A San Diego Visionary —

The Nolen Plans of 1908 & 1926

“San Diego has the location and the physical foundation for an important, perhaps a great city. It stands upon the threshold of a truly sound and far-reaching development.”

— John Nolen, a nationally respected landscape architect and city planner, from his illustrated 1908 book, San Diego, A Comprehensive Plan For Its Improvement.

John Nolen took the city to task for having a plan that was “not thoughtful, but, on the contrary, ignorant and wasteful.” He expressed his displeasure with the narrow and repetitive streets that had destroyed picturesque canyons and valleys.

John Nolen’s 1926 proposal for San Diego’s Civic Center

John Nolen’s 1926 proposal for San Diego’s Civic Center

The urban planner proposed the preservation of beaches and open space for the public while designing a grand European-style plaza surrounded by civic buildings between Date and Cedar streets with a wide boulevard that would have connected Balboa Park to the civic center and the bay. Nolen warned that if the planning of San Diego’s growth ”is haphazard, you will lose many of the advantages that nature has presented to you as a free gift.”

Unfortunately, our city fathers didn’t share his utopian vision.

In 1924 Nolen was asked to update his initial plan, again at the expense of George Marston. The broadened goals also emphasized the waterfront, featuring an 11-mile drive next to the bay running from the southern boundary of the city, past downtown and the County Administration building past a suggested airport to the Navy bases in Point Loma. Nolan also proposed the historic restoration of Old Town, dredging the bay and the use of reservoirs for recreation.

The City Council adopted his revived plan, but much of it was not implemented. We can thank John Nolen for the development of Morley Field, Shelter and Harbor islands, the County Administration building, Harbor Drive and Lindbergh Field.