How One Small Florida Town Changed How Americans Live

Reader Contribution by Jay Walljasper
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Visitors learning about Seaside on a walking tour. Photo by Dawn C. Whitty

Built from scratch in the 1980s, the town of Seaside sparked a revolution in how we think about communities. Featuring walkable streets, plentiful gathering spots and handsome traditional architecture, this cozy beach town proves we can build new places with the appealing amenities we love about classic neighborhoods.

Communities coast-to-coast have been influenced by Seaside’s breakthroughs. Urban design experts recently compiled a lengthy list of innovations which were invented, reclaimed or made popular Seaside.  They had come to town to celebrate the 2019 winners of the Seaside Prize for notable accomplishment in urban planning, sponsored by the Seaside Institute.

7 Bright Ideas for Communities that Seaside Popularized

  1. Walkable Streets. This is a pedestrian paradise where folks on foot are not hassled by cars because of traffic calming improvements and shared-space streets. 
  2. Mixed-Use Development. A common-sense approach to town planning,  which understands that homes, shops, workplaces and recreational opportunities near one another creates a neighborly place. 
  3. New Urbanism. An architectural movement that emphasizes streetlife, local businesses and public gathering spots as the key to successful communities.   
  4. Traditional Neighborhood Design. The revival of beloved architectural elements that sadly fell out of fashion after World War II.
  5. Affordable Housing. Economical places to live can be provided small houses, apartments tucked above shops, and backyard Granny Flats 
  6. Natural Landscaping. Lawns with native species that require less water and no chemicals. (Also known as xeriscapes). 
  7. A Town, Not a Development. The real estate world was rocked Robert Davis, developer of Seaside, created a beachfront community where all residents can access the beach, not just condos on the water.  

Birth of an Historic Beach Town

Seaside’s innovative qualities were inspired by classic old towns that Davis and architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk visited on a road trip throughout the South in a red convertible.  

Seaside’s Central Square echoes Savannah, Ruskin Place resembles New Orleans’s French Quarter and many houses are reminiscent of those in Charleston, South Carolina explains Derrick W. Smith, a winner of this year’s Seaside Prize who worked on the development in the beginning. 

Through the years Seaside’s influence has widened thanks to extensive media coverage, including Time magazine hailing it as an “astounding design achievement.” 

Many Americans were introduced to Seaside in the 1998 movie The Truman Show, where actor Jim Carrey plays a young man who leads an ideal life in an ideal place without knowing everything he does is being filmed for a reality TV show.  Now the beachfront community is better known for its sustainable design and charming livability. 

Jay Walljasperauthor of The Great Neighborhood Book — writes and speaks about widely about creating a greener world. He is also an urban writer-in-residence at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. Connect with Jay atJayWalljasper.comand read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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