Friday, February 4, 2011

Finding Authenticity in Seaside

Jim Ward, Orange County's Chief of Urban Design, and I had the privilege of touring the Town of Seaside, in the Florida Panhandle, with town developer, Robert Davis, and planner, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (co-author of the best book describing America at the turn of the 21st Century, Suburban Nation).  Thirty years after Davis sold a beachfront lot to pay for construction of the Town's first two bungalows, Seaside continues to inspire a better way of developing our built environment. 

Town planner Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and developer Robert Davis.
Seaside's main commercial area--a semicircle--reminded me of Celebration. However, the two developments are quite different.  While others criticize Celebration's traditional architecture for its aura of "artificial perfection," Seaside's architecture is more eclectic.  The town mixes rustic bungalows, Charleston row homes, modern architecture, condominiums, and stately mansions.   Ruskin Square is a beautiful urban green surrounded by two and three-story condominiums, many over retail.  Dining options range from very fine to food trucks.  After thirty years, Seaside looks and feels authentic.

Ruskin Square.

You won't find homes like these in Celebration.
Those who stereotype New Urban development as "artificial" should watch the Seaside Neighborhood Charter School students play field hockey on the Lyceum, or run and bike freely, like kids should.  Kids here walk to school safely.  Mine can't.  Do yours? 

Seaside's Neighborhood School--Florida's first charter school.
Davis spoke fondly of his childhood--how he had independence to roam freely, without adult supervision, unlike most of today's kids, hemmed into monolithic, boring subdivisions by arterial highways.

I paraphrased Davis's comments when I addressed the Congress for the New Urbanism statewide conference later that afternoon on the topic of Complete Streets--the principle that FDOT design standards should make thoroughfares safe and comfortable for motorists and non-motorists in the appropriate context (such as road segments adjacent to schools, parks, Main Streets, downtowns, and where local governments want to transform sprawl into walkable town centers).  Surprisingly, I made a Top 5 List for memorable quotes tweeted across the internet by several audience members "tweetcasting" the event.  You can view the quotes by clicking HERE and by using the hashtag #SeasideAt30 at  (Before the conference, I had not appreciated fully how Twitter is becoming, in the words of Sarasota planner, Peter Katz, a new generation's "historical archive.")  My favorite quote came from Los Angeles architect Stephan Polyzoides: "Friends are mortal but ideas are eternal." 

Seaside is meant for one to experience personally and is well worth the 6 + hour drive from Orlando.  Photographs do not do the town justice.  Nor do videos, but here's a short promotional clip that may give you a better flavor of the town:

Seaside documentary trailer from Jillian Tucker on Vimeo.