Seaside at 30, Midwest New Urbanism and CNU21

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I spent part of this past week exploring Seaside, Florida. I’ll spend the remainder of this week in Salt Lake City at CNU21 thanks to the good people at Streetsblog.net. Seaside is a master-planned community near Destin and one of the first places in the U.S. to be designed on the principles of New Urbanism. As such, Seaside has become the topic of numerous lectures in colleges of architecture, about urbanism and dense development and in housing-industry magazines. It’s become a celebrated destination of study for design professionals from across the country and abroad.

Seaside, FLFrom a personal perspective, I thought Seaside was awful. I’ll explain what I mean: There’s a reason The Truman Show was filmed here. They needed a homogenous, well-ordered, very clean, nearly artificial, setting. For all the celebration of varied design and architectural detail, and 30 years over which to evolve, Seaside feels quite staid. But that’s what’s it’s supposed to be, right? It’s a resort community with an average home price of more than $1,000,000. It’s certainly more town-like than most destinations on the Florida panhandle, but is that it?

It is perhaps because of the success of the urbanism movement that Seaside seems so unremarkable. Thirty years ago on the panhandle? This was revolutionary. The impact of Seaside on urban thinking is difficult to quantify. Was it, as some propose, a gateway to urbanism? Did vacationers enjoy the walkable streets and return to their communities and demand the same? Did all the academic and professional presentations shift the needle toward more urban development? Perhaps Seaside’s success can be understood in the very fact that it no longer seems revolutionary.

Seaside, FLThese are difficult questions. It’s revolutionary design is undeniable, for what it is. The most direct visible impact in the Midwest were the much later developments of The New Town at St. Charles and Norton Commons in Louisville (both good candidates for a Truman Show sequel). In each case, these New Urbanism developments only offer a modified development pattern for suburban living. Surely this isn’t the legacy of New Urbanism.

Perhaps Stapleton, CO is a better model, or NorthSide St. Louis, efforts to build walkable, sustainable communities connected to, and in the midst of, traditional neighborhoods. If thirty years on, we’re still looking to Seaside as a replicable model, we’re lost. However, it can be celebrated for what it is, a much better design for wealthy vacationers to enjoy the beaches of the Florida panhandle.

Seaside map
{Seaside, FL}

Norton Commons aerial
{Norton Commons – Lousiville, KY}

NewTown at Saint Charles aerial
{The New Town at St. Charles – St. Charles, MO}

There’s obviously much more to CNU21 than Seaside. Form-based code, freeway teardowns, understanding investors and urban projects, urban parks, and on and on. What questions do you have about American urbanism in the 21st Century? As it pertains to St. Louis? Have you been to Seaside? Other New Urbanism communities?

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  • Donald

    St Louis could really use an Urband community like the Playa Vista development in Los Angeles: http://playavista.com/

  • Gary Kreie

    In some ways, these places are trying to re-create Kirkwood or Webster Groves or Old Town St. Charles in the suburbs. But Kirkwood is just a little bit tacky, which means genuine. If the place isn’t just a little bit tacky, then Disney’s been there and it looks like the Magic Kingdom where no real people live. (They have a big mouse problem in the The Magic Kingdom. There are only two, but they are very big.)

    I went into a Walmart this week that had three entrances for Garden, Home, and Food, I think. I was thinking that if they just added a few more entrances and made the front look like a row of village storefronts, they could almost recreate what they destroyed. And it would fit right into Sea Side. But it wouldn’t be the same — no tacky factor. Which means no opportunity to change or improve. No chance for a fascinating new little shop to open on the storefront strip.

    New Town was always fascinating, but I also thought it felt like a movie set. One time while visiting New Town, I asked if anyone had ever left after moving in. The people there pointed to one guy and said he tried leave once. That guy now had a big scar on his partially shaved head and could no longer speak. OK, not really, but that was the creepy movie vibe I was getting.

    I think Northside could be better than Sea Side, but I’ll settle for not-creepy.

  • Guest

    In some ways, these places are trying to re-create Kirkwood or Webster Groves or Old Town St. Charles in the suburbs. But Kirkwood is just a little bit tacky, which means genuine. If the place isn’t just a little bit tacky, then Disney’s been there and it looks like the Magic Kingdom where no real people live. (They have a big mouse problem in the The Magic Kingdom. There are only two, but they are very big. Sorry.)

    I went into a Walmart this week that had three entrances for Garden, Home, and Food, I think. I was thinking that if they just added a few more entrances and made the front look like a row of village storefronts, they could almost recreate what they destroyed. And it would fit right into Sea Side. But it wouldn’t be the same — no tacky factor. Which means no opportunity to change or improve. No chance for a fascinating new little shop to open on the storefront strip.

    New Town was always fascinating, but I also thought it felt like a movie set. One time while visiting New Town, I asked if anyone had ever left after moving in. The people there pointed to one guy and said he tried leave once. That guy now had a big scar on his partially shaved head and could no longer speak. OK, no really, but that was the creepy movie vibe I was getting.

    I think Northside could be better than Sea Side, but I’ll settle for not-creepy.

  • dredger

    I think Seaside having a natural barrier, such as the beach, still puts that development heads and shoulder above the other two even if it is simple a better way for the financial able to enjoy the beach.
    New Town of St. Charles would be so much better If the site was the old Noah’s Ark and could incorporate the Katy trail connections. Instead, St. Charles got two underwhelming developments.

    • Alex Ihnen

      Right. Seaside is to Destin what New Town is to St. Charles, perhaps.