youngman-esque jokes aside, no matter what one thinks of its architecture and aesthetic, Irvine is one of the most successful pieces of urban planning ever. Just look at the people voting with their passports and pocketbooks by moving to the city from across the world. Safety, schools and serenity: The global community could use more of all three.

Alas, some of the plans and ideas of the past decade had to face economic reality. A proposed international airport was replaced by a grand design for a great park at El Toro, which itself has been downsized, in ambition if not acreage. And there were intriguing schematics of six to eight new high-rise towers in the South Coast Metro area of Costa Mesa and Santa Ana, including a new art museum topped with luxury condos. The museum we hope to see in the next few years, sans the condos, which haven’t pencilled out in some time. Time will tell.

And we loved the idea of a David Rockwell-designed W hotel in Huntington Beach, which was part of the plan when Pacific City was a Makar project. It was scheduled to have opened in 2010, but for the economic collapse. New owners Crescent Heights are now floating the idea of the approved eight-story, 250-room hotel being surf industry-themed. The group plans to break ground next July on the mixed-use project. Since we went a bit blue in the face holding our breath for the first incarnation, excuse us if we breathe easy until opening day.

Speaking of Rockwell and ambitious projects shelved, many of us still recall the grand Ziggurat building standing alone and empty in Laguna Niguel after aerospace giant North America Rockwell shelved plans for the William Pereira-designed building to house the world's largest electronics plant. Eventually it was sold to the federal government, a swap of science and technology for bureaucracy that seems symbolic of a 1970s malaise that Jimmy Carter would speak to in '79.

Still, we are seeing ambitious projects that were shelved revived recently (though in different forms and under new ownership) as demand for housing (especially apartments) heats up. Maybe a future of high rises is still in the cards, though we’d trade those in for some bold new vision of mass transit.

In Transit Gloria
You can have your jet packs. By 2012 we really, really thought we’d be cruising around the county by light rail. Imagine how disappointed old Walt would be. No monorails outside of Disneyland – in fact, no mass transit at all beyond the century-old technologies of railways and buses.

Apparently we love sitting in traffic rather than on trains. But it wasn’t always so, of course. Orange County was once part of an expansive SoCal rail system. And even a decade ago there were plans well under way for a light rail mass transit system in the county.

Though a light rail or even “low speed MagLev” transit line might some day run from downtown Santa Ana into L.A. along a former Pacific Electric Red Car right of way, it’s nothing like what The CenterLine would have been: a 9.3-mile light rail system that was supposed to serve the heart of Irvine, Costa Mesa and Santa Ana.

Originally scheduled to open in 2010 as the first phase of a 30-mile route, it was scuttled after a conspiracy of General Motors, Standard Oil and Firestone Tires led by Judge Doom. Oh wait, that’s how the Red Cars were killed, as imagined in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Well, the Red Cars are back on Buena Vista Street in Disney’s California Adventure. So maybe there’s still a future for mass transit in this most modern of metropolises! Or, as Ray Bradbury told biographer Sam Weller a couple of years before his death: “We’ve gotta build monorails all over L.A. and California...The freeways don’t work, but monorails would do the job for us. Get rid of the goddamn freeways and build the monorails.”

Financial Fortunes
Billions have been made predicting the future from right here in OC: Just ask Bill Gross, a modern day seer whose every move managing the world’s largest bond fund is watched closely for what it reveals about our global financial future. Gross recently riled experts and investors when the PIMCO founder and managing director wrote, “The cult of equity is dying,” predicting a dismal future for stocks as an investment. He expanded upon that in September: “The age of credit expansion, which led to double-digit portfolio returns, is over. The age of inflation is upon us, which typically provides a headwind, not a tailwind, to securities price – both stocks and bonds.”

But Bill Gross isn’t the only financial psychic in Orange County. Dr. Esmael Adibi has spent his career predicting the future by way of the Chapman University Economic Forecast. He is said to have predicted the current great recession back in December 2007. Along with Chapman President Jim Doti, Adibi’s current economic calculations will be announced November 28, 2012, at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. Dr. Adibi gave us a bit of a sneak peek, calling the next year’s forecast one of his most difficult ones. “There are a number of challenges ahead, and depending on the outcomes, the economy could show a decent growth or swing into recession.”

Some of the factors affecting the immediate economic future include the situation in Europe; an economic slowdown in Asia, Brazil and India; the elections; whether Bush’s tax cuts extend into 2013; the expiration of 2% reduction in payroll taxes; and “the fiscal cliff,” an automatic federal government spending cutback of $120 billion.

But what of a longer-term outlook? Adibi lauds our beautiful weather, excellent higher education system, and the presence of many entrepreneurs, which he calls “big pluses” for the county’s future. But beware of challenges like “the K-12 education system that is not keeping up with the skills required 15-20 years from now, growing diversity of the population that could be a plus and a minus, high relative housing costs, and much more congestion.” The economist concludes that “in spite of all these, Orange County, San Diego and the Bay Area should outperform California in terms of job creation, income and consumer spending.”

“By 2020, maybe 2025, the primary driving force of politics in the county will come from an assortment of business entrepreneurs, displacing the alliance of landowners and developers who have wielded power in recent decades," says Mark Petracca, a UCI professor and political prognosticator.  

These new power brokers will be less interested in using the power of government to promote infrastructural development than they will be in the government's ability to promote and develop international and domestic trade. While they are likely to remain fiscal conservatives, Petracca predicts this emerging power elite will be decidedly liberal on most social issues. “The values of social conservatism once so closely identified with Orange County politics (especially around the country) has started to wane already due to demographic changes in the county.” Petracca thinks the changes could ultimately impact the structure of county government since the power brokers won't depend as much on access to the seats of power, creating public support for a much reduced and scaled back county governmental apparatus.

Speaking of diversity and changing demographics, the Asian communities in OC will continue to gain influence as immigration from China and other countries increases. "The fusion of the coastal lifestyle and Asian culture will be a very interesting synthesis," says Joel Kotkin, an author and expert on urban and suburban culture who is a Distinguished Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. "The children of immigrants will become OC's leaders," he says. And though he foresees friction between Hispanic and Asian immigrant groups with issues of income and education disparity at the forefront, ultimately he predicts a growing intermingling of all groups. "In 20 years the physical appearance of OC's population will look much more like Hawaii, which will be a very interesting cultural change."

OC 20/20
Other predictions about Orange County’s future over the coming decades tend to be, well… a bit predictable. We’ll see an increasingly urban core in Anaheim and Santa Ana surrounded by coastal concentrations of astounding wealth; the influence of the travel and tourism industry will expand as OC’s standing as a resort refuge for the global elite expands; a decreased manufacturing base will be offset by the advances of clean technology, many connected to UC Irvine as an incubator.

But what about the crazy prognostications that years hence will cause us to go “Wow, they really got it.” For example, Philip K. Dick, a science fiction writer and visionary who died in OC in 1982 after living the last decade of his life in Fullerton and Santa Ana, said this in a time well before smart phones: “There will come a time when it isn't 'They're spying on me through my phone' anymore. Eventually, it will be 'My phone is spying on me.’"

How about gas back to $2 a gallon? That’s a reality two OC entrepreneurs, Joseph Hollander and Eyal Aronoff, are hoping to make happen through their Fuel Freedom initiative. How about high-speed rails, MagLev or otherwise, connecting Orange County to the rest of California and the west? Those plans are already in place, though they pale in comparison to China’s ambitious idea to link Beijing and London via a high-speed train that would travel across 17 countries. Now that’s thinking big.

In that vein, here’s a crazy idea. Now that it’s clear that the Great Park might end up just being pretty good (at least for those who loved Ken Smith’s original design), let’s sell, lease or otherwise give a corner of the downsized park to the geniuses at Disney. We imagine they’re drowning in cash after the success of Disney California Adventure, and are likely eager for a new challenge. They could create an inland version of Tokyo DisneySea, or come up with a new EPCOT-like concept, or perhaps take some of Ken Smith’s ideas and monetize them.

The only caveat: the Anaheim Resort and the new Disney Great Park have to be linked by high speed rail, monorail or some other form of mass transit in a private public partnership that would provide the ultimate park hopper people mover, while also providing the spine of a new, modern transit system for the next century. Hey, as long as we’re dreaming, why not dream big?

Future Shock
No one has a crystal ball of what the future holds for the world. There is seemingly no consensus about what course would be best. Many favor fundamentalism of various stripes, while others still hold out for science, democracy and modernity.

It’s hard to find consensus even on what the most game-changing inventions have been in our past. The wheel, art, electricity, the light bulb, the internal combustion engine, and probably the iPhone seem like likely choices. Quantum theory and the discovery of DNA are right up there. Something as simple and taken for granted as the ability to read silently was a groundbreaking breakthrough, some thinkers tell us.

Physicist Carlo Rovelli has an unexpected addition to the breakthrough list: the tractor. Some 95% of humanity worked the fields a couple of centuries ago just to feed us all, Rovelli says. He adds another to his list: hygiene. “Our life expectancy has nearly doubled from little more than washing hands and taking showers,” Rovelli has written.

So what are the breakthroughs on their way? What will change the future in ways we can only imagine, or can’t picture at all? For those who have hopes that great brains in business, technology and academia provide a path to the future, here are a few things scientists are thinking about and working on. Sources include academic journals, magazines and answers to big questions on sites like edge.org, brainpickings.org and other forward-thinking sites and journals.

The most important breakthrough of the century may already be here: the mobile smart phone. It seems certain that more people will soon have phones than ever had home computers or even automobiles. The ability to access the sum of human knowledge, compute and communicate with each other on a global scale will change the world in ways we’ve only begun to see.

One aspect of that connectivity is the possibility that visionary teachers who in the past could only reach a few classrooms can now reach hundreds of millions, including kids in impoverished areas of Africa and elsewhere with little or no access to libraries. Already, talks on ted.com and teachings from the Khan Academy are making knowledge available to everyone with Internet access. Imagine wired schools and students around the world, with access to the cutting-edge of human thought and culture.

Green Energy
What if scientists can bring the power of photosynthesis to energy development? Biologist and science writer Alun Anderson imagines “engineered organisms that can soak up energy in a vat in any sunny spot and turn that sunlight straight into a precursor for fuel, preferably a precursor that can go straight into an existing oil refinery that can turn out gasoline.” Others look to advancements in how we deliver energy and electricity: a smart grid.

This is one new industry that OC is on the ground floor for. UC Irvine is home to the Center for Solar Energy and the National Fuel Cell Research Center, while Orange County is based on a growing core of clean industry research, development and funding that could change the way OC does business.

Life Extension
Some researchers think increasing the average life to 125 years or even longer will be possible through research that is unlocking the secrets of cellular aging, replacing damaged or diseased limbs by growing new ones with cells from the patient’s own body or implanting biosensors linked to our own DNA that will sense any diseases instantly as they manifest themselves on the molecular level. Of course an aging society is difficult enough to manage now. Will the retirement age be 100? Assuming more robust health for those 80+ workers, how will society benefit from keeping all that experience, wisdom and wealth in the system so much longer?

Brain Boosting
Implants to improve intelligence aren’t too far away. Scientists have already had success with monkeys. By implanting electrodes into the cerebral cortex, researchers were able to improve and restore damaged decision-making abilities (abilities the scientists first impaired by giving the monkeys cocaine, apparently). Of course if our mechanically aided brains outperform biological ones, author Gregory Paul foresees the day that “formerly human minds will become entirely artificial as they move into ultra sophisticated, dispersed robot systems.” Wait. I saw that movie, and it didn’t end well for humans.

Global Warming
Humans are remarkably adaptable entities, and evolution seems to work best when organisms are under stress. Which is an optimistically long-view way of looking at what many scientists believe is an impending catastrophe likely too far along to fix. An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security by Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall is several years old now, and makes for unsettling late night reading. Still, those scientists are always thinking, thankfully. On edge.org, Eric Drexler imagines a future where “We could make efficient devices able to collect, compress and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and we could make solar arrays large enough to generate enough power to do this on a scale that matters.” He imagines a solar array taking up a corner of Texas that could generate three terawatts of energy. “In the course of 10 years, three terawatts would provide enough energy to remove all the excess carbon the human race has added to the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution began.”

Whew. Well, if that’s all a bit much to take over morning coffee, we’ll end on an up note, of sorts. Ray Bradbury said this about predicting the future: “Whatever you want is whatever you get. You don’t predict things, you make them. Don’t think about things, just do them.”

And as Bradbury’s fellow science fiction writer and prescient predictor Arthur C. Clarke said way back in 1964: “The only thing that we can be sure of the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic.”

An Alternate OC
Those who read speculative fiction or muse about the way things might have been may appreciate pondering an alternate OC reality. How would Orange County be different if:
• James Irvine II was bought out by his partners, and not vice versa, in the 1890s, or Mobile Oil’s 1977 bid for the Irvine Company had been successful;
• The aerospace industry and the military put their plants, bases and labs in San Diego instead of here, or Rockwell's electronics plant in Laguna Niguel's ziggurat building had succeeded, triggering a Silicon Valley-like growth in the 1970s and '80s;
• Stanford Institute had recommended that Disneyland go someplace other than Anaheim. Corona, maybe, or Sherman Oaks;
• The Segerstrom family sold off their land in the ‘50s and ‘60s when many of their OC neighbors did, taking advantage of rising land prices and moving their agriculture business to the San Joaquin Valley;
• Don Bren fell in love with architectural modernism rather than Mediterranean design;
• The massive Pacific Coast Freeway (which was on the transportation plans until the early 1970s) had actually been carved through OC communities, bisecting CdM and Laguna Beach.

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