Samantha Salden
Assistant Professor, University of Notre Dame School of Architecture

History & Context

For much of the last century, the American landscape has largely been transformed from a mixture of urban centers and open landscapes to the in-between, the neither-nor. Use-based zoning, also known as Euclidean zoning, became the norm after a 1926 Supreme Court decision upheld the town of Euclid Ohio’s right to segregate various functions across the community and to place limits on individuals’ property rights.1 While many of us who work within the traditional building community would champion the rights of the public realm over the private, in this case the precedent was problematic, creating a widely accepted practice of government and city planners (not to be confused with urban designers) dictating the single thing that a particular lot could be used for as opposed to allowing the variety of uses that naturally grow in a vibrant neighborhood to support its various needs; and paving the way for car culture to drive the mono-functional sprawling manner in which our cities would develop for decades to come.

But 30 years ago, Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, along with other founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism, sought to change that landscape in a new way—by thinking about the legal structures that impact the way the built environment looks and by creating a new code that was both simple in its own form and capable of allowing a rich and complex environment. The first application of this code was the Seaside Code, a single poster that changed the discussion of traditional urban design on its head.

The first form-based code since Haussmann’s 19th century Paris and New York City’s efforts of 1915–1916, the Seaside approach recognized that in a sustainable community, one person couldn’t—or shouldn’t— design every building and every detail. The buildings would have to grow and evolve over time with input from a variety of clients and designers. As Andrés Duany notes, “urbanism achieves its resilience and diversity not through scale but through the ‘saddling’ of time.”2 A stable underpinning of parameters as to scale, placement and general form of the various buildings would, though, be critical to producing a unified environment through this evolutionary process.

The Seaside code applies to the various private buildings (residential and commercial) in town, broken down into eight sections classified by lot type, and addresses the location and scale of yards and porches, outbuildings and parking and building height based on number of stories. (An architectural code determining syntax of individual building elements, allowable materials, etc. does exist as well, but is noted by Andrés Duany as having “been less important to the development of Seaside”.)3 This sort of urban code makes it possible to restrict some uses (such as the placement of a tattoo parlor next to the elementary school), but recognizes that the needs and an economy of a place may change over time and so a grand house now may someday host a bed and breakfast or office space. It also recognizes that a community is made of a variety of building types and uses, economic levels and residential scales. Instead of setting out to organize residents by class and income, the Seaside code seeks a mixture organized instead based on building form.

The urban (or initially titled “zoning”) code of Seaside has changed relatively little over its 30 year history. It is perhaps most striking because of its simplicity and clarity. Anyone slogging through the tomes of most municipalities’ codes would feel an immense sense of relief from the brain-sucking legalese when presented with this simple poster, a small bit of annotation alongside a grid of crisp small diagrams which lays out the sophisticated structure of the entire place. The Code is closely linked to the masterplan (explored in greater depth in the plan), a critical element in any urban design, and the carefully designed street network.

The Types

Type I

Type I lots define the central square along Route 30A. It is intended primarily for retail use on the ground floor with residential above, potentially also generating hotels and rooming houses along the shore. These are the tallest buildings at Seaside, with a maximum of five stories permitted. They are party-wall buildings with no setback in the front, where a large arcade is required. Today, shops such as Modica Market and Central Square Records thrive fronting the green.

Type II

These lots define a small pedestrian square at the front of the proposed town hall. Type II zoning is intended primarily for office uses although apartments and retail establishments may occur. The Code generates four-story buildings with courtyard and smaller buildings at the rear. The provision affecting arcades and silhouettes is highly specific and only minimal variety is possible. It is intended that this square will have a decidedly more sedate and dignified appearance than the central square. The prototype is found in the Vieux Carré of New Orleans.

Type III

This type generates two uses ultimately determined by lot size and location. Large lots face the service street which is at the rear of the central square buildings. These spaces were intended for warehouses, possibly for automobile repair, storage and workshops. A firehouse and a service station were also planned for this zone but never built. Smaller lots occur along the north-south pedestrian route which connects the church with the central square. These should generate small shops, and it is hoped that a Sunday Market will be housed in these premises. Type III generates party-wall buildings with few restrictions other than a limit on height.

Type IV

These are large lots which line Seaside Avenue connecting the central square to the tennis club. Type IV zoning generates large freestanding buildings, with substantial out-buildings at the rear. This type may become private houses, small apartment buildings or bed and breakfast inns. The setbacks on all sides, together with a continuous porch mandated for the street front, should result in buildings of some grandeur.

Type V

This type is a special category for large lots which can contain several buildings. The Seaside Code, like other codes which can depend on the street front as the baseline for prescription, is too rigid in its control of site plans several buildings deep. Consequently, there is a minimum of prescriptions and it is required that the lots be planned as coherent groupings, with the provision that the designs be approved by the municipal authority.

Type VI

These lots are the sub-urban section of Seaside. They occur on north-south streets where there is a view of the sea at the end of the street corridor. Lots become slightly smaller toward the center of town for a gradual increase of density. Type VI zoning generates free-standing houses and encourages small out- buildings at the rear, to become guest houses and rental units. The requirements for substantial front yards secure the sea view for the island units. Picket fences help to maintain the spatial section of the street which would otherwise be excessive. The prototype is found everywhere in the suburban and rural south.

Type VII

This type occurs along the east-west streets where no view of the sea is possible. The lots are, therefore, smaller and less expensive. Since a view corridor is unnecessary, the front setback are minimal. A zero setback is permitted along one of the side yards so that houses tend to generate private yards to one side. The Charleston single house is the prototype.

Type VIII

This type is dispersed throughout the residential areas of the town. It occurs at locations which require some degree of acknowledgement as gateways of special places. The Code provisions are more liberal than those of Type VI and VII, permitting slightly greater height and freedom of placement on the lot. This provides meaningful variety within the relatively homogeneous residential districts.

Tests, Questions & Critiques

In 1984, with only a few houses actually in place on the Florida panhandle site of Seaside, the Seaside Urban Code was used as means of teaching (mostly) suburban students about urbanism at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Two studios of beginning design students, in five weeks, produced an entire model of what the town might one day become. What better way to test the limits of the Code than with a group of naturally inquisitive and rebellious young college students eager to understand and try their own hands? It was an exercise in the “fundamental relationship between the individual design and the formal order”. “Early in their education [these students] learned to appreciate that such realities are common to architectural practice; that constraints of codes are based on the values of society and are intended to produce environments of quality; and that there is a relationship between the individual designer’s search for order and the similar search made by others who have gone before.”4

Students were engaged with an ongoing dialogue that long preceded the founding of Seaside itself. Here they could converse with the worldwide placemaking and building tradition of architects and craftsmen over the centuries as well as the local vernacular traditions of small Southern towns to which Seaside is so intimately connected. Students understood that they were not simply making their own mark on a place, but part of a larger whole.

Rather than being a hindrance to creativity, Seaside’s Code has offered the opportunity for—and perhaps even encouraged—the greater complexity over time which naturally arises from a place designed by and inhabited by many hands. Often lambasted as kitsch by its critics or as backward-looking, Seaside in fact has a great variety in its architecture, but it is the unifying quality of the urban code to which these modernist, vernacular and classical constructions all adhere which makes the place. No matter the articulation of a façade or the level of a detail’s abstraction, buildings share a consistent approach to street frontages, scale and hierarchy. Seaside’s success lies not in its design limitations, but in its variety and in its address and care for the private realm while giving primacy to shaping the public realm.


Images courtesy of DPZ, unless otherwise noted.

  1. Form Based Codes : A Guide for Planners, Urban Designers, Municipalities, and Developers , pg. 7, Daniel G. Parolek, Karen Parolek, Paul C. Crawford: Wiley, 2008.

  2. Andrés Duany submitted files to the Seaside Research Portal Friday, August 5, 2011

  3. Ibid.

  4. “The Seaside Studio”, Views of Seaside, pg. 62, Peter J. Hetzel and Dhiru A. Thadani: Rizzoli Press, 2008.