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Tour Seaside With Local Expert Mark Schnell

July 20, 2010 by Lynn Nesmith

There are tourists and then there are tourists - no matter where you travel. In Firenze or Milano, the shoes are usually a dead giveaway. The natives are wearing soft leather loafers. The Americans are often decidedly less stylish.

In Seaside, the tell-tale signs are often times even more revealing. Anyone in a bathing suit and flip flops is here to have fun.

The men in black and women decked out head to toe in an equally monochromatic manner of dress are likely on a mission, or more specifically, an architectural pilgrimage.

For those of us who live in South Walton or visit regularly we sometimes take our new urbanist communities for granted or at least view them with the jaded familiarity. The notions of a planned resort with a town center, pedestrian-friendly streets, a human scale and traditional architecture hardly seem avant garde. Yet at the time Seaside was founded in 1981 by Robert and Daryl Davis, it was a revolutionary approach to urban planning and waterfront development.

And for nearly 30 years now, design professionals, students, developers, and architectural aficionados from around the world have been coming to the little town along the Gulf of Mexico where New Urbanism was born.

These inquisitive tourists might be part of a structured tour sponsored by organizations such as the Congress for New Urbanism, Urban Land Institute or Classical America. Seaside town planner Andres Duany, of the Miami firm Duany Plater Zyberk & Company, has been known to lead the faithful followers down sandy footpaths imparting design wisdom via a bullhorn. Roaming college kids with cameras and sketch pads, in lieu of coolers of beer, are as likely to be from MIT as Mississippi State.

If you’ve ever wondered why, Urban Planner Mark Schnell promises to offer insights through walking tours of the town of Seaside. Schnell, principal of Schnell Urban Design, a boutique urban design firm located in Seagrove Beach, has worked on several prominent New Urbanist projects in his 14-year career, including the Stapleton redevelopment in Denver. The firm’s most recent project is Cinnamon Shore, a resort town similar to Seaside on the Texas coast near Corpus Christi.

As a professional urban planner, Schnell believes Seaside offers lessons applicable to a city like Atlanta or Birmingham.

“Although resort town like Seaside is different from a big city, the urban design principles can be applied to any environment,” says Schnell. “Mixed-use and walkable communities are being revitalized and built around the world using design techniques tested and proven right here in Seaside.”

Schnell’s walking tours of Seaside illustrate one of the keys to the town’s long-term success is the way the individual elements like streets, parks, pathways, houses and the beach are designed to create a cohesive community.

“I hope people will walk away from the tour understanding Seaside is a ‘whole’ that is greater than the sum of its parts,” Schnell maintains. “People come and go and some of the buildings could be altered and rebuilt, but the core appeal of Seaside will remain essentially the same. The town plan is timeless.”

The walking tours cover the town center, Ruskin Place and residential streets, as well as lesser-known pathways and parks. Schnell’s dialogue addresses all manner of design trivia about individual homes, locations from The Truman Show, and details about iconic features such as the beloved beach pavilions.

Schnell admits there are locals who might have more colorful stories about the early days of Seaside.

“Few can tell you in detail why this place has an international following,” says Schnell. “I’ve spent my career studying and designing communities like this and it’s a story I love to tell.”

Tours last approximately 1.5 hours and the cost is $15 per person. Tours begin and end at Sundog Books on Seaside Central Square. For more information or to book a tour, visit www.SeasideWalkingTours.com or call 850.520.0035.

For house guests who have had a bit too much sun or just want to broaden their design horizons, I’d recommend a walking tour of Seaside over a shopping trip to Destin any day. And consider tagging along. It’s the best way to learn about new town the old-fashion way – walking the streets with a well-informed local.

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Lynn Nesmith's picture

Lynn Nesmith

Lynn's career includes stints with Architecture Magazine and Southern Living. She's been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Better Homes & Gardens, Traditional Home, House Beautiful, Architectural Record and Coastal Living. Lynn lives in Seagrove and writes from a third-story tower with a glimpse of the Gulf of Mexico.

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