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Driving: Florida’s New Urbanist Experiments

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Photo: Martha Camarillo

The idealistic notion that contemporary small towns ought to be "small" and "townlike"—rather than sections of strip mall-riven suburban sprawl—took off in Florida in the 1980’s and 90’s with the founding of Seaside and Celebration, and continues today.

The 80-acre fan-shaped waterfront community of Seaside, on Florida’s Panhandle, began 25 years ago when a small-time developer named Robert Davis decided to build a resort community on land he’d inherited from his grandfather. He and his wife, Daryl, spent two years driving through the South in their red Pontiac convertible, studying the region’s architecture and looking for a way to fabricate a place that would evoke the simple beachfront communities of his childhood. Eventually, Davis joined forces with two young architects, Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, then partners at the trendy Miami firm Arquitectonica, who also researched the Southern vernacular via a series of road trips. What emerged from all this driving—and many hours at the drawing board—was a densely built little town full of whimsical, pastel-hued bungalows and wee versions of antebellum mansions. Nearly every house had at least one porch, and sometimes two. With its signature cuteness and perfectly calibrated aesthetic—made famous by the 1998 movie The Truman Show—Seaside became the foundation of New Urbanism, a design movement that sought to tame suburban sprawl with 100-year-old ideas about town planning and a very up-to-date knack for appropriating historic building styles. Duany and Plater-Zyberk formed their own company, DPZ, and working from their Miami headquarters became the most famous progenitors of a trend. Since Seaside, some 600 New Urbanist communities have sprung up nationwide, about 100 of them in Florida alone.

So it seems fitting that 25 years after the invention of Seaside, I, too, am on a road trip. I am driving a 1,600-mile loop around Florida, sadly not in a red convertible but rather in an acutely modest powder-blue Chevy Aveo—it’s hurricane season and gas shortages loom, so I’ve chosen fuel efficiency over style. My goal is to visit as many of Florida’s New Urbanist communities as possible: I want to see if towns based on the New Urbanists’ endless codes about street width and gradations of population density, and their guidelines about the structure of porches and the order of columns, have grown up into real places. Can you visit a New Urbanist town, with its cultivated charm, its squeaky-clean gloss on the past, and have the kind of experience you might in a place where charm has had a chance to evolve and molder, like Key West or Savannah?

If you judge by real estate values, the New Urbanist approach to making new old places has been a smashing success: local agents report Seaside houses going for $1,300 per square foot—nearly double the price in the more ordinary Seagrove, next door. And even a modest Seaside cottage, a replica of the sort of Depression-era farmstead one sees in WPA-era photos, can cost upward of $2 million. (Broad scientific studies of home appreciation and resale prices show consistent but less dramatic contrasts between New Urbanist enclaves and adjacent communities. The most recent, published in 2003, showed that homes in New Urbanist developments are 15.5 percent more valuable than homes in comparable neighborhoods.) The expanse of the Panhandle on either side of Seaside has become one of the most intriguing stretches of roadway in America, flanked by a half-dozen officially recognized New Urbanist communities and a slew of imitators. Although I’m resistant to the habitual New Urbanist trick of using nostalgia to sell a planning philosophy, I see Route 30A, unofficially the New Urbanist Highway, as a remarkable laboratory of lifestyle.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I visit New Urbanism’s fertile crescent, I need to stop in at Celebration, the white-picket-fence utopia conveniently located 20 miles from the Orlando airport—a magnet for frequent flights and low airfares—and within a few miles of the entrance to Walt Disney World. This is the town that Disney began building in 1994, with much fanfare. I once wrote the first couple of chapters of a murder mystery set in a town called Happiness that was based on Celebration…or at least my idea of Celebration. But until I pull in to town in my Aveo (hardly larger than the electric golf carts favored by the locals) I’d never been in the place.

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