Urban Resilience: Lessons at Newport Beach, CA

7 Mins



Richard Voss



August 18, 2023

Newport Beach has a unique urban brand, which was built on the initial principles of its founders and the subsequent adaptation due to environmental challenges.

Urban Resilience: Lessons at Newport Beach,  CA

I recently visited Newport Beach in Southern California to see whether entrepreneurial heritage, tempered exclusivity and resilience can be successfully coupled in order to establish a unique urban brand.

Captain Samuel S. Dunnells winged an entry into the South Californian dangerous harbour in 1870. On hearing this, the Irving brothers agreed to found a port here and called it simply "New Port". The settlement became a lively commercial port with fishing and shipbuilding. The MacFadden Brothers, among others, saw housing opportunities and created some artificial islands in the harbour waters. One Island was called Balboa was connected by a bridge to the mainland and by a small car ferry to the peninsula, which still operates today. This is a highly sustainable measure as it reduces driving times around the peninsula to the North.

I learnt three distinct three things from my visit to Newport Beach. First, the infrastructural framework of an urban environment is borne out of the ethos of the original founders. Secondly, ad hoc resilience measures, which need to be untaken, may foster indirect urban realm benefits. Lastly, Newport Beach uses its inherent high-value urban brand to ensure its success as it faces new urban and environmental challenges.

What are the key ingredients in building a successful and sustainable city?

The Founding DNA of Resilience

“Often the founding principles in Urban Resilience are established early on in a City’s DNA”.

The real estate developers such needed to dredge Newport Harbour and create the artificial islands. Unfortunately, a lack of knowledge of local tide patterns meant that Balboa Island's ground level was set too low and was subject to flooding at high king tides. In the 1940s a sea wall was built around to prospect the 800 properties. However, the inherent environmental challenges in a new world settlement such as Newport Beach were perhaps not fully appreciated at the time of its establishment. Furthermore, new climatic changes to sea levels could increase flooding risks.

I could see that the urban authorities are currently increasing the height of the Bilbao Island seawall by 9 inches. This is as part of a 10-15-year plan to mitigate flooding on the island.

Realising Brand Potential

"Interestingly, necessary resilience and infrastructural upgrades can considerably enhance the Urban Realm if implemented holistically."

In 1945 US army engineers implemented the work of the sea wall of what was a private island. Therefore, local taxpayers were unhappy that the public purse was being used to shore up the resilience of the housing and commercial activities on the island. The deal hatch was an interesting one to answers the needs of the various stakeholders. A public boardwalk was introduced on the perimeter of the sea wall. Everyone had access to walk around the one and a half-mile perimeter of the island. It is a pleasant walk with the boats coming and going, car ferry arriving and families enjoying the beaches. Another aspect of the sea wall deal was the beach around the island could be used by the public, even it fronts the coastal residences. The question here for local authorities, town planners and urban designers are if costly resilience improvement measures can also be used to improve urban inclusivity and accessibility.

Urban Realm Benefits

“Every city is building a brand, which is constantly evolving due to social, economic and environmental change.”

I feel that Newport Beach, and in particularly Balboa Island, is successful in urban terms because of the measures taken to improve the resilience of the community. This has provided the environs with a pleasant pedestrian-friendly precinct on the seafronts, beaches and commercial activity axes. Some of these measures were not originally planned by the founders in the 1880s. For example, the founder of Bay Island, who was a horse lover, insisted that there were no cars on the island. This is still the case today and carpooling occurs off the island's limits.

Cities are competing with each other to say sometimes conflicting things such as we are safe, welcoming, accessible, exclusive, diverse and dynamic. At Newport Beach, its brand is built on a myriad of factors: its founding heritage, its unique topography and its proximity to Los Angeles. After all, Newport Beach was the place where Shirley Temple built her first home. Also, a host of successful entrepreneurs-built homes here on the various islands and peninsulas; these were flanked by the homes of Hollywood greats such as John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Cities also about there “storied” past as well as access, circulation routes, zoning, building mass and amenity. I suggest this type of heritage builds civic pride in places.


I believe that Newport Beach has a unique urban brand, which was built on the initial principles of its founders and the subsequent adaptation due to environmental challenges. Interestingly, resilience measures such as the seawall and walkway to Balboa Island have actually improved its urban realm. The brand of a city evolves as it transforms due to changes in economic and demographic conditions. Therefore, as with a product, cities are always changing to meet new customer needs and environmental changes. There is increased competition between cities for attracting investment, innovation and talent. Understanding the brand DNA of a city could potentially increase resilience in future social, economic and environmental challenges.

A "Balboa Bar" is a block of vanilla ice cream with chocolate covering dipped into the topping of your choice. The bar, I discovered, is best enjoyed in the sunshine on the island, which was built on a sandbar. There will no doubt be environmental challenges ahead for Newport Beach and in particularly Balboa Island, with rising sea levels. However, hopefully, these can provide the as yet unrealised creative opportunities.

This article was originally published by the Urban Design Forum NZ.

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