I’ve always wanted to visit Seaside, Florida to see what New Urbanism movement is all about. Somewhat randomly the opportunity presented itself recently. Lucky me.
As the Home and Garden writer for the Grand Rapids Press, I occasionally wrote about local projects designed in the “Seaside” style. It was fun to finally visit.
So, what’s the big deal about Seaside? And where is it? Well, it’s a planned small town built in the late 1980‘s in the Panhandle part of Florida. It is similar to Disney’s Celebration in the Orlando area.
Known for its pastel houses, front porches and picket fences overlooking narrow brick paved streets, it has influenced hundred of communities.
When it was built this artfully quaint community and others like it were heralded as the new wave or architecture. Seaside has often been referred to as the “icon of New Urbanism.”
The goal of the New Urbanism was to prevent urban sprawl, create neighborhoods where folks would meander and gather and reduce traffic congestion. The New Urbanists wanted to create safe pleasant communities with conveniences and entertainment nearby, creating a higher quality of life.
Seaside got a lot of buzz for being the location of the movie The Truman Show a movie built around one man living in a fake town who is constantly on television but does not know it.
My visit was on a sunny but rather chilly day in March when it was too cold to do little more than look at the fabulously pristine and gorgeous beach of the Gulf Shores.
The friends who took us there, said, “Oh we think you’d like the trailers.” I understood when I saw the row of uber cute airstreams lined up along the edge of the main road.
You could satisfy a hankering for barbecue, grilled cheese sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs, ice cream and even organic healthy stuff. Darling. Really darling.
I learned that these land yachts were occupied by of Seaside’s first residents while their homes were being built.
At that time, the developer, Robert Davis, wanted to create a different kind of living, something more traditional and not dependent on cars. He wanted to build carefully and prevent mindless overbuilding. No ugly strip malls or high rise condos allowed.
In the neighborhoods, the garages are all at the back of the homes and the streets are brick and made for walking.
While this seems like utopia, the area is not without problems.
One of the problems with New Urbanism is that these towns don’t feel real and not many take them seriously as a place to live. Many tourists think they are are fake, like movie sets. They are a place to visit, to vacation, to enjoy and then go home to the isolation of sub urbanism.
Even the developer lives in San Francisco.
Ironically the big problem is traffic. Our friends tell us that starting in April through the summer, they don’t visit Seaside because the traffic is atrocious. So many people want to visit Seaside that the main road is clogged to a standstill. No one can get anywhere.
When Seaside was built, this area was mostly deserted. The developers didn’t address the issue of the main road (30A) that runs through it. Now thousands of people pass through here, parking and clogging the thoroughfare, making walking and biking impossible.
And like many towns right on the water, erosion is a significant, like a really significant problem. That’s another topic.
While they have their share of problems, there’s much to enjoy. I loved the plethora darling shops clearly locally owned, many arranged around a beautiful square feeling like Charleston.
And while I normally am drawn to modernist or international style architecture the general “cuteness” seemed appropriate to a seaside location.
I’m sorry I didn’t get to see the sunset. I understand a bell rings at Bud & Alley’s when the sun dips below the horizon. I would have enjoyed visiting the “Truman House” on Natchez Street. And wouldn’t it be fun to climb this circular stairway to survey the scene?
Saving those experiences for another time.