I recently spent a few days in Orange Beach, Alabama, located just 100 miles west of Seaside, Florida and my home in neighboring Seagrove Beach. For many years, we’ve been regular visitors to a classic 1953 family beach house. It’s a fun place to visit, and an interesting study in why urban design matters.
That little beach house sits within a row of 20 houses in an area that is otherwise dominated by tall condo buildings. (The owners of those houses have an air-tight agreement that requires unanimous consent among them to sell out.) Thanks to living along Scenic Highway 30A (which is home to only two notably tall buildings), every visit to Orange Beach area feels like the ghost scenes in the holiday classic, “A Christmas Carol,” where Ebenezer Scrooge gets glimpses of the past, present, and future. I can’t help but think: This is what 30A would have looked like without a height limit.
Like many designers, I spent a portion of my youth being fascinated by skyscrapers. They were similar to other common youthful fascinations: sports cars, construction equipment, stadiums, etc. They were all big, strong, and bold, and most importantly, they were “so cool!”
Looking back on my youthful interest in skyscrapers, I saw them as the symbols of the city and gigantic works of sculpture (and anything “gigantic” was interesting to a little boy). I certainly wasn’t thinking about the effect those buildings have on their surroundings, or the possibility that there could be even better symbols for a place (the Seaside post office and obelisk come to mind).
In my career as an urban designer, I’ve been forced to take those factors into account. I now have mixed emotions about tall buildings (and “tall” is defined in many different ways, but generally anything above five to 10 stories). Some urbanists feel that tall buildings are not appropriate anywhere. That’s a little too restrictive, in my opinion, because I think there are some appropriate contexts for tall buildings. But I think they need to be used very carefully, and only where they can play a positive role in the urban fabric.
Probably the most fundamental problem with a skyscraper is scale: the proportion of the building to the human body. Such buildings are often wildly out of scale relative to the human body. While their size can be awe-inspiring, skyscrapers don’t always contribute to a comfortable, walkable, and livable place. One of the foremost champions of building at a human scale is Leon Krier, the architect/planner/author/theorist who has contributed to the design of Seaside. People often ask me why Seaside “feels” so good as we walk through it. There are several factors, but the foremost is probably the human scale.
Tall buildings can have a positive effect when they increase density, enhance the viability of mass transit, and include ground floor retail. Advocates for tall buildings point to livable cities like Vancouver and New York as models. But designers like Krier argue that we can achieve similar densities – and make walkable and transit-oriented urbanism work well – without exceeding moderate building height (five to 10 stories). Such urbanists point to cities like Barcelona and Washington, DC as examples of that approach.
Places get into trouble when they are full of tall buildings and yet remain completely auto-dependent. The tall condo buildings of Orange Beach – and many other beach communities – are typically accompanied by acres of parking lots. That parking is usually located between the building and the street, displacing the shops, restaurants, and offices that would be there in a walkable environment. And the density forces wide streets to accommodate all of those cars. The result is a place that’s nearly impossible to navigate without a car, and a public realm that isn’t very pleasant until you get to the beach. It’s the opposite of Seaside: tall buildings, big parking lots, and wide streets. Very little of the place is built to the human scale, and almost nobody walks or rides a bike.
I love visiting other beach towns on the Florida and Alabama coasts. They have countless positive attributes. But I’m always happy to return home to the human scale on 30A. I’ve seen the ghosts of urban design’s past, and more than ever, I appreciate the precedents set by Grayton Beach, Old Seagrove, and Seaside, as well as the vision of those who implemented the 50 foot height limit in South Walton. They planned for the future. c
Mark Schnell is an urban designer based in Seagrove Beach. His firm Schnell Urban Design (schnellurbandesign.com) offers a wide range of services, from designs for entire communities to parks to houses. He also offers walking tours of Seaside by appointment. To schedule a tour, contact Mark at (850) 419-2397 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Tours cost $20 per person (cash only), start at the front porch of Sundog Books, and last approximately two hours. Tours are given in conjunction with the Seaside Institute.