Two buildings in Patagonia’s downtown express the town’s unique, coherent character. Photo by Stephanie Smith

Our built environment increasingly looks the same, no matter where you happen to be. We see the same big box retail stores, the same drive-thru coffee shops, and the same gas stations on every corner. But some areas have managed to retain a unique feeling. Eastern Santa Cruz County is one of those areas. Our mix of minimally developed open space (ranches and vineyards, nature preserves, protected watersheds) and small communities with a village-like atmosphere make this area recognizably special to those who live and visit here. In urban planning we call this quality ‘community character.’ Many would agree that our area’s community character should be embraced and preserved, especially as it positively impacts our tourism economy.

A resurgence of mining activity is likely to bring rapid development and congestion to our towns, putting our community character at risk. Growth and change are a constant, and working with change is the goal of most planning efforts, but future growth does not have to destroy what we care about most. Many nonprofit groups focus on open space and ecosystem protections in our area (PARA, Wildlife Corridors LLC, Arizona Land and Water Trust, and The Nature Conservancy, name a few), and they continually need and deserve our support. But we have fewer protections in place for our ‘village’ community character in Sonoita and Patagonia.

Urban planners have developed various approaches to protect community character. The process begins with an assessment of an area’s ‘urban form.’ Urban form, according to the American Planning Association (APA), is characterized by the relationships among “streets, blocks, lots, buildings, and other man-made features.” Intuitively we ‘read’ these relationships as we experience our built space, and take signals from them. Is there a place for us to gather on a nice day? Is it safe to walk on this sidewalk along a busy street? Do I feel a sense of history and heritage when I approach my town center?

It turns out that just a few of these relationships have an outsized effect on a community’s character. These key measures include “the heights and widths of buildings, the distances between the fronts of buildings and the edges of streets… and the variation in those heights, widths, and distances across the community.” While this sounds technical, the simple act of measuring these relationships gives urban planners a starting point to create design guidelines to ensure that community character remains intact while an area undergoes rapid change.

Design guidelines are a relatively common approach that communities take to guide building renovations and new development so that they fit well in their surroundings. Design guidelines typically include elements related to site planning, building scale and architectural character. These guidelines are adopted by a municipality and enforced through zoning or other ordinances.

Two examples illustrate how design guidelines are created and used:

Bisbee has successfully preserved its historic community character using design guidelines originally written in 1991. A former mining ‘company town’ founded in 1878, Bisbee started as a rough-and-tumble encampment, but as copper mining boomed in the early decades of the 20th century, the mine owner, Phelps Dodge Corporation, built a large number of commercial and institutional buildings (a hospital, library, YMCA gym, department store, large hotel and more). All were designed by prominent architects of the day, and were expensively executed. Today, many are still standing, and two districts in Bisbee are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The city created a Design Review Board to approve construction projects in these districts, following the 1991 guidelines. Fifty-five projects were reviewed by the Board in 2022. Developers are asked to “borrow ideas of style, proportion, scale, height, materials, etc. from adjacent buildings and then seek an honest contemporary solution to the design problem.” The design guidelines state that while “Bisbee’s old commercial buildings do not all look alike, they have common characteristics,” which are detailed in the document. For instance building facades typically include decorative brickwork, marble wainscotting, and double-hung windows. The guidelines even include recommendations on paint color.

Pioneertown, in the California desert near Joshua Tree National Park, was created by a group of Hollywood actors and investors in 1946 as a cowboy-themed film set and fully functional town. Some of the businesses are still operating today on ‘Mane Street’,
including the Red Dog Saloon and a post office. And while the town ultimately failed as a viable film set, and languished for decades, the area has become popular over the past decade with millions of park visitors staying in vacation rentals nearby.

Pioneertown is unincorporated and under San Bernardino County control. The county is in the process of rezoning the area, removing the ‘Special Development’ designation which protected it from over development, and opening Pioneertown up to commercial development, including night clubs and chain stores.

Local residents, concerned about the potential loss of Pioneertown’s unique character, organized to create the “Mane Street Overlay,” a proposal with legal power, that if enacted will encourage the development of small shops and restaurants consistent with Pioneertown’s historic character, and restrict chain stores. It also incorporates design guidelines for size, location and building materials. With broad community support, the plan will be considered by the county in public hearings this fall.

For us here in eastern Santa Cruz County, working collaboratively with our local governments to enact community character protections is a crucial first step as we navigate our area’s rapid changes. While some might view design guidelines as overstepping a commercial property owner’s rights, many have found that participating in a collective effort to maintain the cohesion, heritage and beauty of our public realm pays off in increased liveability, and a stronger tourism economy.

Stephanie Smith, who is building a home in Wildlife Haven, recently completed an Urban Planning master’s degree at University of Arizona.