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Is This Town Ridiculous? A Look at Seaside, Florida
This town has gotten tons of attention by urban planners ever since it was created in the late 80s. It doesn't look exaclty old-fashioned, but it doesn't look that new. The pastel houses and brick roads create a feeling of utopia. That's probably why the makers of The Truman Show decided to tape Seaside as their "Seahaven."
Not Your Typical Development
If you came across Seaside randomly, you'd notice that the garages are in the back of the houses, the streets are brick and made for walking, and that private space is redefined by the houses being very close together. Every detail making up these elements is on purpose. It is called New Urbanism.
Andres Duany and Robert Davis
Robert Davis created Seaside, a town on Florida’s east side, from 80 acres of land his grandfather left him when he died. He wanted to create a different kind of living place, something more traditional and not dependent on cars. He enlisted the help of architects Andres Duany and his wife Elizabeth Plater- Zyberk, two large players in the New Urbanism movement. After the place was built, it increased in popularity as a resort town and gained attention for its groundbreaking planning and architecture. No other town, resort or not, looked like this.
The Wrong Impression?
The problem with this amount of attention is that for awhile,
Seaside was the only poster child of New Urbanism. This image would
turn off many people, who saw it as a beach townand felt it was trying too hard to be perfect, that it was not a realistic place to live.
In a web-casted interview with James Kunstler, Kuntsler calls Seaside “the original iconic New Urbanist project,” explaining that “it became the model for what traditional neighborhood development would be.” This reputation has been taken too far, and the public has expected it to be a “coal miner’s town for the working class,” Kunstler explains. An English professor at Hope College, who lived in Seaside for awhile as part of a program in which she could live in one of the houses to write while its “residents” were at their other home, said she did not feel comfortable living there—the kitchen was upstairs, the “corner grocery store” was too expensive to get real food, and she was starving for “real community” while there. It felt like an empty resort town to her.
Kunstler would again argue for Seaside, in answer to popular criticisms which reflected this professor's experience:
Its aim is to demonstrate how good relationships between public and private space may be achieved by changing a few rules of building. It never pretended to be anything else. It did make the important point that if you change the rules of building, you can reproduce these good relationships anywhere. (257)
Kunstler also stresses, “it's a beach town. Of course people don't live there year round” (KunstlerCast). In the end, Seaside is an illustration of what can be done (throwing aside zoning laws that encourage driving) and what to avoid (creating unrealistic houses that become too competitive and expensive) at the same time. Seaside should be, and is, followed by many other experiments and risk-takings. This is what differentiates New Urbanism from Traditional Neighborhood Development—it is a look into the future, into trying new things, instead of looking back nostalgically at the way things were.
Time to Take Risks
This is why more needs to be done. More places are being built, taking the focus off Seaside. Kentlands, Maryland; Stapleton, Colorado; Celadon, Michigan. Unusual, unknown (to many) names. Small places (populations under 5000) in the suburbs and outskirts, but with their own center, their own sense of place. Developers and architects are trying this and very, very slowly it seems to be working.
It's unfamiliar to us to see new neighborhoods being built to the disadvantage of cars. But with a new President, new shift in politics, and new concern over the environment, New Urbanists might have set up just what we need.