Seaside, Florida is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year. As such, it seemed appropriate to reflect back on the many years and generations of the new urbanism movement. Seaside was the pioneer project (at least the poster child) of new urbanism with the creation of a subdivision, nay a town. The location for Seaside was a place that was otherwise a forgettable empty area in Florida’s panhandle. It did, howver, have the pure natural beauty of the sandy beaches along the Gulf of Mexico. While studying landscape architecture at Kansas State University (1998-2003), the most memorable element of Seaside was that it was the setting for The Truman Show. Seaside and new urbanism movement was introduced to me in a manner which really wasn’t all that intriguing. I recall learning how “perfect” that it was. After college, I was quickly educated on the job about new urbanism and the importance of Seaside. It wasn’t until about five years ago that I first visited Seaside.
Forty years after Seaside’s inception, it still produces lessons of great value. It provided the inspiration for the form-based code; lean and tactical urbanism; a shift to smaller cottage homes; and accessory dwelling units.
From a landscape architect’s perspective, Seaside is of the few New Urbanist places that truly gets the landscape right. Andres Duany’s brother, landscape architect Douglas Duany, provided the design for the landscape in conjunction with world-reknown DPZ. Seaside is not the “perfect” place that I was told it was in College.
Perhaps it is the imperfections that truly make it perfect?
I believe that perfection of imperfection is the same with people, too. People who are too perfect really are not very approachable and less desirable to be around. I like to be around people and places that are always learning, improving, striving for more.
When you visit Seaside, there seems to be something new to see, something new to learn. My most recent visit was at the beginning of March, 2021 in the midst of touring nearly twenty New Urbanist, or at least New Urbanist-inspired, places in Southeast United States. We were invited by one of the most influential New Urbanists, Nathan Norris, founder of Placemakers and CityBuilding Partnership. Nathan was an incredible host overflowing with knowledge touring us along 30A in Florida, Central Alabama and the Atlanta area.
After this visit and the past twenty years of learning about and practicing new urbanism, I still believe that Seaside is the best representation of new urbanism. Seaside represents a community that is not perfect, is not complete and continues to evolve. It is a place that emanates a wonderful, welcoming presentation to its visitors. Seaside does this without the pretentious gaudy environment of some of Seaside’s ancestors, namely nearby Alys Beach.
Don’t get my criticism of Alys Beach wrong, by Instagram post and at the scale of the building, Alys Beach is exquisitely beautiful. The architecture is so wonderfully done and perfect. But as a whole community, it is too perfect and emits a hostile feeling. Overwhelming is the best word that describes my feeling at Alys. I couldn’t wait to move on to the next place. This in itself is a story of caution in design and development.
Lean Urbanism in Seaside
Back to Seaside, I believe a major contributing factor to its success is the developer’s lean, some would say frugal, mantra. Seaside was cautious in its development, specifically with the commercial interface with its use of temporary buildings and air streamer food trucks still present today. It continues to reinvent itself, adapt and thrive. This is so critical with development today. I believe architects, planners, and landscape architects for generations will continue to visit Seaside and strive to create similar places that are never fully complete.
Neighborhoods and communities should be dynamic places, always adapting – never complete.
For me, it is that incomplete, imperfect quality that creates a great place. We need to embrace the dynamism of place and design our communities with the next several decades in mind.
As a close to this post, I do want to sincerely thank Nathan for his time, knowledge and touring us around. His knowledge and inquisitive nature was a reminder that most in the CNU (Congress for the New Urbanism) movement have a desire to spread their wealth of information to help right the sprawling tendencies of 90% of Post-WWII sprawl. Unfortunately, New Urbanists represent a small fraction of the design and development community. Each, though as a pebble in a pond, create much more than a ripple – more than a wave. I am proud to be a member of this forward-progressing movement and encourage others, regardless of your professional interface in development to join and engage in the community.