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Opinion: What Guildford Could Learn From Santa Barbara

Published on: 13 Jul, 2017
Updated on: 20 Jul, 2017

Santa Barbara, shops on State Street in the city of Santa Barbara in southern California

By Gordon Bridger

“This is the life” said Jean, as we breakfasted under a Californian sun one spring morning (2017) in Santa Barbara.

Abundant orange trees scattered around the town were laden with golden juice-filled fruit waiting to be picked. Recent but very infrequent rains had left a green mantle of trees and lawns.

This beach-side city, with elegant Spanish style architecture and a large leafy tree-lined avenues, has a well planned identity. It has successfully resisted the Corbusier concrete and glass heritage which ruined Los Angeles, and which is endangering Guildford.

Santa Barbara is an attractive city and one to which, in my youth at least, I would have considered migrating.

The city, only incorporated into the USA from a reluctant Mexico in 1876, has retained a Spanish heritage. Despite its grid-iron street pattern it is an attractive place with about the same population as Guildford and probably about the same income.

It has become very prosperous. What is most impressive is that there are no glass and concrete buildings towering over the town. With two exceptions there are no buildings over two stories, pitched red-tiled roofs are standard, and new buildings must conform to a Spanish design.

An affordable housing project in Santa Barbara.

Where new town centre houses are built they are perceptibly modern but still in the Spanish style. This feature combined with the remnant of town squares and alleyways make the city centre with its trees, cafe’s and sculptures of ordinary people of identifiably human size means that one does not have to struggle to wonder what the architects or sculptors were trying to convey.

It has a large central art gallery with the odd Monet and Van Gogh, a natural history museum with some splendid displays of natural landscape and birds, and a museum compared to which ours, in Guildford, might itself be thought of as a Victorian exhibit.

Santa Barbara Museum of Art

Having some ten days for visiting relatives, there was time on my hands to investigate how this city had been able to avoid being swamped by the concrete and glass buildings which have devoured so many of our towns and are threatening to do so in Guildford.

It does have one physical advantage over Guildford inasmuch as it is on a plain and does not have the traffic problems of our gap town. But then it lacks the environmental benefits of our varied topography.

Santa Barbara does not suffer from the same traffic congestion as Guildford

Although a major artery, between Los Angeles a hundred miles away and San Francisco, runs through it, separating the town centre from its beach, there are easy under-passes and tree cover to minimise the impact. By comparison our equivalent road the A3 causes many problems.

Santa Barbara’s main economic and social problem is however the same as ours. It is a prosperous successful city with a special identity which has made it popular but led to astronomically high house prices. And there are special labour problems which only Mexican immigrants help resolve.

A visit to their Community Development Department, and an interview with a helpful charmingly named ‘Urban Historian’ – produced a gift of a superb well-designed guide to architects wanting to build in Santa Barbara.

“Any Los Angeles architects are quickly seen off,” she told me. There was no question of the town being permissive and, “the height restriction of 40ft is not negotiable.” Perhaps less historic than Guildford they appreciate more what they have.

A page of architectural stylistic examples contained within Santa Barbara’s Design Guidelines.

In Guildford while it is appreciated that our architectural heritage has an important economic, as well as social, importance its aesthetic is continually being undermined by developments as a result of economic pressures. The Solum proposal for the railway station is one example.

Only recently there was an application to demolish a small listed building in Sydenham road. The applicant should have been told by the officers “no way”.

There is no general design guide and those regulations that exist are permissive. As a Guildford architect told me, “Any developer approaching the planning department gets very little clear advice – respect for scale and character is likely to be the best advice they will get.”

Fortunately, the council has appointed an “Urban Design Planner”, and this issue is one which might now be given priority. One hopes he will be inspired by the Santa Barbara guide and maybe visit the city.

A Santa Barbara electric bus.

Another useful idea of theirs is an electric shopper bus. This small easy-to-access vehicle takes some 25 passengers who pay a small sum into a slot machine. Cheap and easy to operate it would be ideal for Guildford.

Finally while we do not have space for tree-lined avenues why not at least transform the bleak North Street with a row of trees? It used to have them once.


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Responses to Opinion: What Guildford Could Learn From Santa Barbara

  1. A Atkinson Reply

    July 13, 2017 at 9:01 pm

    Guildford has a lot to learn from lots of places but as someone who has lived in Santa Barbara, I think the author is living in a dream world. It’s as useful as saying Guildford can learn from Hong Kong or Manhattan in terms of densification and efficient use of land in the town centre.

    State Street is often patrolled to keep the some 6,500 homeless off the main tourist streets such as the “State Street Behaviour and Panhandling ordinances” and additional stringent measures are also implemented; it wants to paint an idyllic picture for visiting tourists.

    While increased police presence effectively curbs illegal or overtly disruptive activity, the power of the law and law enforcement endangers the rights of those in the grey area who are just loitering.

    For me the problem of Santa Barbara is a lack of development to meet the needs of the city, its almost a caricature of itself, a living museum, a folly.

    The author on one hand says development is hampered by protection when supporting the creation of an isolated urban ghetto at Wisley, with housing density nearing that of Tower Hamlets, yet is bestowing its virtues in a palm tree lined, beach paradise.

    Next Mr Bridger will be suggesting Stoke Park is converted in to a sister facility to the private members complex of Santa Barbara Racquet and Polo Club. Now that will be the life.

  2. Harry Eve Reply

    July 14, 2017 at 6:25 pm

    Thank you to Gordon Bridger for this interesting article. I like the design of the electric bus – more than just a box on wheels. I tried to find out if they have any Dartford Warblers without success – and it does seem unlikely. The Natural History Museum mentioned by Alderman Bridger has an interesting guide to birdwatching with pictures of local birds. See :
    I also came across a document concerning the building of a section of the major road in the town (Freeway 101). It is a useful insight into some of the issues that could arise from a project to widen the A3. You can find it by searching for Santa Barbara Green Belt.

  3. Gordon Bridger Reply

    July 27, 2017 at 9:30 am

    Let’s try and be positive and not introduce ideas which I have not mentioned and then blame me for them
    Santa Barbara is very different from us but that does not mean that there are no lessons we can learn.

    The most interesting is their electric shopper buses. They are far cheaper than they are in Britain and the one in the photograph would suit us very well. I shall try and persuade those responsible to explore its use.
    On planning issues, especially on heights, they are clear and firm – there is a height limit. Ours is still discretional.

    They have firmly resisted Los Angeles buildings into Santa Barbara. We should resist Woking buildings into Guildford.

    Cheer up lads be positive (if you want to know about dead warblers keep your eyes peeled for latest letter).

    • Harry Eve Reply

      July 27, 2017 at 5:24 pm

      I like the idea of electric shopper buses. One possibility could be to use them on a round the town service but also for Park & Rides where there could be room for recharging facilities.

      One safety issue would be making them noisy enough to be noticed by pedestrians. At risk of humour being mistaken for negativity – I suggest they be given a distinctive warble.

      • John Perkins Reply

        July 28, 2017 at 11:03 am

        A recorded warble would reduce the range of the buses. Better to provide each bus with a busker. Or perhaps passengers could sing instead of paying a fare?

  4. Paul Bishop Reply

    July 27, 2017 at 8:49 pm

    I love Santa Barbara, in fact, I will be there in a couple of weeks! However, it is a very different place to Guildford. It doesn’t have much in the way of a business centre, most people commute from Santa Barbara rather than to it.

    Highway 1 which ones through Santa Barbara is also nowhere near as busy as the A3, it’s even quieter now significant chunks of it are shut. Most people blast down Highway 5 between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

    Santa Barbara is a wonderful place, but if that’s what you want then I suggest you’ll have more luck moving there rather than trying to make Guildford in its image. Glad you had a good trip and it is a nicely written article, certainly something it would be great if we could achieve – maybe we should start with the weather!

  5. Gordon Bridger Reply

    August 5, 2017 at 10:23 am

    Paul Bishop is quite right about Santa Barbara – although there are some similarities. All I was proposing that we should have much stricter enforcement rules on building heights – ours allow for visual discretion Santa Barbara has a 41-foot limit- and that shuttle bus would be ideal

    I think we have a much greater wider range of cultural facilities, and we do not have the San Andreas fault. Our weather is our drawback – but visitors from California love our rain.

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