The Seaside Experiment

J. S. Smolian purchased an 80 acre tract of land near Seagrove Beach in south Walton County back in 1946. Located in the Florida panhandle–west enough to operate in the central time zone–Walton County stretches from the Alabama border to the white-sand beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s here that the new urbanist town of Seaside, Florida was created.

Something From Nothing

Seaside, Florida is a bit of an anomaly. It was not an intersection of trading routes, a seaport, or a bottleneck of transportation. Unlike almost every other city, it didn’t slowly manifest over time. It was deliberately planned and built in the 1980s as a critique on the transformation of America from “a mixture of urban centers and open landscapes to the in-between, the neither-nor.” It was an attempt to display long-forgotten urban principles that made 18th and 19th century cities so lively and desirable.

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Since its inception, it has become one of the most celebrated and controversial urban regions in the country.

By the 1970s, the land was ceded to Smolian’s grandson Robert Davis, who had ideas of his own. Built on private land, Seaside was set-up as a loosely regulated, minimal debt, ‘incremental urbanism’ city to showcase the “guiding principles of smart, sustainable development,” according to the developer.

The first fully New Urbanist town of Seaside, Florida was created out of J.S. Smolian’s vision and architect and urban planner Andrés Duany’s design (Andrés and his partner Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk run Duany Plater Zyberk & Company). What began as a small experiment selling $15,000 lots has morphed into a multi-million dollar resort community on the Gulf Coast. It gained mainstream notoriety as the filming location for the 1998 Jim Carrey film The Truman Show.

Now in its fourth decade of existence, Seaside has drawn international acclaim for the design principles integrated into the landscape–many of which are extremely illegal according to  modern city’s zoning ordinances.

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A typical waterfront property on E County Highway 30A in Seagrove Beach.

But it isn’t without it’s fair share of concerns and criticisms. Most critiques reside in personal distaste for the developers, the infrastructure challenges (which many coastal cities are facing), issues with its utopian vision, parking congestion, or most reasonably–the lack of full-time, permanent residents.

Paying a Visit to Seaside

I visited Seaside, Florida last November to see the town firsthand, speak with locals, and document the principles in which Duany tried to demonstrate. As many would argue, including myself, it has become a famously expensive place to vacation absolved of any real sense of community. It hardly has any full time residents, so can we even call it a city?

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Seaside architectural codes allow homeowners to construct towers on their property which afford them a view of the Gulf of Mexico.

While the lack of consistent community are most-likely outside of Duany’s original intentions, I remained open to understanding the fundamental design principles, revolutionary zoning codes, and walkable neighborhood arrangement in which it was developed to demonstrate.

As I came to discover, there are extremely simple, financially prudent, and equity-driven elements throughout the landscape. Things that cities around the world could experiment with today in an effort to combat isolated, car-centric sprawl throughout our communities. The Seaside vision is one of a simple, happy life–let’s see what we can learn.

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Retail and restaurant incubators allow small-scale enterprises the ability to grow into larger spaces with time.

The Seaside Philosophy

While I enjoyed spending a couple days in Seaside, I didn’t learn much about the history until later research. Part of that was reading articles and watching videos both in favor of, and against the development. While it’s only a piece of the story, I watched a fascinating tour of Seaside hosted by Andrés Duany himself, in which he highlights a variety of constraints, requirements, and ideas they worked into the construction of Seaside. There are three pillars in which Duany explained that I really appreciated.

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Unlike the original 1980s-sized homes, current multi-million dollar properties now line Highway 30A.

So many of the urban solutions they employed were chosen to minimize cost. As I later learned, in modern city planning, many of the simple, time-proven design traditions are discarded in favor of more costly, but seemingly “green” solutions. As Davis himself later noted, “Seaside set out on a path that combined a conservative business plan and a progressive, perhaps even radical, social plan…Seaside would thus grow slowly, one street at a time.”

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While brick streets evoke thoughts of old time cities, there are reasons far beyond aesthetics for this style of design in Seaside.

To avoid high capital financing, designers and visionaries employed ‘incremental urbanism‘ which is a block-by-block development process that slowly builds roads, sidewalks, and retail spaces as required (or more accurately, as they could afford it).

For example, the bricked streets have multiple design justifications: 1) narrow streets slow car traffic and encourage children and elderly to access the city more easily 2) allows for parking on both sides without widening street 3) stoneworkers willingly hand-lay bricks in short distances to allow for incremental expansion, and 4) it reduces impervious surfaces throughout the landscape to handle runoff naturally.

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Palm trees line the Seaside amphitheater, green space, lawn, and city reservoir. 

Lastly, they looked at ways to make structures and details as versatile as possible. For example, the traditionally ugly runoff pond was designed as a green amphitheater, in the event of that 1,000-year flood. It’s nontraditional (and quite illegal to do so in many places), yet quite sensible when you’re trying to design spaces with high density. I loved this outside-the-box thinking because in my own personal philosophy, I enjoy identifying ways to reduce duplicated efforts and increase financial intelligence.

Making A Place For Everyone

After arriving in Seaside, one immediately feels nineteenth century nostalgia. It’s hard to imagine Duany or Zyberk had anything else in mind beyond recreating those homogeneous, small town communities which dominated cities across America during the 1900s. Designed to make people enjoy living there, walking there, and playing there, Davis envisioned a place where kids were free to explore the urban space in which they lived.

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Much like a modern day critique on children’s adoption of mobile technology, Davis observed children in the 1980s as disengaged: “their early years were spent in straitjackets, in the back seat of cars, experiencing the world as a moving picture, through a window about the size of a large TV.” His quest was liberation. If you do it for children, you do it for everyone.

As Duany explains, they wanted to give the beach to everyone–after all, that’s why many people move to the coast. However, it’s physically impossible and impractical to develop everyone’s property along the waterfront. Hence, they designed radial streets terminating at the central pavilion or the ocean, giving citizens a sense of access and ownership to the amenities of their city.

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Beachfront properties, commonly used for vacation rentals, are consistently sold for upwards of $5M along the coast.

Furthermore, all inland houses are permitted to construct a third-floor tower of restricted footprint on their second floor. This allows property values deep in the hinterland to have beach and ocean front views while also being affordable. This is reminiscent of Vancouver’s protected corridor regulations that work to ensure high density and visibility of the surrounding beauty.

Putting the Environment in Environmentalism

Coming back to the idea of frugality, Duany admits that many of the cheapest, simplest solutions are actually pretty green. If I had to imagine, many green certifications require complex technical solutions to challenges created by the very nature of our construction methods.

When it came to Seaside, they worked to save and integrate as much of the natural greenery as possible. The natural bramble, gravel streets, and amphitheater lawn are not the most sophisticated-looking designs I’ve seen, but what’s really important when it comes to building fiscally responsible urban environments?

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Away from the beach, houses are zoned on smaller lots with narrow setbacks to increase density. As much as urbanist-types champion green spaces, lawns are nearly non-existent beyond the church and amphitheater.

In the world of financial independence, I relate LEED environmentalism to purchasing complex electric vehicles when running your beater into the ground and biking will do. It’s purchasing an iPad to do your work from home, when the extra effort of bringing your work laptop home everyday is just fine. There are many ways in which we spend more to solves our problems, when the potentially less sexy version would work just fine. I often look for ways in which slightly more effort will stretch my patience and abilities, with minimal detriment to my overall happiness.

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North of the town center is mixed-use zoning which allows for first floor, daytime retail, with residences above.

First, they left a lot of the native shrubbery–what most people would burn and scrap–to naturally grow among the wooden fences and buildings. They look nice enough and absorb a lot of the heavy Florida rains. The buildings include reflective metal roofs, ventilation on rooftops, and porches for warm evenings. It naturally works with the environment. In many ways, I appreciate his quest for essentialism.

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As mentioned earlier, the narrow streets allowed for plenty of gravel sidewalks without taking away from the aesthetic too much. Coupled with the existing bramble, this low-cost water runoff solution kept them from installing high-capital water collection infrastructure that only increases the cost of development.

But It’s Just Not Real

The strongest critique is that Seaside simply isn’t a real town–it’s (become) a resort community. Regardless of Duany’s original intent, it is what it is. Demand for this area grew, prices reflected the market accordingly, and now it’s more of an investment than anything.

When I spoke to one citizen preparing the chapel for morning bible study, he told me that only four families live in Seaside full-time. It hustles and bustles in the summer time; it’s filled with visitors who embrace the novelty for weeks at a time before returning home.

While Seaside took a stab at the serious problem of auto-centric urban environments, it struggles to face other present-day dilemmas, like many utopian places. Because while these design elements work in principle–and many in practice–they must develop in present-day cities over time. It needs emotionally invested citizens that work, live, and play in these places to buy into their benefits.

On one hand, the design of Seaside has been shared with thousands of people that otherwise wouldn’t view it. Yet in the same token, it’s been exemplified as an experiment. The challenge for those that believe in strong, resilient cities is bridging the gap between impractical fantasy and local reality for those that want it.


If you’re interested in learning more about Seaside, Florida, visit the Notre Dame Seaside Research Portal or Seaside’s homepage which contains essays by Robert Davis as well as information about the unique Seaside urban code.

Referenced: The Invention of Nostalgia for Everyday Life: A Critical Analysis of Seaside, Florida, Christine Macy, Technical University of Nova Scotia, 84th Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) Annual Meeting, 1996.

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