The Perfection of Imperfection
In the year of Seaside’s fortieth anniversary, 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 town, in a place that prior to its inception, was a forgettable empty area in Florida’s panhandle, rich with only the pure natural beauty of the sandy beaches of Florida. While studying landscape architecture at Kansas State University (1998-2003), I remember Seaside and new urbanism as a whole being introduced in a manner which really wasn’t all that intriguing to me. References to the Truman Show and this perfect resort town where there were supposedly more dogs and cats residing than people. 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. You can see the inspiration of the form-based code; lean and tactical urbanism; a shift to smaller cottage homes; accessory dwelling units; and from a landscape architect’s perspective, one of the few New Urbanist places that truly gets the landscape right. Seaside is not the “perfect” place that I was told it was in College, but perhaps…
…the imperfections are really what makes it perfect.
I believe there is something to that that is the same with people. 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. I’ve visited Seaside twice now, each time I felt like a eight-year old boy at Disneyland – wide-eyed and not wanting to leave.
The most recent visit was at the beginning of March 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 during a mini-charrette for a new urban project in Tulsa. Nathan was an incredible host overflowing with knowledge during our three days with him where we toured 30A in Florida, Central Alabama and wrapped up in Atlanta.
After this visit and the past twenty years of learning about and practicing new urbanism, and the prior 30+ new Urbanist community visits, I still believe that Seaside is the best representation of new urbanism. It 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, 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, so much so that I couldn’t wait to move on to the next place on our now not-so-recent tour. This in itself is a story of caution in design and development.
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 and I believe architects, planners, and landscape architects for generations will continue to visit Seaside and continue to create places that evolve.
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 all need to embrace the dynamism of place and design our communities and codes 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. New Urbanists represent a small fraction of the design and development community, but I believe that when we throw a pebble into a body of water, we 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.
I am incredibly grateful for this gift from Nathan. It left me with a rejuvenated passion toward creating more great places. I also want to thank Geoffrey Mouen for his time and lessons he provided at Celebration, it was invaluable information! Lastly, I also want to thank Andres Duany and Steve Mouzon, for their input to Nathan during our trip and suggestions of places to visit, and both of their desires to educate the future of the new urbanism movement.
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