A city in southern California, situated in Santa Barbara County on the south facing Pacific shore about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles, and lying in a narrow coastal strip bounded by the rugged Santa Ynez mountain range. "Santa Barbara" refers sometimes to the city of Santa Barbara itself, with a population of about 80,000, but more often to the entirety of the developed coastal basin, which also includes the "suburb" areas of Goleta and Isla Vista to the west, with a combined population of about 50,000, and Montecito and Carpinteria to the east, with a population of about 10,000 each, as well as Hope Ranch, a small unincorporated area lying on the coastal cliffs.

Santa Barbara features dramatic mountain and ocean scenery, an extremely congenial climate, lush and diverse vegetation, preserved natural areas, a smaller city scale of development, an extremely bicycle-friendly road system, and a distinctive red tile "mission" style of architecture throughout the downtown and much of the city. Because of its afore mentioned charms, particularly the often uncanny resemblance to Mediterranean Europe in climate, topography, foliage, architecture, attitude, and locally available produce, it is often called the "American Riviera." The craggy wall of mountains is visible from everywhere, and the climate, warm enough to be frost-free but never hot, dry but not parched, and the presence of the ocean and high elevations nearby, allows the confluence of many different types of foliage. Palm trees, evergreens, Californiactuses, prairie grasses, lemon trees, and deciduous oaks exist mere feet from each other.

With Santa Barbara's many selling points and the limited supply of developable land comes an extremely high cost of living and a population skewed toward wealthy retirees and vacation home owners. However, some diversity is provided by a 60s "hippy" heritage, the University of California at Santa Barbara and Santa Barbara City College campuses, the Cottage Hospital complex and surrounding medical institutions, as well as a few technology firms and a sizeable Mexican-American community.

Santa Barbara began as a mission town in 1792 with the construction of the Mission Santa Barbara. Previously, although the land had been claimed by the Spanish Monarchy, it was inhabited by the local Chumash Indians, who were now pressed into the service of the mission and became the principal inhabitants of the town. An 1812 earthquake destroyed the original mission, and the current mission building, on a hill above downtown, was constructed then, supposedly following the dictates of an ancient Roman architecture manual. The town became part of Mexico after it gained its independence, and then part of the United States after the Mexican-American War. Nothing much happened until the 1890s, when wealthy easterners began to use the area as a resort destination, for obvious reasons. For a brief period around 1910, Santa Barbara was a film making center, home to the American Film Company’s Flying A Studio. As the city developed in the 20s, a unique plan was adopted that called for a uniform and distinctive mission inspired "red tile" style of architecture to be used in the downtown area. The culmination of this effort was the Santa Barbara County courthouse, often cited as the most beautiful public building in America.

Santa Barbara grew slowly in the pre- and post-war years, with tourism as the major economic sector. Some economic diversity was added after 1954 with the growth of the University of California campus on a previously isolated peninsula to the west, and today the university is by far the area’s largest employer. With it came the development of Isla Vista as a residential area, and Goleta as a residential and commercial suburb. Over the years, several technology companies have established a presence in Goleta, including Raytheon, prompting some to hyperbolically refer to the Santa Barbara area as the "Silicon Beach." Goleta itself was incorporated as a city in 2000, on most, but not all, of the area that had long been considered to be Goleta. Isla Vista, while it remains unincorporated, is supposedly the most densely populated square mile west of the Mississippi, due to the penchant undergraduate students have for living several to an apartment.

Today downtown Santa Barbara and the nearby beachfront overflows with tourists, vacation home owners, and local residents browsing shops and eating in restaurants, or pedaling rented bicycles. Due to the high cost of land, much of the housing, except in the extremely upscale areas of Montecito, Carpinteria, and Hope Ranch, is actually very modest. For the same reason, a very large portion of the housing throughout Santa Barbara, Goleta, and Isla Vista, is apartments. In Santa Barbara itself, the neighborhoods are built on a general grid street pattern, while in Goleta, the neighborhoods follow a more suburban scheme, but the relative modest scale of the houses continues. Throughout Goleta are natural areas off-limits to development, including pristine shoreline, and there are still a good number of farms. Dedicated Bicycle roads cut through the undeveloped areas and lead to the university, while a small Mexican-oid "old town" contrasts with the low density scale of surrounding Goleta, and the nearby mission-style Santa Barbara airport, with its cluster of little buildings.

The major challenge facing Santa Barbara is the crippling lack of affordable housing. It is almost impossible for the middle-income people on whom urban life depends, such as teachers, nurses, policemen, and civil servants, to live in the area, and indeed many live in towns such as Ventura, a 45-minute drive away. This also hampers the growth of the university community. Unfortunately, it seems that any remedy for the housing problem will involve developing some of the remaining natural areas, and will of course lead to increased congestion. Life in the American Riviera can be pretty close to ideal, and that means many people want to live here.

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