I first heard about Seaside, FL in a college course, an intro to intelligent design (as in the kind of design that is well thought-out, not the one supposedly dictated by a deity). The professor was enamored with the town. Years later, I was reminded of Seaside when reading The Geography of Nowhere, a fascinating book about America’s relationship with urban planning, or lack thereof (really, it’s a great book, I highly recommend it). I am a big fan of the idea of master-planned communities…the mixed income housing, the community feel, the walking to shops, restaurants, bars, and work, the limited concessions to cars, the cuteness. I had to see Seaside for myself.
Seaside is a master-planned community, established in 1981. So it’s as old as me. What has it achieved in its lifetime? Well, Seaside has become an often-cited example of the success of master-planned communities in the US. It’s studied and visited and admired. The prescient movie The Truman Show was filmed here, a movie about a guy who didn’t know his life was a reality TV show. So now that I’ve been there, I sadly have to admit that Seaside kind of creeped me out. It seemed super Disney-fied. Disney-tactular. Fake to the extreme. Why? I was so prepared to love it.
Part of the problem may be that there aren’t many actual residents in Seaside. Most houses are vacation homes and are empty most of the year. This is likely because Seaside didn’t get a big piece of the master planning effort right. There’s actually nowhere to work here, unless you’re a waiter or a bartender or a shop attendant, aka the same jobs you can find in any resort community. So, no range of jobs, no real master-planned community.
But Seaside has had some amazing ripple effects on surrounding communities and towns nation-wide. Take Rosemary Beach, for example. We drove through Rosemary Beach on the way to Seaside, and I have to admit, I fell in love with it first. Rosemary Beach is younger, born in 1995, but it acts a lot older. In fact, all the nearby towns have incorporated some element of the master-planned community. But not the jobs part. People who work are still commuting to Panama City or Tallahassee or Pensacola — most people don’t work: they’re just vacationing here. And Seaside has been educating 30-years-worth of planning professionals on the benefits of master-planned communities. So it’s not all bad. It’s just not as good as I thought.