The master plans of the four major New Urbanist communities on 30A illustrate different ways to achieve great urban design By Mark Schnell
In my career as an urban designer, I’ve noticed that the idea of designing an entire neighborhood or town is a very foreign concept to some people. They imagine that neighborhoods and towns just “happen.” (Architect Eric Kronberg calls this the “immaculate conception theory of urbanism.”) In other words, they think that places generally grow organically rather than being a single cohesive design. That certainly happened in some places, but more often than not someone at least designed the layout of streets and lots — even if the resulting design was just a simple grid.
In some cases, places were laid out by the government or military. The remarkable plan for Savannah, Ga., by Gen. James Oglethorpe is an example. In others, it was a company such as a railroad who laid out the town. The original grid of Birmingham, Ala., comes to mind as an example. Beyond that, towns and neighborhoods have been created by private developers and the designers and engineers they’ve hired. And those designers and engineers were inspired by places they admired and places that were successful.
A master plan provides the framework of public and private spaces in a community. The public realm of streets and walkways provides a way to move through a place, while the public parks, plazas, and civic buildings serve as important centers or nodes. Likewise, a concentration of commercial activity along a Main Street or around a park can serve as a center or node. The remainder, or the blocks in between, are usually filled with residences of various types and sizes. In communities with special locations, such as those along a waterfront, a master plan needs to address access to the water and views of the water.
Along Scenic Highway 30A, the two earliest towns were designed in a classic grid pattern. The original parts of Grayton Beach, founded in 1890, and Seagrove Beach, founded in 1949, feature this timeless urban pattern. While the specific inspirations for these designs might be lost to history, there is no shortage of examples they could have followed, from Manhattan to small towns across the country.
A new era was launched with the founding of Seaside, the birthplace of the New Urbanism movement. Here’s a look at the planning influences of the four major New Urbanist communities of 30A:
Seaside was founded in 1981 by Robert and Daryl Davis. Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk were the urban designers, along with some help from renowned urban designer and thinker Leon Krier. The early urban designs of Duany and Plater-Zyberk, and their firm DPZ, were influenced by the great American neighborhoods of the 1890s through the 1920s, including those designed by the great John Nolen. The development and design team also famously studied small towns of the southeastern United States as they designed Seaside.
Their plan for Seaside is notably formal and axial. One can see the influence of the L’Enfant plan for Washington, D.C., which was originally inspired by the Versailles palace grounds outside of Paris, France. In these examples, a grid is punctuated by key streets and spaces that radiate out at an angle from key points (the palace in Versailles, the Capitol in Washington, and the amphitheater in Seaside). The three main axes of Seaside — Seaside Avenue, Ruskin Place, and the Lyceum — are the key streets and spaces that radiate in and out from the amphitheater.
Another formal aspect of the plan is the use of terminated vistas: objects that are intentionally placed to be visible at the end of a view corridor (such as a street). In Seaside, the civic structures including the gazebo, chapel and beach pavilions are the most notable terminated vistas, along with some towers on private homes. This is an age-old technique made famous in places like Washington, D.C. (where many buildings and monuments serve as the terminated vistas), the Champs-Elysees in Paris (the Arc de Triomphe), and even in county seats across the U.S. where the county courthouse is centered in one’s view.
Seaside is also fairly street-oriented: the houses address the streets through front porches, and the mixed-use buildings address the streets and sidewalks through glass storefronts and doors. Although there are some sidewalks, a system of mid-block walkways, and some pedestrian-only areas, the overall focus remains on the streets. This is, in part, because Seaside features narrow shared streets, which are comfortable and functional for pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists alike. Even the parking tends to be located on streets rather than in separate parking lots or within private residential lots (although there are a good number of small driveways).
The neighboring community of Watercolor was developed by the St. Joe Company and designed by Cooper, Robertson & Partners and Urban Design Associates. It was founded in 2001.
Built on 500 acres, Watercolor is much larger than the other communities discussed here (Seaside, for example, is built on 80 acres), but with much less beachfront and many more wetlands (including Western Lake). These were significant factors in the community’s master plan, and they help make the master plan notably different than those of Seaside, Rosemary Beach or Alys Beach.
The most notable, and arguably the most successful, area of the master plan is the primary axis that runs from the neighborhood north of Western Lake across a pedestrian bridge, through the signature park called Cerulean Park, to the town center and then the beach. It’s an alluring series of experiences and spaces, and it forms the backbone of the community.
Beyond this primary axis, Watercolor consists of a series of residential neighborhoods centered on parks of various sizes. Many of these parks are designed as activity nodes and therefore include features such as pools and a children’s camp. The use of parks as a centerpiece is a longtime technique in the design of great American neighborhoods. This is especially true of cities built during the City Beautiful movement. It also brings to mind the work of Frederick Law Olmsted.
Rosemary Beach, founded in 1995, was the second project by legendary urban design firm DPZ along 30A (after Seaside). The community’s developer, Leucadia, requested a different and somewhat contrasting design direction from Seaside, both in terms of the planning and architecture.
So, rather than repeating the formality of Seaside’s plan, the Rosemary plan is much more informal. The plan maintains a general grid-like network, but it’s much less orthogonal and regular. (One alley is appropriately named Wiggle Lane.)
Scenic Highway 30A is lined with gorgeous live oak trees through Rosemary Beach, and the street is flanked by linear parks along the north side. It reminds me of the linear parks of several Frederick Law Olmsted designs, particularly those in Atlanta’s Druid Hills neighborhood.
The town center is positioned in the actual center of the town, mostly around North and South Barrett Squares, which are bisected by 30A. The superb Main Street extends down to Western Green, a park that doubles as an access to the beach and Gulf of Mexico.
The informality in this area takes several different forms. Rather than place the Town Hall — the town’s signature civic building — on axis with North and South Barrett Squares, it sits at a slight angle off to one side. Looking down Main Street, DPZ could have terminated the view straight across Western Green to the Gulf of Mexico beyond, but instead placed Western Green off to the side. This leaves the adjacent row of houses, again placed at an angle versus Main Street, to provide a “deflected vista.” The view entices one to journey down the hill and see what’s next.
Another key aspect of the Rosemary Beach plan’s informality is Water Street, the meandering “ring road” that is one of the few true streets (as opposed to an alley) in the town. It snakes through a modified grid in which boardwalks — all of which lead you to the beach — are located at the front of adjacent lots, while alleys (called lanes in Rosemary) run along the back. In many cases, the main house fronts the boardwalk and a carriage house is on the lane. These boardwalks and lanes are full of additional deflected vistas. The boardwalks are limited to pedestrians and cyclists, and were inspired by those in New York’s Fire Island and other beach communities.
Thanks to this informal and organic-feeling design, Rosemary Beach often reminds people of a European town. There’s no question that Europe was an inspiration, but, like the town’s architecture, the master plan was also filtered through the colonial towns of the Caribbean and the Americas. I see shades of Santa Fe — particularly the ring road Paseo de Peralta — and St. Augustine in the design.
Alys Beach is being developed by EBSCO, and the master plan was designed by DPZ. It was founded in 2004 and is only partially complete. In their master plan there is a sense of grandeur, but also many intimate and subtle moments.
The sense of grandeur begins when one enters the community from the east or west on 30A. This simple county road was transformed into a multi-way boulevard featuring two through lanes in the center, landscaped medians (featuring giant Medjool date palms and yew hedges), and one-way frontage lanes with parallel parking on the outside. One passes through two dramatic pavilions called butteries at both the east and west ends.
There are other grand gestures as well. The Caliza Pool is a grand gesture in every sense, but in terms of the master plan, it plays this role thanks to the triangular park that opens up the street view of the large entry tower. On the Gulf Green, a small park and gateway to the beach, two giant urns frame the view of the Gulf and make another grand statement.
But it’s not all grandeur at Alys Beach. The designers have added many subtle touches as well. Most of the major streets — some vehicular and some pedestrian-only — lead one to the beach. The pedestrian-only streets are especially notable for small but endearing gestures. Courtyard houses front many of these streets, and the courtyard gates often provide glimpses of the courtyards beyond. Each house on a pedestrian street is required to “give back to the street” in the form of benches, fountains, etc. And there are many small “pocket parks” providing an inviting pause on the streets.
Alys Beach is ultimately a hybrid of many planning concepts and influences, and DPZ applied their lessons learned from other community designs. While the grand gestures remind me in a general way of an intentionally grand city such as Paris (particularly areas built during the era of Baron Haussmann), the intimate pedestrian streets, pocket parks, and courtyard houses are reminiscent of Latin America: places like Antigua, Guatemala; Cartegena, Colombia; and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
Mark Schnell is an urban designer based in Seagrove Beach. Among his most prominent projects are three New Urban beach communities on the Texas coast: Cinnamon Shore, Palmilla Beach, and Sunflower Beach. Learn more about his firm Schnell Urban Design at SchnellUrbanDesign.com.