Central planning, no matter if the target is an economy or a community, has generally had historically disastrous results. When the government plots and schemes the future, people are ultimately doomed to lower living standards at best, and misery, all too often.
Yet central planning can work – but only on a limited scale and when everyone involved freely participates. Every new project needs planning. The key question is whether the government does it by force or whether private companies and individuals serve as the planners.
We can test this theory by looking at the small town of Seaside, Fla., located on the Panhandle a bit closer to Panama City to the east than Pensacola to the west. It is little more than a whistle-stop on the Gulf of Mexico. Seaside encompasses 80 beachfront acres of wood-frame homes – from quaint cottages for two to homes big enough for large families – to small shops, restaurants, a few pools and one neighborhood school.
Cars are allowed, but it’s small enough to easily walk or bike from one side to the other. Its appeal is so strong that if Yogi Berra were alive today he’d say that no one goes there anymore because it’s too crowded. The idea for Seaside was dreamed up by developer Robert Davis, who wanted to recreate the look and feel of the Florida beach towns he knew so well growing up. “He naturally thought about idyllic family vacations along the same coast,” according to the city’s self-documented history.
The town’s master plan as well as the Seaside Urban Code were drafted during the summer of 1982. It was, by any definition, a central plan. Strict rules determined design elements such as building materials, roof pitch, exterior lighting and paint. But the plan was applied only to private property – land bought by Davis’ grandfather, who planned to build a summer camp there, and written at the request of the private owner.
Seaside came to life through the design team of Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, who are best-known as the pioneers of the New Urbanism architectural movement. This wasn’t the dream of government bureaucrats, nor just one person nor politicians.
Though The New York Times’ Herbert Muschamp called New Urbanism the “most important phenomenon to emerge in American architecture in the post-Cold War era,” it is not without its critics. It can be expensive. Some see it as cloyingly nostalgic, a sterile, didn’t-quite-make-it repackaging of the past. It’s been labeled “doctrinaire” and “formulaic.”
Journalist Alex Marshall says New Urbanism “sounds good,” but tagged it a “grand fraud” because he views them as “suburbs in disguise.” In fact, the dystopian movie “The Truman Show” largely was filmed in Seaside – and it featured actor Jim Carrey trying to escape its sameness.
At times, New Urbanists – who are attempting to build walkable cities and “human-scaled” architecture – have attempted to use government to dictate their aesthetic preferences (often through design limitations known as Smart Growth). Yet Marshall acknowledges that “New Urbanism does have some subtlety and grace,” and this is primarily “because it was conceived and promulgated by architects, not bureaucrats or developers lacking aesthetic vision.”
It’s an important distinction. Central planning can work when the hand that draws the design is not a fist but an open, collaborative hand.
Seaside is mostly a vacation destination, with more than 300 homes available for rent. Think of it as a resort, designed to attract guests with its amenities. In a town of about 2,800, there are fewer than 200 full-time residents. Other residents use their homes only part of the year, about six months. All of them bought their property fully aware there was a master plan and a code that restricted how much of their personal tastes they could put on display.
Those who wanted to be part of Davis’ vision – they could be called partners – were free to join him in building a town. Those who didn’t wish to be constrained by the guidelines were free to say no. There was no coercion, only voluntary participation.
At one time, Seaside was an isolated patch but it became so popular that the area around it is now bursting with similar-looking homes and small-town appeal. About eight miles southeast on County Highway 30A sits Rosemary Beach, 107 acres of oceanfront property that’s also based on the principles of New Urbanism – and also planned by the husband-and-wife team of Duany and Plater-Zyberk. Richard Gibbs was appointed town architect in 1996, a position he was named to at Seaside in 1990.
The town’s first “brainstorming session” was in 1995, where participants identified “critical elements” of its architecture. Anyone interested was invited to “Come Build a Town.” Lots were sold to buyers who, like their Seaside counterparts, had the choice to be a part of the community or to move on to something that better suited them.
Between Seaside and Rosemary Beach is Alys Beach, another Duany-Plater-Zyberk project, and it’s a bit bigger still at 158 acres, all of it owned by one family that also had an idea for creating a town. Like the other two, it could be called a “freely planned” town, designed with little government interference. (County codes are still in effect.)
Beyond Florida is another thriving Duany-Plater-Zyberk town. Kentlands, a private neighborhood within Gaithersburg, Md., is built on land owned by a private developer who envisioned “a complete town based on traditional neighborhood planning principles.”
Architect and urban designer Kevin Klingberg, writing in The American Conservative, credits the town, along with Seaside and other “planned but traditional communities,” as having “helped spawn a movement that transformed how Americans think about life in cities.”
Kentlands would have been just another Washington, D.C., suburb, though, had the city of Gaithersburg put up a stubborn bureaucratic wall. Instead, the city designed a new zoning concept that allowed a mix of commercial and residential properties, a cornerstone of New Urbanism’s master plans.
Is it possible that “freely planned” communities could be adapted on a larger scale? It seems reasonable, since the smaller developments on the Florida Panhandle, starting with Seaside, have almost become distinctly different neighborhoods in a larger area fronting the ocean. This “metropolis” is nothing close to the scar central planners would leave on the land, but that’s the point.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.