Thirty Years of New Urbanism in Northwest Florida

by Timothy W. Brown, AICP

Seaside, Florida, credited as the first new urbanist development, is 30 years old this year. Spawned in part by the success of Seaside, other new urbanist communities have been or are being developed in northwest Florida. This article summarizes new urbanism's major development types in comparison with conventional suburban development, and provides a detailed description of Seaside and five other new urbanist developments in northwest Florida.


Throughout history, human settlements were compact, often surrounded by walls, and generally self-contained and self-supporting. During the earlier ages of human settlement, exploration and colonialism, drawing communities close enabled for a better defense against aggressors, and better utilization of the land within the settlement. For most of human history this meant a city that was entirely walkable.1,2

The restrictive conventional zoning and subdivision regulations implemented over the past 50 years have led to development patterns, particularly in the suburbs, that diminish the desirable characteristics of human habitation. Separated land uses and excessive traffic and parking provisions resulted in increased air and water pollution, despoiled natural environments, a lack of accessibility among children and the elderly, more severe congestion, longer commute times, greater public service costs, reduced civic involvement, and declines in health.3 This new system of development, with its rigorous separation of uses, became known as "conventional suburban development"4 or pejoratively as urban sprawl. The majority of U.S. citizens now live in suburban communities built in the last 50 years, and automobile use per capita has soared.5

A number of activists and thinkers soon began to criticize the modernist planning techniques being put into practice. Social philosopher and historian Lewis Mumford criticized the "anti-urban" development of post-war America. Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) called for planners to reconsider single-use housing projects, large car-dependent thoroughfares, and segregated commercial centers that had become the "norm." Rooted in these early dissenters, new urbanism emerged in the 1970s and 1980s with the urban visions and theoretical models for the reconstruction of the "European" city proposed by architect Leon Krier, and the "pattern language" theories of Christopher Alexander.6

In 1991, the Local Government Commission, a private nonprofit group in Sacramento, California, invited architects Peter Calthorpe, Michael Corbett, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Moule, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and others to develop a set of community principles for land-use planning. Named the Ahwahnee Principles (after Yosemite National Park's Ahwahnee Hotel), the commission presented the principles to about 100 government officials in the fall of 1991 at its first Yosemite Conference for Local Elected Officials. Calthorpe, Duany, Moule, Plater-Zyberk, Polyzoides, and Solomon went on to found the Chicago-based Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) in 1993. CNU has grown to more than 3,000 members, and it is the leading international organization promoting new urbanist design principles. It holds annual congresses in various U.S. cities.7

New urbanists support regional planning for open space, context-appropriate architecture and planning, and the balanced development of jobs and housing. They believe their strategies can reduce traffic congestion, increase the supply of affordable housing, and rein in urban sprawl. The Charter of the New Urbanism also covers issues such as historic preservation, safe streets, green building, and the redevelopment of brownfield sites.8


New urbanism utilizes a number of concepts as an alternative to conventional zoning and subdivision regulations. These include traditional neighborhood development (TND), transit- oriented development (TOD), and hybrid development types to decrease suburban sprawl and foster community.

Traditional Neighborhood Development

Traditional neighborhood development (TND) is one of several new urbanism concepts that have been embraced over the past 15 years as an alternative to the conventional development patterns that defined U.S. growth starting in the 1940s. Conventional subdivision design is characterized by auto dependency and segregated land uses, resulting in suburban sprawl. Conventional sprawl development consists of five main components: (1) housing subdivisions; (2) shopping centers, composed of single-use retail buildings, usually a single story with exclusive parking areas; (3) office/business parks, also single use and served by exclusive parking areas; (4) civic institutions, such as churches, schools, and libraries, generally large and separated from other uses and served by exclusive parking areas; and (5) roadways, connecting these separated land uses and designed exclusively for the use of automobiles.9

TND responds to the inefficient and costly separation of uses and auto dependency and provides an alternative development pattern that promotes "mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly communities of varied population, either standing free as villages or grouped into towns and cities."10

Conventional subdivision design is based on a hierarchical street pattern that channels local traffic onto collector roads in order to reach almost all destination points, increasing congestion and impeding non-auto access to typical daily destinations.11 In conventional suburban development, "adjacency" and "accessibility" have been defined as distinct concepts and, while typical daily destinations are oftentimes adjacent to one another, suburban design makes these destinations difficult to access directly and makes walking an inefficient form of transportation.12 The TND pattern is based on: each neighborhood containing a clear center for commerce, culture, and civic activity; compact development within a five-minute walk of the center; a street network based on small, connected blocks, generally in a grid layout; narrow, versatile streets; mixed uses; and special sites for civic structures and buildings. Historically, places for living, working, and shopping were designed and built in close proximity simply because this was the most economic and convenient way to build. In times when transportation options were expensive, dangerous, dirty, and sometimes unavailable, supplying daily needs within walking distance made sense to developers and consumers.13 Figure 1 illustrates a typical TND community.

Celebration, Florida, in 2006
Figure 1    
Celebration, Florida, in 2006. Photo courtesy Bobak Ha'Eri.

Table 1 compares conventional development patterns and traditional neighborhood development on the basis of orientation, land uses, street network and parking, environment, and housing.

Table 1

Comparison of Conventional Versus Traditional Neighborhood Development

Conventional Development Traditional Neighborhood Development
Orientation Orientation
• Designed to emphasize privacy
• Homes and buildings set back from the street at minimum distances
• Designed as an independent "pod," without true linkages to surrounding development
• Private orientation, with indoor and outdoor living areas located to the rear of the home
• Designed to offer opportunities for community interaction
• Build-to lines that move homes and buildings closer to the street and create a more defined streetscape
• Designed to enhance community and to be a long-term asset, connected to surrounding development
• Public orientation, with porches and living areas located at the front of the home
• Use of common courtyards as front access to residential homes with garages facing a private drive
Land Uses Land Uses
• Separation of uses, no neighborhood-based commercial or employment opportunities within walking or biking distance
• Maximum densities that do not support transit as a viable option
• Does not efficiently use infrastructure
• Does not create any jobs/housing balance
• Mixed uses, including neighborhood-based commercial uses and live-work options
• Minimum densities that support transit and nearby commercial uses
• Designed to efficiently use infrastructure
• Provides employment opportunities and strives to create jobs/housing balance
Street Network and Parking Street Network and Parking
• Street standards designed for cars, with wide lanes and minimal streetscape standards
• Curvilinear and cul-de-sac streets, with poor
connections to adjacent neighborhoods and commercial areas
• Minimum parking requirements, with garages and parking areas located at the front of the homes
• Shared parking not an option
• Auto-dependent
• Street standards designed for all users, including bikes and pedestrians, with narrow lanes and defined streetscape standards
• Interconnected street network with good connections to adjacent neighborhoods and commercial areas
• Maximum allowable parking areas, with garages and parking areas located to the side or rear of the homes, sometimes along alleys or private drives
• Shared parking encouraged, especially among commercial uses with different peak parking demands
• Supports a variety of transportation options, including cars, mass transit, walking, and biking
Environment Environment
• Privately owned and maintained open space and yards, fewer opportunities for public gathering spaces
• Minimum parking requirements, with garages and parking areas located at the front of the homes
• Regional environmental concerns not as important
• Shared open space and parks generally maintained by a property owner's association, open space designed for active and passive uses
• Maximum allowable parking areas, with garages and parking areas located to the side or rear of the homes, sometimes along alleys or private drives
• Supports regional environmental initiatives
Housing Housing
• Homes are of similar form, size, and selling price, encouraging residents of similar demographic characteristics
• Larger building lots
• Homes have a variety of sizes, forms, and prices, including affordable/attainable housing options, in order to encourage residents of varying backgrounds
• Smaller building lots

Source: Compiled by the author from the following sources: See S. Mark White, "Neotraditional Development: A Legal Analysis," 49 Land Use Law & Zoning Digest, No. 8 at 3 (August 1997); S. Mark White, "The Zoning and Real Estate Implications of Transit-Oriented Development," Transportation Research Board Project J-5 (January 1999); and Joel Hirschord and Paul Souza, New Community Design to the Rescue: Fulfilling Another American Dream (Washington, DC: National Governors Association, 2001), 33.

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