Seaside, at its inception in 1980, was a radical proposition. While the standard neighborhood model that developed after World War II had been an automobile-dependent suburban sprawl of housing subdivisions, shopping centers and office parks, connected only by mandatory car trips, Seaside, in contrast, was developed as a walkable, mixed-use town. Furthermore it was conceived by a philosopher, Seaside founder Robert Davis, who would integrate his ideals into the town’s planning with Andrés Duany, the architect and planner Davis enlisted to interpret his philosophical ideals onto the untouched canvas of Florida’s Emerald Coast.
As such, The Seaside Institute is not a new or artificial invention. Founded in 1982, the Institute is deeply intertwined with the conception and history of Seaside; and, with the birth of the New Urbanism Movement. “Seaside was then an idea whose time had come. The world was becoming exhausted by a suburban dream that was not delivered,” explains Duany. That promise of free-flowing traffic, plenty of parking, and housing amongst nature, had proved to be a lie.”
The American suburbs were systematically failing while Seaside was still in its infancy. Its New Urbanist ideals were just barely embedded in the ethos of Walton County when national developers, on their quest to respond to market demands, began to turn their heads toward Davis and Duany to learn more about revolutionizing post-industrial town planning.
In those early years, the two young pioneers had plenty of time and were happy to give extensive tours in what amounted to private seminars for information seekers. Among those was His Royal Highness Prince Charles of Wales, who founded the village of Poundbury — a New Urbanist enclave that implemented the Seaside principles. As the fame of Seaside grew, more like-minded visionaries and entrepreneurs sought to learn about Seaside. The mission of explaining to the world how Davis’ philosophies were implemented with Duany’s precision, soon became an overwhelming task. “In 1982, Robert and Daryl Davis thus had the idea of creating the Seaside Institute, a place for potential developers, planners, architects and government officials to take short courses taught by the experts,” explains Duany.
The Seaside Institute flourished through the personal subsidies of the Davises’ under the leadership of its first director, Phyllis Bleiweis. It quickly became an increasingly viable proposition of national importance. Its focus expanded to include traffic engineering, environmentalism, and marketing the entire mix of town planning that became known as the New Urbanism. When the programming began to overwhelm its infrastructure, the Institute would decant some of its missions into another organization — the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU). Many of the of the earlier Institute courses seemed like dress rehearsals for the first national gathering of new urbanists in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1990, where the first Congress for New Urbanism was held. The CNU, which was launched with the founding support of town founders Robert and Daryl Davis, architects Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Dhiru Thadani, and a small contingency of urban planners, now boasts more than 3,500 paid memberships and has held 27 annual congresses, attended annually by over 1,500 registrants.
As the CNU became capable of teaching the new urbanist principles, the Seaside Institute shifted its focus to emerging issues. The second director, Diane Dorney, took on a more specialized agenda including the famous Seaside Pienza Institutes, as well as creating the Academic Village for students from various universities, including Notre Dame, Yale, and the University of Miami, who were eager to learn about the New Urbanism but couldn’t afford the long-term lodging rates in Seaside.
Now, as the Seaside Institute entered its 36th year, the focus, as set out by the third director, Bob Irwin, is to engage in the many issues of the 21st Century for which the New Urbanism has exceptional answers. Aging With Grace and Mobility stand at the forefront of aligning the 30A communities with its mission as the organization works diligently to protect and preserve the New Urbanist ethos that positioned Walton as one of the fasting growing counties in the U.S.
“Each of our programs cohesively builds off of the other, and all of them go back to the roots, intentions and philosophies of Seaside,” says Beth Carr, current executive director for the Seaside Institute. Carr is focused on developing a structure for programming that perpetuates not only Robert Davis’ vision and innovation, but also develops a sense of community for local and non-local leaders. “There is an ‘a-ha’ moment for people when they understand who we are, and say ‘Oh! Now, I get how it’s all connected.’”
As residents of the surrounding suburban markets infiltrate 30A’s scenic corridor with an opposing subset of values, the job of the Seaside Institute now is to tackle the challenge of educating visitors and residents about the coveted New Urbanist lifestyle, head-on. “My generation grew up with bureaucracy,” says Duany. “What made Seaside unique is that Robert and I knew how to navigate it. What the Institute needs to do now is brace itself for its continued growth and popularity by remembering what Seaside was like when it was lean and young — to remember its inaugural condition and protect it.” The Institute’s focus now is to protect and persevere the architecture and cultural assets of the New Urbanism and to clear the field for the young. “Which is exactly what Robert and Daryl did when they started Seaside. That’s when we took over the world!”
That world, for the residents of Highway 30A and the homeowners of
Seaside, Watercolor, Rosemary Beach and soon Kaiya, is becoming
enveloped from the north, south east, and west by new development that
is leveraging the New Urbanism for its financial favor, rather than
aligning to support its fundamental roots. Education is key. The Seaside
Institute as a local think-tank that shares its ideals and responds to
the needs of the new urbanism, is needed now more than ever.
For more information: seasideinstitute.com