Hidden in plain sight: Irvine’s green berms preserve quality of life

by Alan Hess

Hidden behind the tall pines and eucalyptus lining Culver Drive and Jeffrey Road in Woodbridge is one of the innovative planning ideas that make Irvine so livable.

Irvine planners anticipated a challenge at Woodbridge, which opened in 1976: How to keep the traffic noise from disturbing the new neighborhoods? Most suburbs built at the time ignored such details. But the Master Plan offered a solution before the first spade of dirt was turned.

The answer reached back to an idea from medieval builders, who would circle fortresses with berms for protection. In modern times, they’re designed to preserve the quality of life.

So effective are berms that they’re used at Disneyland, Orange County’s other internationally renowned example of master planning. The Disneyland Railroad travels atop a berm circling the park, built to keep out the noise and distractions of the outside world.

Irvine planners had a similar idea. Using soil excavated to create Woodbridge’s manmade lakes, they encircled the village with natural embankments to absorb sounds. These berms are up to 10 feet high and 40 feet wide at their base. In some places along the 405 freeway, planners added sound walls on top, then planted trees and bushes to further muffle the noise – and hide them from view.

The results of this planning technique are noticeable. Stand on the Jeffrey and Culver sides of the berm and you hear the whoosh of traffic. Stand on the inside, just a few paces away, and it’s almost like you pressed the mute button on your TV.

Today, no one may notice Woodbridge’s berms, but they are just one example of how Irvine’s Master Plan improves our quality of life with a strategy of foresight, planning and inventive design.

Irvine resident Alan Hess has authored 20 books on architecture and community planning. He is an architect, a commissioner on the California State Historical Resources Commission, and was a National Arts Journalism Program Fellow at Columbia University’s School of Journalism.