How a Florida Beach Town Changed How We Live


Photo by Dawn C. Whitty.

A cozy town built from scratch in the 1980s ignited a revolution in how we design and build communities. With pedestrian-friendly streets, congenial gathering spots, and appealing traditional architecture, Seaside on Florida’s Panhandle  proves we can build new places with the qualities we love about classic neighborhoods—a notion once considered an impossible dream.

Cities and towns coast-to-coast have been inspired by Seaside’s innovations.  New districts teeming with loft buildings and bustling street life rise out of vacant urban land from Portland to Eau Claire.  New developments characterized by lively public spaces and neighborly connections bloom in sprawling suburbs from Longmont CO to Gaithersburg MD. Appealing affordable housing meets urgent needs from San Francisco to Tavernier Key FL.

Architects and urban aficionados from around the country recently cataloged a lengthy list of breakthroughs which were pioneered, rediscovered, or popularized in Seaside.  They were in town to honor this year’s winners of the Seaside Prize for achievement in designing communities, sponsored by the Seaside Institute.

12 Ways Seaside Changed History

  • Walkability: Seaside stands as one of the first newly built communities since the 1920s to accommodate pedestrians—thanks to traffic calming, small lot sizes, and shared-space streets where people on foot, bike, and cars coexist.
  • Mixed-Use Development: A fresh approach to urban planning which recognizes that a healthy mix of live/work/play activities enlivens a community.
  • New Urbanism: An architectural movement restoring key urban features like street life, local businesses, and neighborly gathering spots to modern life.  
  • Compact Communities: The realization that living close to shopping, services, recreation, and your neighbors fosters lively social connections as well as saving time, money, and stress. (Also known as Density.)
  • Traditional Neighborhood Design: The resurrection of enduring design elements that define the character of places we love from Santa Fe to New England villages, but which were outlawed under most 20th-century zoning codes.
  • Urban Village: Boosting everyone’s sense of community and personal ease with a town center where people can meet most everyday needs within a 5- to 15- minute stroll.
  • Traditional Affordable Housing: A revival of overlooked practices that sprinkle lower-income homes into neighborhoods, including small houses, apartments tucked above shops, and backyard Granny Flats (also known as Accessory Dwelling Units).
  • Natural Sustainable Landscaping: Instead of planting yards with grass, using native plants that require minimal water and provide shade that keeps houses cooler (also known as xeriscaping).
  • Public Space and Commons: Setting aside natural or community amenities to be enjoyed together rather than hidden behind someone’s backyard fence—a trademark of great 19th-century designers but largely forgotten until recently.
  • Form-based Codes: A 21st-century approach to zoning that ensures safe, stable communities but also fosters the essential ingredients for vibrant places— flexibility and evolution—by paying attention to the physical characteristics of buildings, not just how they will be used.
  • Incremental Development: Building a new community a few blocks at a time—rather than all at once—which opens opportunities to improve and refine plans based on real lived experience.
  • A Town, Not a Development: The Florida real estate industry was shocked when Seaside developer Robert Davis gambled on creating an entire beachfront community, not just a strip of condos on the water. 

Birth of a Historic Beach Town

Seaside was greeted with deep skepticism when it began to take shape on the sugar-white sands of the Florida panhandle.  “People would stop and ask what’s going on here?” recalled architect Tom Christ.  “I would point north and say this is going to become a town with a church, school, and shops over the next twenty five years!”

“Good luck with that, they’d say,” added Christ, who went on to design 85 of the buildings in town. 

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