When you first approach Seaside, your expectations are conditioned by the direction from which you've come. Driving in from Destin the scenery is typical Gulf Coast- golf and beach resorts, souvenir palaces, bikini stores, seafood restaurants, and entertainment attractions. Naturally, you expect more of the same, and are in for a shock.
From Panama City Beach, you pass miles and miles of beachfront attractions, condos, and hotels. But then something different appears... oddly shaped private homes, usually clumped together. They're attractive enough, and their unfamiliar style is interesting... still, there's something missing.
Then, just as you wonder if you've passed it, Seaside begins unfolding before you. Houses in the same manner as those you've seen line Highway 30-A, Seaside's main street, but so too do surprising little shops and galleries. And then it hits you- this is what was missing earlier.
It's in this realization, that a collection of houses isn't the same as a neighborhood of homes, businesses and civic institutions, that an understanding of Seaside is attained. When Robert Davis, Seaside's founder, decided to develop his family holdings near Seagrove Beach, he came to this same realization.
Engaging Miami architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Davis began planning a community which would leave behind contemporary models of development, and would instead synthesize the best of past experience with the most promising modern concepts.
The theoretical underpinnings of this model of community development is known as New Urbanism. It has several basic principles from which practice follows. Above all else, neighborhood is key.
Though the size may vary, successful neighborhoods have similar qualities. They are limited in their size and human scaled. The distance between the edge and the center of the neighborhood shouldn't be over a five minute's walk (about a half-mile), with a radius of 1 mile.
Cars and other vehicular traffic isn't exactly discouraged so much as pedestrian travel is encouraged. Streets are arranged so that they form a web of interconnections, allowing for easy alternatives for getting around town.
Private residences are mixed-use, so that apartments, duplexes, and single-family homes can co-exist, creating a more authentic small-town feel. Buildings, both public and private, are expected to conform to generalized rules and to add to the aesthetic experience, and improve the street-scape.
In a borrowing from past experience, civic buildings are allotted preferential placement. This emphasizes their symbolic importance while creating instantly recognizable landmarks.
Also important, especially in a coastal town that caters to part-time residents, are upscale amenities such as the Seaside Swim & Tennis Club, with its three swimming pools, many tennis courts, a children's playground, bike rentals and a world-class croquet lawn.
At its worst, Seaside has an artificial, plastic feel. But at its best, Seaside is an exciting experiment in urban planning, and a surrealistic vision worth experiencing.