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In Ladera, It's a Beautiful Day in the Intranet Neighborhood

Residents of the south O.C. community form clubs devoted to wine, books, babies and more by posting notes on a local network.

November 30, 2003|Scott Martelle | Times staff writer

The emotion was as common as life itself.

Sarah Doyle, two months into motherhood, was beginning to climb the walls of her three-month-old home in south Orange County's new Ladera Ranch housing development, a trend-setting experiment that merges "new urbanism" architecture with a wired community of home computers.

"I was getting to that point of, 'I've got to get out and find some friends,' " Doyle said. So she posted a message on the neighborhood's private Ladera Life intranet: Any new moms out there want to take their babies for a walk to Starbucks? "A couple of gals responded and we started to meet and walk and talk," Doyle says. "Then we said, 'Anyone want to meet for a play group?' "

Nearly three years later, Doyle's initial posting has given rise to 2001 Babies, a social club of more than 40 families with children born in 2001, and two clones, 2002 Babies and 2003 Babies, which have helped Ladera evolve into just what its developers had hoped for: a modern suburban neighborhood built on human contact.

In this latest incarnation of the planned community, an evolution that began with 1940s developments in the Bay Area and on New York's Long Island, developers of the five "villages" of the 8,000-home Ladera Ranch are building the oxymoron of new traditional neighborhoods.

Among the development's innovations are tightly packed streets, lots of parks, front porches that encourage mingling, ecologically friendly buildings and a cluster of 14 homes designed to house families and small businesses.

These innovations are all linked through the Ladera Life intranet, providing a sustaining ingredient for any organization: communication.

Ladera Ranch residents post about 1,800 messages a month on the intranet, on subjects ranging from the mundane, such as people seeking referrals for contractors, to public safety concerns, such as complaints about neighbors' cars speeding through traffic circles.

"We went to great lengths to form organizations focused on building community pride and connections," said Paul Johnson, senior vice president for community development for the property owner, Rancho Mission Viejo.

"People want to live in places where they feel a part of it, where they can make a difference, and where they can stay a long time and raise a family and do it where they know, in a time of need, they're not an island."

Developers have been toying with wired communities for nearly a decade, with mixed results. A recurring problem has been establishing a self-sustaining intranet. One experiment outside Toronto ran into trouble when technological changes outpaced the system. Others stumbled when they relied on outside providers to run the system.

At Ladera Ranch, home buyers pay a one-time fee based on the price of the house, that finances neighborhood community services including the intranet. Homeowners also pay monthly association dues. In time, the developers will turn the organization over to the residents.

"We're carefully crafting the management structure and beginning to bring in neighbors to play the key roles," said Johnson. "Can we sit here today and absolutely guarantee that it will be here in 25 years? No, but we've given it every best possible opportunity to do so."

Academics believe such networks can foster stronger neighborhoods, allowing strangers to crash social barriers ranging from shyness to busy suburban lifestyles in which neighbors usually travel in separate social and professional orbits.

"People are commuting, stores increasingly are open 24 hours," said Keith Hampton, assistant professor of Technology, Urban and Community Sociology at MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning. "Before, 9-to-5 was when you were away from home, and you could predict when people were around."

With intranet postings and e-mail, virtual conversations -- and social planning -- are easier. The irony, he said, is that while the Internet is built on global connections, its most pronounced effect is local. One neighborhood he studied outside Toronto uses the developer-supported intranet to galvanize political pressure on the homebuilder to fix construction defects -- a marshaling of forces that would have been much slower and more fragmented without the use of message boards.

"One of the most striking things is that most work e-mail doesn't leave the building in which it originates, and much of it that does, does not leave the city," Hampton said. "It may actually mean there's a return of place and local community as a result of global technology."

So far, Ladera Ranch developers have built about 3,800 of 8,100 planned houses in a swale near the Santa Ana Mountains. About 3,200 of those households have signed up for Ladera Life.

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