Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Faking It? So is New Urbanism real?

There I was in Seaside, Fla., cradle of New Urbanism, mothership of a major architectural movement, a place that gets as much ink in architecture circles as Madonna gets in the real world.
Since Seaside got famous in the 1980s (it broke ground in 1981), critics have said it’s Disney-esque, unreal, nostalgic, elitist – a haunt for Stepford Spouses.
So, what was it really like? (Add your two cents' worth, below.) Until I went there for several days last week, I reserved judgment. You can’t really assess places until you see them. I’m a fan of New Urbanism, or at least of what New Urbanism really is, as opposed to what some critics or cheesy developers say it is.
What's New Urbanism? An architectural movement to revive the ways neighborhoods, towns and cities developed for centuries. But in the 20th century those patterns were scrapped by, among others, Modernist architects, grandiose urban planners, single-use zoning laws and traffic engineers. A New Urbanist neighborhood has narrower streets, pedestrian comforts (Seaside doesn’t really have many sidewalks, though it’s easy to walk through), connected streets, a blend of dwellings (houses, apartments, townhouses, etc.) and uses (residences, stores, workplaces). Houses sit close to each other and the street, to encourage neighborliness. Densities are higher than typical suburbia.
Seaside, designed by the Miami firm of Duany Plater-Zyberk, was the first place to get famous for honing those principles, although other architects and planners were also espousing them. Developer Robert Davis made a ton of money, and the place is hugely popular.
My verdict? Seaside is charming, especially if you like picket fences and Southern-style homes with big porches. (Most academic types and architecture writers don’t.)
Is Seaside real? Of course not. Yellow card! Is Wild Dunes real? Kiawah? Figure Eight Island? It’s a beach development.
Is it only for rich people? Again, yellow card! It’s a beach development. As designed, Seaside had more affordable places than most beach resorts. But it was wildly successful, so prices zoomed. The last undeveloped beach lot – 50 feet wide – just sold for $4 million.
Is it elitist? I see why the place sets some people’s teeth on edge. The marketing prose is excruciatingly high-concept – e.g. short gushing essays about how special it is that Southerners give names to their beach houses – with the faintest aroma of self-congratulation. It offers wine festivals, chamber music on the lawn, high-end decor shops and an artist-in-residence program. It did give me the urge to prop a rusty Corvair up on cinderblocks and serve Cheerwine and Slim Jims at my next soiree.
Conclusion: Seaside is lovely (the Ruskin Place courtyard/park is particularly beautiful) , but no longer unique – which is why it’s so significant. It proved customers crave places built to look less like Levitttown and more like Chapel Hill or Charleston. It was a demonstration project.
And it launched a huge movement in planning and architecture. Without Seaside, there’d probably be no Baxter in Fort Mill, no Afton Village in Concord, no First Ward Place housing project in Charlotte, no Southern Village in Chapel Hill. That’s its major significance. Whether it’s “real” or “elitist” is, in the end, flatly irrelevant.


new nakedist said...

Yes, many refer to Seaside as a "Resort Town". Compared to the "Exclusive Gated Resort Enclaves" found in Kiawah, Hilton Head and the like. I remember staying on one where there was a key card entry at the dunes to get from the hotel to the beach and thinking how boring this place was. Resort towns - both old and new - are the best!

Anonymous said...

I agree Seaside has an elitist feel to it. The point of New Urbanism is to include people of all incomes and walks of life..

Anonymous said...

I've visited Seaside, and thought it was preciously artificial -- and appropriately used as the setting for the "the Truman Show". I support New Urbanism, but in Seaside I had a strong feeling that none of the people working in the shops could afford to live anywhere near there. They had to commute from a good distance away, which defeats a major New Urbanist principle of having communities where people can walk to work. More generally, Seaside suffers from a problem that afflicts a lot of other supposedly New Urban projects as well: it was built on underdeveloped land, in the middle of nowhere. Until New Urbanists figure out how to redesign existing communities, the projects will continue to contribute to sprawl, and the environmental and social benefits of New Urbanism will remain mostly theoretical.

Danoplan said...

New Urbanist communities attempt to create "complete" neighborhoods that include all the land uses that you rely on in your daily life (a place to live, schools, parks, libraries, retail, office). Successful New Urbanist communities have found ways to integrate these land uses together at an appropriate scale to create great new neighborhoods. Imagine a neighborhood where you could travel through all of life's cycles from birth to your senior years in one place. We have established places like this in Charlotte such as Dilworth, Wesley Heights, Elizabeth, Plaza Midwood and Myers Park and we have emerging new places that are tryig to replicate this. These types of neighborhoods stand the test of time and increase in value which is benefical to all of us. Unfortunately we have an over-abundance of "subdivisions" that lack any new urbanist features and I question whether they will increase in value over time. Take a look at some of our new subdivisions and ask whether they will be a great place to live in 25 years...I believe many of them will not. I believe that New Urbanism makes fiscal sense for both taxpayers and for individual homeowners...because they will pay both short-term and long-term dividends in many ways.

Anonymous said...

I think new urbanism is like communism it works well on paper but not so well in reality. Mostly because new urbanism takes place in suburban locations, downtown Portland is a great example of new urbanism but Fort Mill South Carolina? What would happen if some one tried to build a 20 foot office building next to Baxter? The same thing that happened when someone tried to build a 20 foot condo building in Dilworth. These new urban locations aren’t really urban they are suburban with a better design. I think the New Suburbanism movement is/will be successful. It has sidewalks, walkability, grid blocks and availability to public transportation but also decent size yards, good schools, 2000sqft houses and a Target around the corner. People live in the suburbs for a reason just like people live in urban areas for a reason.

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