I didn’t expect to be surprised by Seaside. It was one of those places I’d read a great deal about: as ground zero for the New Urbanist movement, the Florida town’s merits have been hotly debated for nearly thirty years. It’s also one of the most visually familiar planned towns of the twentieth century, as a result both of widespread photographic coverage and its front-and-centre role in the film The Truman Show. From that remote reconnoitring I figured that I already knew its good points and bad points: it would be beautiful, quaint and impeccably planned; but at the same time artificial, overly controlled, and perhaps a little creepy. I was surprised, then, at just how profoundly impressed I was by it.
I think my preconceptions about Seaside reflect a certain blasé attitude towards New Urbanism in the planning profession as a whole. Perhaps planners (and architects, and developers) feel that they have cherry-picked the best ideas from New Urbanism and don’t need to give the movement much more thought: yep, got it, walkable communities, mix of uses, classic design principles… got it, got it, got it. The whiff of unfashionable idealism and nostalgia associated with the movement doesn’t help, and nor does the fact that so many New Urbanist developments – including Seaside – have been occupied almost entirely by the wealthy and white. Seaside’s use in The Truman Show gives it a particularly strong association with these critiques, since the film’s story of a false paradise in a totally artificial environment was the ultimate pop-cultural expression of the anti-New Urbanist position. Yet to see Seaside is to realise the danger of judging New Urbanism only from afar or from its watered-down imitations.
Seaside actually predates the organised movement, having been founded in 1981, twelve years before the foundation of the Congress for New Urbanism and fifteen years before the publication of their Charter in 1996. The town is startlingly small: it is only 800m from its eastern side to the west and 500m from foreshore to the most inland point, with a total area of 32 hectares. Within this area there are 489 houses and 76 commercial tenancies, a school, an interfaith church, three public swimming pools, and various parks. It is a resort town, with a large proportion of its houses used as part time accommodation or holiday rentals, taking advantage of the attractive beach facing the Gulf of Mexico.
For many, that status as a wealthy holiday town has been enough to disqualify it as a model to follow. Yet it is clear walking around the town that its planners (developer Robert Davis and architect/planners Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk) were intent on proving principles that were more portable. The town centre, for example, has no real need for four story commercial buildings but includes them seemingly just to show how harmoniously they can be incorporated. There is no public transport, but it is obvious how readily the town could accommodate transit, given its density and arrangement around a central, accessible core. And while the affluence of the community is evident in many of the trimmings, the best things about the town are the fundamentals. New Urbanist communities become elitist havens because we build so few good communities and the price of scarce resources are inflated (Seaside’s lots appreciated in value 70% faster than those in Seagrove, the more conventional development immediately to its east.)1 If we built all our communities well, that pricing out need not occur. There’s nothing inherently expensive about the best aspects of Seaside.
The best thing about Seaside, for example, is not the famous and photogenic architectural veneer. That presentation is where the town’s money is on show, and it is probably the most divisive aspect of the town’s design. There is an undeniable wow factor to the appearance of the town, but many also find it in poor taste, rejecting either the postmodern retroness of the best buildings or the twee gingerbreadiness of the worst. Yet even here, it must be said that criticism of stultifying uniformity is off the mark: whether you like the Seaside style or not, when you break it down it is actually composed of a wide variety of architectural approaches, ranging from Victorian revivals to sleek modern designs. The town’s code outlines requirements about building envelopes, materials, and the like, but does not stipulate any particular style, and widely varying responses to its requirements are evident in the town.2 What you do see, rather than conformity, is a range of buildings utilising a shared palette of elements to set up a dialogue with each other and their surroundings: it is somewhat startling when we have become used to either mass-produced knock-offs of old styles and self-absorbed one-off architectural art-pieces, with little in between. Seaside’s splashy execution of this display flows from the involvement of many prominent architects, and that aspect of the town will not be readily emulated elsewhere. Yet many of the crucial underlying principles of the code, such as the emphasis on verandahs, low fences, and an intimate relationship between buildings and public streets, are readily adaptable for more conventional housing projects.
The real strength of Seaside, though, is the subdivision design and building layout. The town works within the traditional suburban housing model of detached family homes, but showcases how such housing can be accommodated in a denser and more pedestrian-friendly model. Using the measures of Victoria’s Precinct Structure Planning Guidelines, the density is 22 dwellings per hectare of net developable area, compared to the Victorian benchmark of 15.3 This is despite Seaside also accommodating a disproportionate proportion of the local commercial floorspace and community buildings: there is little doubt that in both regards it is serving the more monocultural beachside communities for some considerable distance to east and west. In a more metropolitan location, where incorporation of more true medium density housing was feasible, the dwelling density could easily be considerably higher.
What Seaside’s plan does is show how these larger family homes, so often insular and disconnected in suburban estates, can be knitted together and made to engage with the public realm. Some of the ways in which this is done are unsurprising. The street layout – a highly permeable combination of grid and radial configurations with judiciously placed civic buildings – is particularly well done, but ultimately textbook stuff. Similarly, the use of narrow streets to constrain vehicle speeds and thus make almost every road a genuinely shared space is a familiar idea, even if it is something we don’t do as much as we should.
Other decisions are notable for their courage. For example, there are countless examples in pre-war neighbourhoods to show just how unnecessary garages are in a neighbourhood of detached housing. There is no reason such a neighbourhood should not accommodate all parking on-street, but few developers or planners have the bravery to actually challenge the market and insist on it (even most New Urbanist neighbourhoods use rear-facing garages off laneways). Seaside has almost no garages, and reaps the considerable rewards that flow from that decision: more attractive houses; tighter spacing of buildings; fewer crossovers; more moderate vehicle speeds on streets due to the presence of parked cars; and so on.
Other ideas, though, are more unusual. The aspect of the town I was most impressed by were the so-called “Krier lanes,” added almost as afterthought by architect and planner Léon Krier late in the master-planning process. These narrow walking paths run along the back or side of nearly every lot, giving almost every resident direct access to linear open space. There is no planting beyond a simple gravel surface, minimising maintenance costs. Instead, side and rear fences adjacent to the paths have to be kept low, so the path’s landscaping is effectively provided by the domestic gardens on each side, turning normally private spaces into a communal asset for all to enjoy. Because there are no high fences, and the sites are tight enough that buildings, windows and verandahs are always nearby, the paths are exceptionally well observed and hence feel very safe (see photo below). This avoids many of the classic pitfalls of unsafe pedestrian paths that can occur in Radburn-style subdivisions.
The effect of the Krier lanes is that there is almost no secluded yard space, and truly private space becomes synonymous with indoor space. For outdoor recreation, you are drawn into the public realm. To wander around Seaside is to have your preconceptions about the divide between public and private challenged: the town is a compelling demonstration that something we assume should be a given may not be. If the public realm is good enough, do we really need secluded private open space? One of the dilemmas facing planners has been how to reconcile the love for ever-grander homes with constrained lot sizes: as we decrease lot sizes to push up density, but houses grow larger, the inevitable result seems to be an impoverished outdoor realm. Seaside offers one alternative: the private back yard is sacrificed, the public realm is made as good as possible, and then the constrained site is made a virtue through building design that makes the now very cosy public / private interface extremely permeable.
The tricky and disquieting thing about Seaside is that I’m not quite sure how we can replicate its success. While it perhaps sounds like I’m enamoured with the idea of a strong Seaside-esque code, I worry about who could actually make such a code work: not many developers would want to be as hands-on as Robert Davis was at Seaside, and I don’t think our overtaxed local government planning system is in any shape to take on such a task. The difficulty is that many aspects of Seaside are currently so far from standard planning and housing industry practice that it would take heavy-handed regulation to get similar results. We need better practices to become standard so that such prodding isn’t required.
That involves a thorough re-examination of standard practice. It’s easy to make fun of developers for superficial responses to something like Seaside: years ago I met one who was enchanted by a coffee table book of photography of the town and was responding by putting widow-walks and turrets on all his houses. I wonder, though, if planners haven’t done the equivalent thing, but taken the planning veneer rather than an architectural veneer. Do our borrowings from New Urbanism ultimately amount to a lick of paint over conventional suburban development patterns? Our retail areas are better designed than they used to be, but I’ve not seen many new “activity centres” knitted as tightly into the urban fabric as Seaside’s town centre is. In the residential sphere, ResCode does little in its consideration of private open space to encourage a different kind of public / private dialogue; other sections (such as the requirement for two on-site car spaces for larger dwellings) are actively unhelpful. And as I’ve noted, our density benchmarks are comfortably beaten at Seaside despite the town including scarcely any medium density housing. We might think we understand the shortcomings of classic car-oriented suburbia, but we have a long way to go in our quest to break out of those old habits. It’s important, then, to keep talking about the approaches offered by good examples like Seaside, and to take up the challenge of meaningful reform of the way we plan.
Originally published in Planning News 36, no. 9 (October 2010): 19-20, 29. Click on images for a better look. There are more photos from my visit here.
2. The “Seaside Code” consists of two documents, an Urban Code (outlining building envelopes for the various precincts in the the masterplan) and an Architectural Code (outlining various architectural principles). Both can be found in David Mohney and Keller Easterling, eds., Seaside: Making a Town in America (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1991), 99, 260.