A look back on the people and ideas that have helped shape a spectacular success story by Wendy O. Dixon and Lori Leath Smith
Since its beginning in December 1981, Seaside’s success has been remarkable. It is heralded as the first, and to date most successful, example of new urbanism, or traditional neighborhood development. This influential movement among architects and urban planners encourages the return of 19th century town planning principles as an antidote to urban sprawl.
The history of Seaside began in 1979, when Robert Davis inherited the oceanfront land. Robert and wife Daryl Davis, along with husband and wife architectural team Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, not wanting to create yet another sprawling ocean community, toured coastal communities of Grayton Beach and Key West, Fla.; Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., to find out what made those places structurally and socially appealing. By combining the best features of each city, the plan for Seaside was born. “We didn’t have to invent a thing,” says Duany. “It’s all been done.”
The team planned the town on a “neighborhood” scale that is designed to foster a sense of community. The streets are all interconnected, creating a network that eliminates “collector” routes and reduces congestion. Walkways crisscross the development to encourage walking and biking, while narrow streets serve to reduce traffic speed. By keeping the number of parking lots in the community to a minimum, parallel street parking is encouraged, providing pedestrians a buffer between themselves and traffic. To further this sense of “place” along the streets, building fronts are a uniform distance from the curb and all streets are tree-lined.
The most important features of this development are the ones that promote interaction among the community’s residents. Mandatory porches are set close enough to walkways to enable porch sitters and passersby to communicate without raising their voices. The community has a discernible center, creating a common gathering place, and necessities — stores, schools, post office — are located within a five-minute walk of each dwelling. (Five minutes is the time it takes the average person to walk a quarter mile.)
The town is also architecturally significant. Seaside has more than 475 cottages, ranging in size from small and cozy for a couple, to large and rambling, easily allowing several generations to gather together. Zoning provides for a mix of residential structures, ensuring that the community can provide homes to everyone.While each home has its own distinctive character, the tin-roofed cottages are architecturally uniform, and most are elevated to take advantage of cross ventilation.
This 80-acre community was thoughtfully planned to represent an homage to time well spent together — where neighbors gather and talk, where kids ride bikes and play, and families enjoy a leisurely walk to the open-air market and to the beach. The Davises envisioned a small patch of beautifully detailed, densely grouped cottages surrounded by natural landscape, with easy access to the emerald Gulf waters.
The first lot sold in 1982 was for approximately $25,000. Later, lots sold for $40,000. Now the few remaining lots are more than $800,000.
Though Seaside is one of the most famous beach towns in the world, the town is as friendly as it was in its early days. And for kids, it can mean their first taste of freedom from their parents for a few hours. They can take a bike ride throughout the streets and stop by It’s Heavenly for an ice cream cone or Modica Market for a soda.
Whether it is for a weekend, a week, or a lifetime, Seaside must be savored long enough to let time slow down, to allow cares to float away on a balmy breeze. This can only be done through extended porch-sitting, leisurely strolling and sharing time with those you care most about in a way that current urban existence rarely allows.
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