Planned communities often have a boring reputation, especially for those who don't live in them.  In urban planning circles, however, they are excellent case studies in design and large-scale development.  And they are wildly successful for families.  Consider the fact that master planned communities grow from scratch, with every land use detail accounted for.  I often joke that you can't find weeds in planned communities.  That's because the landscaping is controlled as well, paid for by resident association fees or taxes.

The City of Irvine's Open Space Trail along Jeffrey Boulevard is a 3.5 mile trail tracing the
history of Irvine Ranch and providing a multitude of options for users.
Most large planned communities are located in the southwest, and Southern Orange county may have the highest concentration in the US - Mission Viejo, Ladera Ranch, Irvine, Rancho Santa Margarita, Irvine and, the latest, Rancho Mission Viejo.  I'm not a fan of gated communities, so I will concentrate my  discussion on more open cities and developments.

From a design point of view, here are the most interesting features of planned communities:
1)  The developers have so much land to work with that they can provide much more open space.
2)  Recreational amenities, such as trails, artificial lakes and recreation centers, far surpass
non-planned communities.
3)  Property maintenance is controlled through covenants, conditions and restrictions so there is nothing out of place.  They represent a Totally Controlled Urban Environment!
4)  The landscaping is often very extensive.
5)  Over time, planned communities are getting more and more walkable, with a tighter blend of commercial, residential and open space.

LANDSCAPING - This is one of the most impressive aspects of planned communities.  Their extensive use of medians, parkways, parks, and street trees gives on the feeling of being in the country (despite our Mediterranean climate).

Mission Viejo's arterials travel through virtual forests.

The City of Irvine's landscape master plan even recreates riparian (stream bed) habitats.
 RECREATIONAL AMENITIES - Planned communities afford their residents many opportunities for recreation.  They have a much higher park and off-street trail acreage per resident than non-planned communities.  The extensive off-street trail network, first designed in Rayburn, New Jersey in the 1920s and later used in Baldwin Park Village in the 1940s, is a popular place for walking, biking, and jogging.  Many planned communities, such as Irvine, Mission Viejo and Rancho Santa Margarita, used artificial lakes as a unifying design amenity.

The path at Rancho Santa Margarita goes all the way around the lake and is open to the public.  RSM also put stores right on the lake.  Earlier planned communities often restricted access to residents and guests 

Called an "urban trail" by designers, this well-landscaped path ends near the Town Center.
Lush it is and I wonder what the average use is.

The Jeffery Open Space Trail can be accessed from the end of cult-de-sacs.  It turns out that convenience
and access are the biggest predictors of use.

The Jeffrey Trail gives users the option of hardscape or decomposed granite.

Irvine's Open Space Trail is a historical piece covering three historic eras: early exploration, the Ranch Years (depicted
here), and city building.

My wife and I learned more about the history of the area and got some exercise as well!
TOWN CENTERS - This an area where, in my opinion, many planned communities struggle.  Irvine, a 245,000-resident city, was planned to be a city of villages with no apparent center.  Mission Viejo, designed in the 1960s, never put an emphasis on creating an urban core.  It's semi-private lake and large mall are people gathering places but not in a true urban sense.  Rancho Santa Margarita had good plans for a town center, but a bad economy and short-sighted design sited stores more towards parking lots than a true street.  It will be interesting to see if the last planned community in Orange County - Rancho Mission Viejo - creates some truly interesting urban centers.

Fun public art, for sure, but Rancho Santa Margarita's town center largely ignored the street and turned the store fronts towards large parking lots.

The public area in front of the movie theatre seemed to be the most inviting place in hang out in RSM's
town center.

RSM's City Hall, although a bit austere, evokes Spanish missions and the area's days as a Mexican land grant.

CONCLUDING WORDS:  Love 'em or hate 'em, planned communities are a fascinating example of what developers, planners and architects can do with raw land and a master plan.  I admire their open space planning but hope that they will develop more vibrant centers over time.