This past week, I attended a Small Scale Developer bootcamp in Seaside, Florida and had the chance to visit this new urbanist town in the Florida panhandle for the first time. More on the bootcamp later. For now, I’m writing about Seaside, the town, and its impression on me.
We stayed in the Seaside Academic Village, part of the Seaside Institute. We were awoken to the sounds of kids playing in this lawn next to the Academic Village, and it was buzzing with activity almost all day. These kids are lucky enough to be enrolled in a very selective charter school that is setup in the center of Seaside. Hard to imagine a more idyllic childhood. Here they are taking a class photo our first morning in the town.
I was impressed with the way this school used the neighborhood itself as a learning environment. Since the weather was great, teachers were leading children around the town throughout the day, including visits to the town square, which has another lawn and amphitheater. It’s refreshing to see a place where kids can be kids, and a school that is unmistakably a school, unlike a lot of the ‘big box’ drive-through schools we’re building these days.
This is a Seaside avenue. Look at that skinny width! We measured it imprecisely at about 8′ in width. Notice the gravel to the side of the paved driving lane. This is how parking is done in much of Seaside. Instead of trying to fight nature and grow the perfect chem-lawn, nature is largely left to its own devices and the plants that makes sense in this environment are what thrive – those that don’t require lots of irrigation and upkeep. From my observations, Seaside is basically all native landscaping.
The road below is a county road. Eat your heart out, Palm Beach County traffic engineering. I still don’t fully understand how Seaside managed to tame a county road to this degree; maybe that’s just because I live in a county that never saw a road widening project it didn’t like. Our guides mentioned something about Walton County being really tiny and not paying attention, not having been poisoned by the sprawl building lobby, blissfully ignorant… I’m not sure which factor played the biggest role, but in any case, the outcome is a county road passes through Seaside that manages not to cut the town completely in two. Skinny lanes, more on-street parking (gravel again!), and people coming and going across the street keep speeds low and very humane.
There is a definite center and edge to this town. Just beyond the church is wilderness. Nature is never far and everything is within a five minute walk. Suburban living tried to bring town and country together, but failed to deliver on its promise. Building a real town allows for a real communal life, while still providing access to nature within walking distance.
Ruskin Place: Beautiful square and commercial district in town
Civic pride abounds in Seaside. You know which buildings are important by where they are sited. Here is the iconic image of the Seaside post office with American flag. This is the heart of the town and it’s obvious.
Across the street on the beachside of 30A. This might be my favorite part of the town, with the open air market, straight vistas to the ocean, and pavilions that mark beach boardwalk access points.
Seaside possesses quite a few architectural styles, and not all of them are traditional. There is some modern architecture as well. As for the public realm, “variation within a narrow range” is how it was described to me. These properties both have white picket fences. But notice how they aren’t exactly the same. The patterns of the fences vary to keep things more interesting.
Here are more photos of Seaside streets. Seaside contains passageways known as “Krier walks”. The original design for the town had easements across property lines for utility services, etc. Leon Krier, noted urban designer, suggested these become functional passageways between properties.
The streets do not have curbs. They function more like shared spaces and people have no trouble walking on them. This minimalist approach keeps street widths even narrower because a swale and sidewalk aren’t needed, keeping dimensions on the streets cozier than otherwise might have been. It also cuts down on infrastructure costs and reduces stormwater runoff. The stormwater that is generated runs into the amphitheater, which serves double duty as amphitheater and retention pond in times of heavy rainfall.
Property for sale: “Paradise ain’t cheap”
If there’s a knock on Seaside, it’s that it is so expensive that it has ceased to function as a ‘normal’ town. Only 18 permanent residents live in the town, rendering it a resort destination rather than a place where people live permanently. That’s really not the fault of the founders, though. It illustrates the incredible demand for town living that Seaside embodies in form, if not entirely in function. The town did seem to roll up at about 10 pm each night, but I was told January is a very slow time of year here, to my surprise.
Even with the high priced real estate in Seaside, it still retains locally owned businesses and a row of Airstream food trucks. I didn’t count a single chain store in the town, which was refreshing. The roots of Seaside go back to the town founder, Robert Davis, selling boiled shrimp on the side of 30A, trying to gin up interest in the sleepy no man’s land.
You can’t visit Seaside without thinking about how badly we’ve screwed up the design of our towns and neighborhoods in the United States with our sprawl experiment. Instead of building communities where different activities, people, and building types are all part of a greater whole, our sprawl development pattern enforces separation and a sense of “placelessness” in which it doesn’t matter where you are, because everywhere is just the same as what came before and what is to come. This Leon Krier drawing illustrates town vs. sprawl well – a neighborhood or town is the pizza on the right.
Something that struck me was the reverence shown to the American flag. Flags are placed in prominent places and on important civic buildings. They are meaningful and their placement reflects this respect. Contrast this with “flag as advertisement” that is so common for used car lots and fast food restaurants in suburban sprawl. I suspect the over the top display of the flag is more about attracting eyes to the business while people are whizzing by at 50 mph in their car, than it is about pride and respect for a treasured American symbol. Meaning is lost when the flag is demoted to the same level as car dealer signage.
Seaside’s success has generated a pattern of similar neighborhoods and towns built along this stretch of 30A. The market demand has driven up prices in Seaside. Because so little town building has taken place over the past 50 or so years, there’s a lack of traditional towns along the Florida coast and prices are high. So much of our coastline takes the form of an endless parade of tacky strip malls and parking lots, fortresses of condominiums walling off the water, and the overly wide roads that make it all possible. What is needed are more towns and cities built on similar traditional principles like Seaside.
There is a better way.