All News

How Seaside inspired my career in Urban Design

Claire Morris

Posted on Mar 04, 2022 in Urban Design , Seaside Prize , Seaside Institute

How often does a vacation spark a career? If I had to guess, I’d say it’s not an everyday occurrence. But when I was walking with my family in Seaside at 13, I proclaimed that when I grew up, I wanted to do “this,” gesturing grandly towards Central Square.

So, what about Seaside so moved a 13-year-old that she decided to call “this” her dream and redirect her entire life?

Looking back, it was how Seaside made me feel. Unlike other places I had lived or visited, there was an intangible feeling of both belonging and independence. Its narrow streets were teeming with future friends. The plazas, trails and footpaths signaled my next adventure. It was a different lifestyle than I was accustomed to, with shops and cafes within walking distance, neighbors on porches and evening walks with my family. In the morning, my sister and I would go for a run and grab a scone at Modica Market and return six hours later with countless stories of our adventures. Rather than have my parents cart me around, I could simply walk.

The first attempt at explaining “this” was by a career counselor my junior year. He said, “Architects design buildings, civil engineers design streets, and landscape architects design parks. What do you want to do?” Picking one seemed to leave so much on the table. They all worked together in Seaside. The whole was greater than the mundane parts he rattled off.

Seaside is a place where the space between the buildings is just as enchanting as the homes and businesses. Sure, while you’re here you’re on vacation, but what was fascinating was how a series of design principles could create such a memorable place and a lifestyle that resonated so deeply.

During my senior year of college in 2013, when author and New Urbanist Dhiru Thadani’s “Visions of Seaside” hit the shelves, I finally found my answer. I learned about the designers and founders of Seaside and their role in bringing urbanism and the urban design profession back. I started to understand that what I loved about Seaside was innate to me as a human being. Cities and civilizations had been based on human-scale urbanism for centuries prior to the advent of the car. Almost every generation grew up knowing their neighbors, walking to the corner store, park or school. It’s human nature to enjoy being in an environment that’s not isolating, congested and detached, like the suburbs.

How Seaside inspired my career in Urban Design

It’s natural to prefer community over commuting and an environment that celebrates the outdoors instead of fighting it. The design principles I learned from Seaside started to answer other questions as well. They were questions beyond my own, but the world’s questions on sustainability, isolation and its connection to healthy living. I began to read the works of Camillo Sitte, Christopher Alexander, Jane Jacobs, Spiro Kostof, and my original guides, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Andrés Duany. Captivated by the expansive lineage of others dedicating their life’s work to urbanism, human psychology and the art of town building, I was more certain than ever that this was my path.

I enrolled in the Urban Design Master’s Program at the University of Miami, where the designers of Seaside and many others were my professors. I studied and lived in Barcelona, Rome, London, Paris, Cambridge and Charleston over the course of four years. Many of the lessons Seaside originally taught me were playing out on larger stages of the world and I was mesmerized, eyes wide, absorbing everything I could.

After finishing my degree, I took a job in Denver, Colo. I worked for two of the top architecture and urban design firms in Denver, both focused on local urban projects with placemaking at their core. I lived and breathed this work for years, burned the midnight oil, or 3 a.m. oil, most weeks. We were planning Denver’s future — what’s sleep for a young professional?

In late 2019, I started experiencing burnout for the first time. The world seemed to follow me in this re-evaluation in 2020 as the pandemic began.

The Return to 30A and Seaside

In March of 2020, already exhausted from the pace and intensity of the city, I found myself thousands of miles across the country from my family. My parents’ condo in Seagrove couldn’t be rented due to pandemic restrictions, so I packed my car, two days’-worth of food and some Lysol, and headed to 30A.

Instead of three weeks, I was there for three months. Although I was still working a 40-hour week remotely, I was able to spend much of that time reconnecting with myself, family and nature. Once the restrictions were lifted, I started making my old runs to Modica again. The work/life balance was sublime, and rather than the anonymity I experienced (and sometimes enjoyed) in Denver, I felt connected. The scale and the pace of the area, its celebration of beauty in the natural environment and built, and speaking to people as you pass all helps create this close-knit community.

How Seaside inspired my career in Urban Design

Now, my understanding of urban life is evolving again, and so is my career, as they seem to be inextricably linked. This is not to say that urban life doesn’t serve its purpose, or that the projects I mentioned earlier won’t be necessary additions. I had so many wonderful experiences in every city I lived in and will visit often. There’s just something to be said for small town life.

Many other urban dwellers experienced the same realization during COVID. We moved to the city for opportunities and a community of like-minded people, but lost connection along the way. Robert Davis, the town’s founder, along with his wife Daryl Davis, once wrote that Modica Market was “a haven for lost children.” That sentiment extends to the community here.

How Seaside inspired my career in Urban Design

I moved to 30A permanently in May of 2021, and that month I met my fiancé, Jake, while paddle boarding. Friends have become family, and I’ve built a community I love. With as much as Seaside influenced me, I never expected to move here permanently, but I truly love this way of life. I’m working on smaller scale projects, ones you probably haven’t heard of, but I hope they’ll create that feeling for others that I loved so much.

This month is the Seaside Prize. Many of the great thinkers that influenced Seaside and New Urbanism will be in attendance or speaking. I’m looking forward to seeing some of them again and meeting others for the first time and hope you'll say hello!