PROJECT STATEMENT: The Comprehensive Master Plan for the Orange County Great Park outlines a vision for a new kind of park. Here, new ideas for social and environmental sustainability are investigated and tested, and the citizens of Orange County become key participants in imagining these new ideas to create a healthier and more sustainable future. The Great Park knits together the diverse communities and cultures of Southern California while restoring the region’s natural heritage.
Overview and Vision
The Comprehensive Master Plan for the Orange County Great Park represents a new park typology. Promoting health at all scales is a driving force of the Great Park. The health of the individual becomes a means of understanding the importance of social and ecological health in the region. The Great Park will also become a showplace of sustainability, demonstrating new ideas, structures, systems and technologies toward a goal of creating a healthy balance between meeting human needs and promoting environmental health.
Located in Irvine, California on the site of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station—which closed in 1999—the park is a project of immense scale. At 1,347 acres, the Great Park will be larger than San Diego’s Balboa Park. The design for the Great Park features a constructed two-and-a-half mile canyon, a daylighted existing stream, a large lake, a cultural terrace, a great lawn, an aviation museum, a conservatory/botanical garden, a promenade, and a sports park. And while these may seem like typical park amenities, the vision for each park feature is anything but. The Conservatory, for example, is a bridge structure that will span the central lake and “breathe” through a porous skin while providing shade for the collections.
Another park innovation, the Great Park Balloon (currently in operation), takes visitors 400 feet into the sky, allowing people to witness the “growing of the park” during construction. Museums, agricultural plantings, and educational programs honor the people who have lived and worked on Orange County’s land in the past. The El Toro military airbase is commemorated with historic museum exhibits, a contemplative memorial, and the stories of the men and women who once served here. And a variety of park programs, from nature trails to public festivals, celebrate the area’s rich diversity of communities and cultures.
The Great Park will actually be three park experiences in one. The Canyon is a beautiful oasis—a place to wander and daydream—a place for families to picnic and for children to explore. The Habitat Park is an ecological backbone that provides species diversity, native communities and wildlife. Finally, the Fields and Memorial Park commemorates the history of the site as both a productive agricultural landscape and, more recently, a military base.
The public has played a major role in creating the Great Park. During the master plan phase, intensive sessions were held with stakeholders groups, including veterans, environmental groups, and artists. As a result, the Great Park truly is a park for everyone, reflecting the interests, values, and backgrounds of all people of Orange County. More importantly, the Great Park will set new standards for sustainability, ecological responsibility and public space in Southern California, providing a unique place to visit, relax, recreate and meet people.
Analysis and Strategies
(1) Open Space: Over time, Orange County is undergoing a profound change. What was once a landscape of open fields, orchards and vistas is being transformed into suburban development. The Master Plan includes an open space corridor in place of one of the existing colossal north-south runways of the airbase, thus preserving in the park a sense of the expansiveness that was once predominant in Orange County. Visitors will be treated to vistas at each end; the north of this axis delivers the Santa Ana Mountains, while the Southern end looks toward the coast, framing the San Joaquin Hills.
(2) History: The Master Plan celebrates the history and regional character of Orange County in several important ways. The county’s agricultural past will be reflected in the Great Park’s citrus, nut and avocado orchards, agricultural fields and community gardens. The historic importance of citrus, for instance, will “come to life” in the park’s Orchard Parking area. The master plan also honors the decades of service to the nation by the Marine Corps. For example, a timeline bisecting the site commemorates major moments in the airbase’s history.
(3) Connections: Overall, the master plan focuses on several opportunities to develop connections. Ecologically, the park is a vital link in the chain of land reserves stretching from the mountains to the sea. The park will also create social connections to the communities throughout the county by knitting together riding, hiking, and multiuse trails from all parts of the region, linking all neighborhoods to the park and communities beyond. Culturally, the park connects and celebrates the sense of history here—what came before us. The fields, the timeline, and the memorial all deal with connecting visitors to the site’s history.
(4) Topography: Over the next several years, terra-forming of the Great Park site will begin; this includes digging the Great Park canyon and lake, and creating associated landforms, such as the Cultural Terrace, and a number of outdoor areas. Daylighting of the existing Agua Chinon stream (now buried underground) will also be accomplished. These landform changes will essentially change the now mostly flat, featureless land into a new landscape complete with microclimates and capable of sustaining a wide variety of plant and animal life.
(5) Culture: A variety of park programs, from educational opportunities to public festivals, celebrate the diverse populations that make up present-day Orange County. And park features, such as the walkable Timeline, the agricultural fields, the contemplative memorial, and the Cultural Terrace and its museums will make culture vibrant and tangible and help link the park to communities far beyond the park’s boundaries.
(6) Ecology: Our goal for the Great Park is to transform the sterile expanse of the El Toro airbase into a living landscape—that is fundamental to the vision of the Great Park. Ecologically complex restored native habitats will be found in three major sections of the park—the Wildlife Corridor, Agua Chinon, and the Canyon. Native plants communities are found in other areas as well, including the Botanic Garden. These habitats will be constructed by following ecological principles and restoration protocols, and will require only modest management as time passes.
The Master Plan includes tangible, proven ecological techniques that will help ensure the Great Park can sustain itself and produce real environmental benefits. These efforts will be measured in five major categories:
Energy: Conservation of energy and on-site energy generation include a one-acre photovoltaic array that will cover an outdoor pavilion near the great lawn and will be the largest of many renewable energy installations in the Great Park. In addition, over 40 acres of switch grass or other biomass crops will be grown in the production zone for energy generation on site.
Water: Sustainable water measures include water conservation, water recycling in natural treatment wetlands and runoff capturing. An open swale and storm drain network will minimize flood flows exiting the site and maximize re-capture to the groundwater aquifers. In addition, the Park will have an array of natural treatment systems implemented in a three-stage treatment process. Stage one includes use of porous pavement and infiltration devices. Stage two features bioswales and infiltration/exfiltration media integrated into landscape zones. Stage three involves capturing water downstream in treatment wetlands.
Materials: The materials used to create the Great Park will be salvaged, recycled, ecologically engineered, and waste neutral. Portions of the demolished runway will be used on site, and redwood planks from existing on-site buildings will be used as bridge planks. In all, more than 3.5 million tons of concrete and steel will be recycled. All green waste from demolition and earthworks on the site will be brought to a permanent composting facility which will provide rich organic supplements, high in nutrients, for soil amendment.
Nature: Natural processes will be enhanced in the Great Park by restoring native habitats, enhancing biodiversity and creating ecological connections within and outside the Park. The Wildlife Corridor, off limits to the general public, will be reserved for animal movement, providing an essential ecological backbone for the Park and a critical biotic link between existing natural areas in coastal and central Orange County; this wildlife connection will allow animals to migrate across the Saddleback Valley for the first time in nearly 150 years. The Agua Chinon, a natural waterway buried in a concrete channel for 60 years, will be daylighted and reestablished as a functioning southern California riparian ecosystem. Within the Canyon, a perennial stream and ponds, reflective of southern California’s foothill and lowland aquatic habitats, will support a wide variety of native plants and animals. The Canyon will also showcase unusual habitats, including vernal pools, rock outcrops, and fern grottoes. Overall, the Great Park Master Plan includes 75 percent native and “California friendly” non-native plants; these plants have modest water needs and do not appear on any of the state’s invasive plant lists.
People: The goal of the Great Park is to create a place where sustainability becomes a tangible experience for visitors. Orange bikes will offer visitors a fun, non-polluting and healthy way to explore all elements of the Park. Fresh organic food grown at the Botanic Garden and, perhaps, in the Production Fields, will be available in park cafes and at the Farmer’s Market. In addition, new ideas and opportunities for environmental sustainability will be investigated, tested and built through the Living Park, a research and outreach center for collaboration between artists, scientists and visitors. Here, visitors can participate with experts in finding solutions to problems of our time.
The realization of the Orange County Great Park is already under way. The Comprehensive Master Plan for the Orange County Great Park was approved by the Planning Commission of the City of Irvine in September 2007. The Great Park Balloon Ride and the adjacent Visitor’s Center have already opened on site. Runway demolition is underway. And, hundreds of large trees—some 50 years old, that once graced the edges of the El Toro Base—are now boxed in a holding nursery for transplantation in the Park. Some of the park’s important features will actually be in place within the next two years. The Great Park is more than a visionary Master Plan. The Great Park is now an emerging reality.