Today’s Seaside sign welcomes millions of visitors each year. Photo courtesy the Seaside Institute

Seaside sparked a movement, paving the way for more than 200 New Urban communities throughout the country by Beth Carr

As a relative newcomer to Seaside, I’ve made a deliberate effort to learn as much as possible about my new home. Every day is filled with a new fact, or nuance that deepens my roots in this beautiful place I now call home. As I interact with visitors and locals, I’m often surprised how many people know of Seaside yet do not know Seaside or the Seaside Institute.

Recently, I was shown a 1984 photo of the town limit stating the population was as 29. This brought a striking realization as to just how much Seaside has grown in the last nearly 40 years; Today Seaside has more than 350 homes and entertains a large portion of the four million plus visitors who come to South Walton each year.

The origins of Seaside started long before its founding in 1981. Seaside founder Robert Davis’ grandfather, J.S. Somlian, purchased the 80 acres the town rests on in 1946 for a family retreat. In 1978 the planning began for the first New Urban town; the goal was to make an old-fashioned beach town, with traditional wood-framed cottages indicative of the Florida Panhandle. As the town took shape, a movement was sparked, giving life to the more than 200 New Urban communities that have since been built throughout the country.

From Disney’s town of Celebration to Glenwood Park in Atlanta; Mountain House in Tracy, Calif., to Hampstead N.C., New Urbanism has become the new-old way of life. Today in the U.S. alone there are hundreds of New Urban-style communities with Florida, Texas, Louisiana and Missouri leading the number of communities of this genre. Each, with their own personalities, has welcomed homeowners into a new and healthier lifestyle. The key design principals of walkable blocks and streets, the close proximity of homes to shopping, schools, and accessible public spaces are bringing people together as they reconnect in an environment that fosters interaction and engagement.

The inspirations for Seaside and ultimately the New Urban movement that followed were driven by in-depth research of communities throughout the South. Additional trips throughout Europe inspired Seaside’s Lyceum, where the students of the Seaside Neighborhood School enjoy classes outside on its grassy center; each morning I enjoy hearing the voices and laughter of the children as they play and learn. The influences of architectural styles such as Victorian, neoclassical, modern and more are part of the initial charm of Seaside. The influence of New Urban design on the entire town though is the major vessel that brings its charm to life. The planning concepts of Seaside are also seen in our neighboring communities along 30A.

From Rosemary Beach with its European flair, to Alys Beach with its art worthy crisp modernism, Seaside and its legendary designers have influenced lives beyond the original 80 acres of land along the Florida coastline bought by a man with loving intent.

Seaside founders Daryl and Robert Davis’ vision to create a legacy that fostered family and connecting neighbors in the Panhandle has led to a movement of significant change in how we build, live and work in our communities. Today, Seaside is a destination for many vacationers who are looking for a taste of the New Urban style of living, even though they may not be able to define why. Located on one of the most beautiful beaches in the country, Seaside is an attraction. But I believe more-so it’s our welcoming, family-friendly environment that draws the many visitors we enjoy every year.

Seaside’s first sign announced a new town that would inspire the emergence of hundreds of New Urbanism communities. Photo courtesy Seaside archives

The Seaside Institute is part of the overall plan in promoting our way of life. The bigger part of why we exist, though, is to help foster great ideas that can change our thinking about the way we live for the better. With our focus areas that include New Urbanism, education, engagement and innovation, our role is to help spark and promote the imagination, help direct those ideas toward success and communicate those ideas to all who will listen. Engaging students of design, educators and enthusiasts have an impact on the visibility and life changing aspects of the Seaside model.

The impact of some movements is immediate and noticeable; for others, it’s a slow evolution over long periods of time. For the latter, it’s a change that generally goes unobserved until it’s complete and we’ve slowed down enough to take notice. New ideas, many ahead of their time, that inspire change, in small or large bites to improve our quality of life, protect our environment or educate the community on new and old concepts that work. Our impact is a gentle nudge of knowledge to launch greater, long-term results.

Over the past few years the Seaside Institute has been working on solutions to reduce traffic using multi-modal forms of transportation; the project is called 30A Mobility. In April 2017, we sponsored an exhibition of automated and emission-free vehicles. In October 2018, we hosted Aging with Grace, as a symposium on staying healthy throughout life, and this coming September we will be hosting a symposium that will focus on changing/revitalizing communities.

Our list of speakers is an exciting combination of innovators and those who have accomplished what was thought to be impossible. From the designers to the visionaries, to those who make the vision a reality: The focus is on Transforming Communities Through New Urbanism After a Natural Disaster. Mikael Colville-Andersen, an urbanist known for his philosophy about simplifying urban design and making communities bicycle friendly; Victor Dover, Rick Hall, and Major General (Retired) Mark McQueen, part of the team revitalizing Panama City, Fla.; Jason Roberts of Better Blocks, Ryan Streeter of the American Enterprise Institute; Lebron Lackey whose home, on Mexico Beach survived the direct hit of Michael’s wrath and more.

Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., during his mayoral term, transformed Charleston S.C., from a decaying urban center to an amazing vital town and a top cultural destination. His innovative ideas turned into reality and enhanced the quality of life for residents throughout the beautiful beacon of the South. Charleston is now known as one of the most livable and progressive cities in the nation. These are just a few of the exciting speakers you will hear.

Change and progress are inevitable. But our history, once written, is the foundation of our future. It is the seed that, once cultivated, grows and bends with the change of time, ideologies and human engagement.

This fact and the upcoming 40th anniversary of Seaside in 2021 and the Seaside Institute in 2022 have prompted us to renew our efforts to bring to life the archives of our history. Although this project was started years ago, it has yet to be finished; and we now embark on this venture with a deliberate goal and deadline. In this, we will ask for your help.

We have boxes of news articles, photos, CDs and videos of past events, chronicling Seaside and its growth. What is missing is the personal stories from the people who live, work and visit Seaside; present and past, during our 40 years. The first-hand accounts of change, innovation, and experiences that make any place home; the stories that give Seaside its life blood and personality.

If you would like to help the Seaside Institute create the archives, please send your stories and photos to [email protected]. Please include your name, address, and phone number, in the event we have questions or need clarifications. This project is long term, we hope to finish it by our 40th anniversary.

To support the Seaside Institute, call (850) 231-2421 or visit our website.

The Seaside Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

The Seaside Institute Upcoming Events

September 13, 2019
Walton County Presentation of the County Mobility Plan
Hear the results of Walton County’s research on the transportation along 30A and South Walton.
Open to the public; seating is limited. Donations to the Seaside Institute accepted.
To register, go to

September 14-16, 2019
Transforming Communities Through New Urbanism after a Natural Disaster
To register, go to

November 18 &19, 2019
Walton County Mobility Summit
By Invitation, Only. Walton County and invited community leaders will discuss and review the solution concepts to address transportation along 30A and South Walton.
Results will be posted when available for public release.

January 2020
Transportation Symposium/Charrette
Walton County, The Seaside Institute and the College for New Urbanism have joined forces to host a four-day Symposium and Charrette to educate the community and invite their feedback on transportation solutions for the 30A corridor. Watch the Seaside Institute website for registration dates and more details.

February 21-23, 2020
Seaside Prize Weekend
Registration Opens October 1, 2019.

May 2020
Seaside Institute Travel Expeditions
Get your Passports ready because the travel tours are back.
First on the list: Toulon France. Est-ce que tu parles Francais?

Visit our website often for updates.

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