Simplifying the Urban Code

My previous post The Seaside Experiment discussed simple, but revolutionary design features in which Duany and the Seaside team demonstrated to the world. Seaside has no shortage of controversy, to be sure. That includes the creative and unique urban code developed on this privately-held piece of land.

In most cities, the urban code typically details the style, use, and form of buildings–whether or not it’s retail, residential, a vacation rental, educational, etc. The number of stories, uses, taxes, commercial capabilities, and industrial ventures are all closely regulated. However, the urban code written at the development of Seaside was highly simplified and philosophically different from the use-based zoning many planners know too well.

While admittedly “agnostic to style”, Seaside did commission a dozen or so artists to create beach access structures in their own taste, all looking quite similar.

A (Very) Short Introduction to Use-Based Zoning

As with many major restrictions or permissions in our world, there was a Supreme Court case. In 1926, Euclid v. Ambler forever shaped the United State’s approach to zoning.

In summary, the city of Euclid, Ohio created a zoning ordinance that divided an Ambler Realty Co. property into multiple use, height, and area classifications. This was done at a time when suburbs of Cleveland, such as Euclid, were experiencing rapid industrialization. Presumably done to maintain the character of the city and prevent development of Ambler’s land, the realty company decided to sue Euclid for intentionally reducing the value of their property without due process.

Per the Supreme Court, it was determined the city did not devalue the property, and also that cities have the jurisdiction to zone properties for nuisance control and public welfare. Needless to say, use-based zoning became the norm after the decision upheld for Euclid to segregate various functions across the community and to place limits on individuals’ property rights.

The Seaside Approach

The Euclid decision created an environment in which government and city planners could dictate the narrow uses for a parcel of land, rather than permiting the dynamic variety of uses many neighborhoods require as they evolve. I’ve witnessed many city council meetings in Savannah where this powerful lobbyist vie for a certain property’s exception or modification of the rules. It becomes a battle for special interests and one-off approvals. Little guys are excluded from entering the market as the red tape gets far too thick.

To combat the heavy restrictions they believe hamper cities, Duany and the Congress for the New Urbanism created Seaside code that would lead to form-based design. This is an approach that dictates how the buildings look and feel (size, scale, geometry), but hardly about the market demand for what those spaces are used for. It focuses more on creating gradual density change, while leaving building uses to the free market. Duany believes a form-based code is the best way to promote urbanism at the hands of others.

Seaside Urban Code (courtesy of the Notre Dame Seaside Research Portal)

As Seaside founder Robert David remarked: “Anyone slogging through the tomes of most municipalities’ codes would feel an immense sense of relief from the brain-sucking legalese when presented with this simple (Seaside) poster”.

As I continue to learn more about various zoning ideologies, I’ve yet to conclude or understand the greatest advantages of form-based vs. a less-restrictive use-based zoning. However, I can appreciate the reduction of red tape preventing the market from developing what consumers want.

Very modern looking apartment structures are adjacent to Italian-looking apartments, as allowed through the form-based code.

The Seaside developers believed that regulations on the form and scale of building is the best path forward for creating multi-use spaces, while retaining the size and transition of urban form that make Seaside dense, accessible, and friendly.

While Duany claims that New Urbaism is agnostic to style, it’s hard to understand that concept walking around Seaside. Everything looks so architecturally stylized that it was a highly-desired setting for The Truman Show–a place that couldn’t possibly exist! Could it?

Progressive Retail

I’ll depart somewhat from the code itself to highlight Duany’s philosophy toward land use. One of the most fascinating and iterative examples of business development is Seaside’s retail incubator. Much like the mercantile spaces from Venice to New York City, small entrepreneurs used inexpensive stalls in high-density squares and plazas to test their ideas. Seaside code allows for very low-regulated, temporary buildings in high-value downtown space to launch a business–apparel, food, trinkets, etc.

Airstream food trucks line E Country Highway 30A for passerbys to grab a bite.

Their belief is that successful ventures will require more space and eventually move into permanent multi-story, high-demand buildings around the plaza. This idea was known as progressive retail for a long time and provides a low barrier to entry for start-ups while making sure the most-successful businesses flock to high-rent spaces.

From this description of iterative retail, you might imagine these spaces as simple. Surprisingly, this was one of the most exciting and attractive regions of Seaside to walk around, grab a bite to eat, and window shop. The temporary buildings (on skids!) remain competitive, all contending for their chance to expand operation.

Sundog Books was a small operation before moving into this prime-time retail space in downtown Seaside, Florida.

Mix-Use and Live-Work Spaces

In addition to retail space, Seaside code permits live-work buildings which quickly became the most highly sought-after spaces in all of town. Live-work units allow first-floor access which can be used as studio/shop space, while maintaining the form of a residence above. According to Duany, all 22 units sold immediately.

For many early immigrants, Duany cites their “American dream” as living where they work, and “being their own boss”. Some folks highly value this and look for their city to permit this demand. From my travels through other countries, there are plenty of these examples in dense, urban environments.


The mixed-use buildings differ in that they have shops, offices, and apartments–with separate entrances–not intended for a single occupant. Keeping in line with the “no debt” mentality for Seaside’s development, Duany mentions mixed-use spaces as great candidates for incremental height development. Rather than leveraging the up-front cost of a four-story building, the dwellings can be added as the market demands. It grows from a two- or three- story building, to a four-story live-work unit in due time, when the money exists to do so.

Four-story mixed-use buildings serve the community in a variety of ways: retail, work, and dwell.

Let The People Decide

Regardless of Duany’s original intent (which I gather to be distant from today’s environment), Seaside has demonstrated to many thousands of students, visitors, residents, and urban enthusiasts that form-based zoning and unregulated spaces can question traditional methods and create pedestrian-friendly, walkable, pleasant urban spaces.

While these principles may make Seaside enjoyable to explore, it’s location, prestige, weather, beaches, and novel design has led to an explosive housing market. And subsequently made it difficult for median income earners to afford. I’m not disagreeing that highly desirable spaces should be market rate, but I do wonder if strong urban design principles and features can be incorporated in places of varied desirability. My questions remains one of implementation: what can we learn from Seaside?

The Seaside Church was left undeveloped by the founders, and later built with private citizen funding (similar to how churches were done for a long time).

Can some of these principles be applied to other American municipalities? Absolutely. Avoiding debt in favor of cheaper, equally environmental features is possible–and should be desired! Incremental urbanism and progressive retail can be supported with less-regulated zoning. Speaking of which–does zoning have to be so complicated? Can form-based zoning ordinances improve our over-reaching and restrictive Euclidean zoning? I would say so. Many of our great downtown areas around the country have become illegal to replicate, and it’s time we let the people choose what they prefer.

Evaluated on that merit, it was exciting to hear about Seaside and develop greater understanding for what it is…whatever that is, exactly. I enjoyed my time there, and am pleased to have learned of such a unique place on the white sandy beaches of America’s Gulf Coast.


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