Carlsbad Lays the Groundwork for a Livable Community


In recent years, Carlsbad has been building bike lanes and better sidewalks. Image courtesy of City of Carlsbad

Carlsbad has a high quality of life because of the priorities set by local leaders, including preservation of fragile ecosystems and an emphasis on multimodal transportation. Image courtesy of City of Carlsbad


Carlsbad, CA, has some serious natural advantages. It’s on a gorgeous seven-mile stretch of one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world. It sees about 263 sunny days each year. The average daytime highs range from the mid-60s to the mid-70s all year long. It’s got pristine, sandy beaches where surfers ride the waves; a quaint downtown shopping district; the nation’s first skateboard park; and walking trails that wend their way for miles over the golden hills.

So it’s no real surprise that Carlsbad, 35 miles north of San Diego and 87 miles south of Los Angeles, is a popular place to live. Originally home to the indigenous Luiseño people, Carlsbad was for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries a relatively sparsely populated agricultural community. But between 1950 and 1980, the population exploded, going from about 4,300 to more than 35,000.

Then, between 1980 and 2000, the number of folks who called Carlsbad home more than doubled again, to 78,000. Between 2000 and 2010, the boom continued,
and the most recent estimate is that 111,452 people live in the city, many in master-planned developments of recent vintage.

Carlsbad has also promoted itself as a tourist destination, and since 1999 has been home to the Legoland amusement park. Life Technologies, a global biotech firm with about 10,000 employees, has its headquarters here, as do several other companies. In July 2013, the city opened its first science business incubator. And in August 2013, Google named Carlsbad the “digital capital” of California, citing the city’s entrepreneurial spirit and job creation in the digital sector.

With all that growth, how has the city maintained a pleasant, livable atmosphere?

Don Neu, Carlsbad’s city planner, says that the groundwork for the civilized Carlsbad of today was laid nearly 30 years ago. “The city back in 1986 adopted a growth management plan,” says Neu. “They decided to pace the construction of facilities and infrastructure with new development.”

City leaders also chose to set performance standards for developments that didn’t just measure the usual amenities such as water and sewer, but also things such as open space. “Some of the things that are now seen as measures of ‘livability’ were in there,” says Neu.

Starting in the late ’90s, a habitat management plan ensured that 40 percent of the city’s area would stay in open space. State regulations about development in coastal areas have mandated that builders implement erosion controls, further preserving significant pieces of the area’s delicate ecosystem. Habitat restoration to compensate for development is a civic fiscal priority.

Now that most of the areas open to construction under the limitations have been built out, Neu says, the city is turning its emphasis to enhancing multimodal transportation—building bike lanes and better, more pleasant sidewalks. “We’re giving equal weight to bikes and pedestrians,” says Neu, who says that in a community where active lifestyles are the norm, the bike and pedestrian improvements have been popular. “Some of these roadways don’t need to be as big as they have been.”

There’s a new emphasis on roundabouts instead of signalized intersections, both for the traffic-calming effect and the reduced maintenance costs. And planners have encouraged localized commercial districts in different neighborhoods. “Each part of the community has commercial goods and services within a reasonable distance,” says Neu.

Carlsbad also has two stations for the Coaster commuter rail service that goes to San Diego, a ride that takes just under an hour. One is in the historic village center, where the architecture reflects the German heritage of some of the town’s founders (the city was named for the German spa town of Karlsbad, because of the similar mineral content of the local water). The other station is a couple of miles south, the focus of a transit-oriented housing development that struggled when it came online at the height of the economic downturn, but is now back on the market.

The city adopted a redevelopment plan for its historic village center in 1981, and embarked on a new revitalization effort in 2012, including formation of a permanent
downtown management organization to ensure the area’s continued success. New decorative lighting enhances downtown streets. An expanded farmers’ market
held its grand opening in the village in June 2013. Yet more bike racks and bike lanes were installed in 2013. And the city recently launched an innovative pilot program to allow “curb cafes”—outdoor dining space for restaurants that extends beyond the sidewalk and onto parking spaces.

Neu says Carlsbad has a high quality of life because of the priorities set by local leaders. “There’s always been a lot of attention to preserving and making it a good place,” says Neu. “We’ve always had a city council supportive of planning, and giving us the resources to do it.”