Would Seaside work in outer suburban Melbourne?

Click to take a "walk" around Seaside, Florida

When I first saw pictures of Seaside many years ago, I imagined that’s what the outer suburbs of Melbourne could look like one day. Click on the picture and go for a “walk” around the Florida village that had a key role in inspiring the New Urbanism movement. Seaside is famous – you might know it from its role in The Truman Show or from its distinctive array of “story book” houses.

Although the houses are detached, you’ll see many of the key ideas of New Urbanism in Seaside, including houses that open up to neighbourly streets and paths, have no garages and are within an easy walk of the town centre. Keep an eye out for walking paths. Given the kind of detached housing that’s being built today in Australian cities, I find it extraordinary that the first stage of Seaside was started 30 years ago!

It doesn’t push all the New Urbanism buttons. For example, the range of dwelling types is pretty limited and there’s not much evidence of transit orientation (it’s not a commuter village). Nevertheless, average density approaches the aspirational 25 dwellings per hectare, well in excess of the 15 dwellings per hectare promoted in Melbourne 2030 and in new fringe structure plans like the one for Toolern, near Melton.

For my money, the key reason Seaside has such broad popular appeal is the two and three storey detached “Hansel and Gretel” houses, with their faux widow’s walks and sometimes extravagant follies. Some architects however find it twee – they wince at the sentimentality and overwrought quaintness of the place.

I think it also appeals because of the determination of the architects to eliminate garages. This enables living areas to be placed at the front within a conversation’s distance of the sidewalk. It captures a half-forgotten notion of neighbourliness and conjures romantic images like promenading.

This contrasts with the practice in Melbourne where both new suburban houses and traditional inner city terraces tend to put bedrooms at the front and the main living areas at the rear (only apartments and older suburban houses seem to have living areas facing the street, although they’re usually set way back from the front boundary).

A parallel with Melbourne though is the limited area of private open space. I hear frequent condemnation of big houses with small yards in Melbourne’s outer suburbs (as if buyers can’t make their own decisions about what size yard they want!) but the area of private open space in Seaside looks positively miniscule. As with apartment dwellers, I’d expect the quality of the public realm is an important offset.

As a possible model for Australian suburbia, it’s important to get Seaside in context. It’s not a big place – it only covers about 50 32 hectares (the part of Fishermans Bend mooted for redevelopment is 200 Ha) and has around 500 houses. (Update: the whole area though, including very similar contiguous developments, is about 100 Ha with 1,000 or more houses – see Comments). Also, it’s essentially a beachside resort for people who are well-off. Many of the houses are rented to holiday makers and in that sense it functions more like the swank residential areas close to Hastings Street in Noosa than the suburbs of Melbourne or Sydney.

Like Noosa, it’s a long way from the nearest major urban centre. Dwellings are architect-designed and costly to build – properties at Seaside have sold for as much as $5 million (presumably ones on the beachfront). Further, I suspect a major reason there are so few cars in the streets is that holiday makers fly in and have no need to drive in what is essentially a self-contained resort. The town centre seems improbably built-up for 500 dwellings and that could be because this is a tourist town, drawing visitors from well beyond Seaside’s border.

I can imagine something like Seaside working on old brownfield sites in Melbourne like Fishermans Bend and E-Gate, but what would happen if it were transplanted to the suburban fringe?

The idea of retaining the detached house form while increasing density could be attractive to buyers, as outer suburban Melburnians have stuck steadfastly to the traditional house at the same time as lot sizes have fallen dramatically in response to higher costs. Attached housing still seems a bridge too far for the great bulk of fringe buyers.

While even current McMansion buyers couldn’t afford the sorts of one-off houses in Seaside, if the demand were there I expect Melbourne’s housing industry would be quite capable of churning out a decent range of compact, interesting and realistically-priced multi-storey houses at the upper end of the suburban market. They might not be as varied or picturesque as Seaside’s, but they could be a lot more interesting than what’s going up at the moment.

To be like Seaside though, they’d have to fit on a small lot and embrace the street. I expect noise transmitted between houses could be a serious issue, requiring good dwelling design and good community management. It would be fascinating to know how residents score Seaside on this criterion.

Cars would be a more difficult issue to deal with because life in Melbourne’s outer suburbs without them is unthinkable. Many suburban New Urbanism projects in the US deal with this reality by having lots large enough to accommodate a two car garage at the rear, serviced by an access laneway. An alternative is to provide all parking on the street, much as happens in inner city Melbourne at the moment, but with narrower streets, slower speeds and extensive planting.

I think the hardest task though would be to give suburbanites a reason to live in smaller houses closer to their neighbours. They’ll do that in the city centre, on a beach, around a golf course, or perhaps if the buildings are old or outstanding, but finding a more general and affordable solution is harder. I’m not confident that having a walkable collection of local shops is enough when residents still have the option of driving somewhere more exciting. There has to be something special (or else insanely high transport costs). Perhaps in the future that something special will be provided by more people buying into communities where residents have a special interest in common.

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13 Comments on “Would Seaside work in outer suburban Melbourne?”

  1. Cameron Shephard says:

    The link to google maps from the top photo is to a development called “Watercolour” just up the road from Seaside.
    Also, wasnt it Celebration near Orlando that featured in The Truman Show? I could be wrong here.

    • Alan Davies says:

      O.K. Thanks for that advice – I’ve changed the link in the picture to Grayton St.

      The link is to Watercolor Blvd E within Seaside – see here.

      The Truman Show was filmed in Seaside according to Wiki – see here.

      • Watercolour Boulevard is definitely outside Seaside, which finishes at Natchez Street on its west edge and Forest Street on its north side. Watercolours is very Seaside-esque, and quite organically linked, but it’s definitely a different development.

        And yes, the Truman Show was filmed in Seaside, not Celebration. Truman’s house is on Natchez Street. (It’s worth noting though that the “downtown” was digitally enhanced as it was still not progressed enough when they filmed).

        • Alan Davies says:

          Thanks Stephen, I stand corrected. I’ve changed the link to Grayton St. I’ll just say that Google Map treats them both as Seaside. The boundary appears seamless, so do you know if these other developers have “free-loaded” on Seaside’s reputation and prominence?

          • Well, yes, to some extent I guess, although I think the relationship is relatively friendly. Seaside’s edge is (relatively) permeable by design and Watercolour is very much an attempt to reproduce Seaside’s approach. My recollection is that in interviews with Robert Davis (developer) and the architects / planners (notably Andres Duany) usually cite Watercolours as an example how their principles can be adapted and re-used.

          • Alan Davies says:

            So would it be fair to say that the size of the total area that appears as “Seaside” could be getting on for 100 Ha and maybe 1,000 houses (if the area to the north across the water also qualifies)?

          • “So would it be fair to say that the size of the total area that appears as “Seaside” could be getting on for 100 Ha and maybe 1,000 houses (if the area to the north across the water also qualifies)?”

            Seaside proper is 32 ha and slightly less than 500 houses. If you’re asking how big the combination of Seaside and Watercolour is, it would be easily 100ha and 1000 houses if you counted all of it: it extends up to Highway 395 to the east, and includes the still largely undeveloped pod you mention to the north.

            (Incidentally, the area’s only full supermarket is part of Watercolour, over on highway 395, labelled as “Watercolour Crossing” on Google maps: it’s quite the classic suburban car-oriented supermarket. Seaside itself has a small grocery store – the one seen in The Truman Show.)

        • Oh and for those looking at the maps the eastern edge is Tupelo Street.

  2. john says:

    ‘a conversation’s distance from the sidewalk….’

    I live in a 1950s subdivision where the paved road is 7m wide, the road easement including nature strips is 20m, and the house front to front distance is about 35m.

    I think this distance is seriously detrimental to neighbourly relations, because it virtually rules out random social interaction with the neighbour across the road. To talk you have to make a positive decision to walk across. Which of course you don’t always do because you’re not sure whether the neighbour wants to talk right now or will have disappeared by the time you get there etc etc.

    For an example of clever dense detached housing see what I assume is a strata title development at the end of Taronga Place O’Malley ACT (sorry I don’t know how to paste links to particular google maps). Unfortunately there’s no street view of the private road, but I can tell you its a very pleasant environment, at a density that is probably only a little greater than your bog standard spec built greenfield house with no backyard.

    The difference between a pleasant and dull urban environment is not primarily about density, it’s about whether developers bother to put the effort into thinking about good design at the whole subdivision scale.

  3. Thanks for writing about Seaside. I visited the town last year and strongly recommend a visit to anyone interested in urbanism. I have written about that visit here – http://www.sterow.com/?p=1658. That article addresses some of the issues you’ve raised.

    Without wanting to repeat myself too much, I can say I was extremely impressed by it: much more than I expected to be. It’s imitators tend to chicken out of incorporating some of its best features (notably the really ruthless elimination of garages and private open space) and therefore miss the point.

    It also stands in condemnation of absurdly low 15 dwelling / ha standard applied in Victoria: Seaside romps it in without a significant medium density component, and with a disproportionate share of the commercial floorspace and community buildings for the surrounding areas.

  4. rohan says:

    Would it work ? In a special ‘quality’ development something like Patterson lakes maybe. Question is, why is it not a model that has changed the face of urban america ? Their suburbs are still much like ours, sprawl and malls. Only serious strong design controls can achieve desired change; developers and buyers have too much inertia to want something architects and planners see as better but they would see as more expensive, unusual, odd even. But then why not ‘force’ ? Like campaigns against fatty foods – people like them, but at least they know its not good for them – the same doesnt apply to urban development.

    • Alan Davies says:

      I agree, something like a “pure” Seaside is only likely to work in Australian cities as an upmarket development, most likely close to the centre e.g. Fishermans Bend, and even then only provided excellent PT services are put in from the get go.

      There are similar developments in Florida e.g. Rosemary Beach, which seems to have been more accommodating of cars. Still much nicer than standard suburbia.

      I wouldn’t go along with ‘forcing’ but I’d certainly want to see any impediments to this kind of development removed so that those who want it can have it. It’s getting people to want it that’s the hard part. There needs to be a demonstration project – perhaps at Fishermans Bend.

      • Ryan says:

        Alan

        Rosemary Beach and Alys Beach are excellent developments with the latter possibly the most well designed place I have had the pleasure of visiting; I doubt its ability however to ever be as real as Seaside. Alys beach is also by no means applicable to an outer Melbourne condition however both Rosemary and Seaside (Watercolor makes mistake after mistake!) have great stories and built form/design elements and design codes that are very easily replicated in outer suburbs as long as there is the will of the developer to create a place that has Traditional Neighbourhood Design values.

        It is important to remember that Davis wanted to design a place that replicated the seaside towns that he had visited in his childhood and in developing a code to build this place his town planners were fastidious in measuring the fundamentals of these places in developing the Seaside built form code. A great mistake would be judging the place by its architectural aesthetic, its form is the key. There are so many elements to what Davis did that makes Seaside a real place (irrespective of the number of permanent residents) and it is this vision keeping aspect that sets his approach apart.

        So in answer to your above question, yes it can work. However after a decade (a lot of this time in Melbourne) in the urban design/planning industry and specialising in design for TND greenfield work, it is an extremely tough proposition anywhere, let alone Melbourne. It will take an individual (rather than a listed co. developer) with great passion and vision to want to fight through the machinations of outer Melbourne councils to create a place approaching the quality, beauty and timelessness that is so evident at Seaside. The further challenge is then to get this priced at something people can afford to buy.

        Great page Alan and glad I dropped across your site for the first time. Its good to see someone else out there fighting the good fight.

        R


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