The scenes we see when strolling around the periphery of River Park, a master-planned development in Oxnard, tell us a lot about the history of Ventura County. To the west is the Santa Clara River, a rare unchannelized waterway, representing nature and pre-history, at least for the purposes of our tour. To the northeast we find farmland, still the enduring symbol of Ventura County despite urban development's rapid engulfment of ag land on either side of the Ventura Freeway. To the south, beyond the Ventura Freeway, is a scattering of small homes - from the air they look like seeds tossed in a furrow - that make up one of the city's oldest and most settled Latino neighborhoods. To the north are blocks of warehouses and other industrial buildings on irregularly shaped lots, typifying the strip development found where land is cheap and plentiful, even though Oxnard has long since ceased to be cheap for industrial developers.

In the center of this casual, rural-turning-suburban landscape we encounter the future: The highly formal, highly dense, master-planned community of RiverPark. This development, at least in the plan, is so different from its surroundings that it seems like a foreign object - like a mechanized space rover sent by the Elders of Alpha Centauri to surveil this Steinbeckian town ahead of an invasion.

I am probably overplaying the incongruity of RiverPark for effect. The project, owned by Shea Homes, has only started construction and is likely to be built in many phases over 15 or so years. By the time RiverPark is complete, the surroundings probably will look very different than they do today. Incongruous or not, however, there can be little doubt that River Park represents the future of Ventura County, given the rapid rate of development along the freeway and the expected population growth in the six county region of greater Los Angeles.

In trying to make sense of this big piece of planning, we need to ask two questions. First, how do all the different pieces - housing, office buildings, retail, parking and open space - work together within the site plan? And, second, how well will RiverPark fit into the Oxnard of the future?

This is an ambitious project of 700 acres, containing 2,800 homes and nearly 2.5 million square feet of commercial space, including a regional mall of approximately 1 million square feet. The former gravel pits will become water-purification detention basins, in which local runoff collects and percolates through layers of gravel and sand before entering the storm drain.

Internally, RiverPark is a fine piece of planning, perhaps all the more admirable for solving some difficult problems, such as the proximity of residential areas to the highly trafficked commercial zone. Part of that solution is to provide the neighborhood a separate, supermarket-anchored retail center immediately north of the mall so that locals can shop without entering the maelstrom of vehicular circulation around the mall. (The Los Angeles office of RTKL designed the master plan for the commercial area of RiverPark.)

The residential portion is divided into three “neighborhoods” (we can be thankful, for once, that the developer did not call them villages) that vary in density from seven units per acre up to 80 units per acre. Each of the neighborhoods has its own park and neighborhood-serving retail, usually within a quarter-mile walk of most housing units. The densest housing products are town homes and stacked flats to the south, with the larger and more traditionally suburban housing in the north. The trade-off for this density is a generous amount of open space, which covers nearly 40% of the site.

Open-space planning is the most successful part of RiverPark, which has a fully connected greenway system. All the parks are interconnected. Better still, the detention basins are surrounded by landscaping and walkways, so bicyclists and runners can go long distances without meeting cars. New Urbanist architect Peter Calthorpe has observed that most suburban housing developments are straight jacketed by major arterials in all directions. The effect is to confine children on bicycles to small areas no greater than six square blocks, on average. The open-space planning for River Park has effectively solved that problem.

But how well will RiverPark fit in with its neighbors? The question remains open. Richard Thompson, the urban planner for A.C. Martin Partners, which led the consultant team for the preparation of the overall master plan, said that he tried to avoid the inward-looking character of the master-planned community. “We tried to make the plan as porous to the outside community as possible,” in some places aligning with existing streets, he said.

This desire to fit in with the existing street pattern is an enlightened one that places regional well-being ahead of the short-sightedness of some developers, who would set their projects apart from the rest of the world to achieve “exclusivity.” Unfortunately, RiverPark is already largely isolated from the surrounding community by external factors. The river separates the project from the west, while the freeway walls it off to the south. Developers cannot convert the neighboring farmland without the approval of Oxnard voters. The residential neighborhood to the east is prized by its inhabitants and unlikely to undergo any major change. These combined factors give RiverPark a very limited ability to create an urban pattern that other developments can build on.

On the positive side, the city is promoting continuity with a new specific plan for the Wagon Wheel area immediately south of the 101. That plan is to connect Wagon Wheel with RiverPark via three north-south roads, including one that will “fly over” the freeway. That is a meaningful, if limited, gesture to prevent Ventura County from becoming a post-suburban chaos of laissez-faire, developer-driven planning. Here's hoping the city will stick to its better instincts and resist any future attempts by developers to carve up Oxnard into a set of uncontiguous neighborhoods. Turning Oxnard into a set of unconnected master-planned neighborhoods would be bad news for invaders from Alpha Centauri, as well as human beings who seek to live in Oxnard.