A New Urbanist’s Pilgrimage (Part I): Rosemary Beach.

1 Jun

This Memorial Day weekend I had the opportunity to go the hotbed of New Urbanism on the 30A coast in the Panhandle of Florida. Of course I was thrilled to finally see what many consider to be the foundation of New Urbanism and the development that catapulted Duany Plater-Zyberk (DPZ) into architecture and urban planning fame: Seaside. (Post to follow…) Of course a few others have popped up along the same county road, including Rosemary Beach, where my family and I stayed for 4 days. That’s right – I was livin’ it up, New Urbanism style.

This was my first visit to a Duany designed community. To really understand the movement, I felt like I needed to witness the founders’ work, especially that of the most active in getting New Urbanism on the ground. I wanted to spend the 4 days immersing myself in the world that they created for me, and try to remain a critical observer based on my urban design expertise. Do these guys really live up the CNU Charter and all the hype that exists around them in the profession? The following are my unbiased observations, and an attempt to answer that question.

Placemaking at It’s Finest

The public realm design at Rosemary Beach was the finest I’ve seen in any new place. There is just as a strong “sense of place” in old New England fishing villages and small midwestern towns, but what was so impressive about Rosemary was that it was just built out in the last 1-2 years. While other places have had decades to develop their identity, Rosemary Beach has done it relatively quickly. While many factors contribute to its stellar placemaking, which will be discussed further, the foundation that holds it all together is its public realm plan.

Rosemary Beach Design - Public Spaces

A Rosemary Beach public realm masterplan emphasizing the public spaces of the development. (Image: Richard Sexton)

The public realm design is a wonderful result to meeting the 100′ setback requirements on the 30A county road. With the human scale of the development relying in part on the height of the buildings, this was a threat that could have ruined the project. Instead Duany and Co.used the restraint as a design inspiration by incorporating an angled green corridor through the heart of the project that fulfills the setback requirement while serving as a hub for community events and playtime. What I like about it most is its poetic angled form that appears to funnel people into the town center where it is anchored by a fountain and another public green space that runs perpendicular. This creates an axis of public realm for the town center to form around, and guides people to the waterfront where they will find another beautiful public space.

Communal green spaces are continued throughout the development, the most influential periodically placed along the Gulf. More intimate spaces, such as small gathering places, are nestled along the pedestrian boardwalks between homes. There is never a want for a communal place. However, there also isn’t so many public spaces that they lose their influence or meaning to the identity of the development.

Rosemary Beach Florida Parks

Arguably the three most predominant public spaces in Rosemary Beach.

Finally, Rosemary’s cherry on the sundae is the Town Hall and Post Office which sit smack dab in the middle of the town center, acting as a node between Main Street and public open space. As a landmark, it makes the statement that the public space is civic and belongs to the people. Atop is a bell that rings hourly. It was amazing to me how something so simple as a bell unified everyone together who heard it.

Rosemary Beach Town Hall and Rosemary Post Office

Rosemary Town Hall and complimentary Post Office, designed by Scott Merrill.

Pedestrian Paradise

There ain’t a curb in this place (well almost)…and it had a marvelous effect. From recent memory this is the only place I have ever been to where the streets belonged to the people, and cars were allowed to borrow them. Walking and cycling was the norm in Rosemary and cars felt out-of-place and driving was very uncomfortable. This was because of a few reasons including diversity of uses and high densities, and a large number of users, but I think the most influential was the design of the streets. Unmarked pavement, wide enough for two cars to slowly pass, was bordered by brick on-street parking, a planting strip, and a walking path. All were on the same level with no divisions, which allowed the street to be flexible: space was differentiated when it was necessary, and could act as one otherwise. Humorously, the only markings on the street were crosswalks, which I didn’t see observed once.

During a moment on Saturday afternoon, I stepped back and realized that my niece and nephew were playing in the middle of the street. And no one seemed to mind. They didn’t need to, they were perfectly safe. The only place people needed to pay attention to cars for their safety was at the crossing of the 30A. With no curbs in place, even then pedestrians walked comfortably across the county road. Instead of it dividing the town center in half, it was so seamlessly integrated into the streetscape that people paid little attention to it.

Interwoven with a very pedestrian safe street network, there is a beautifully boardwalked pedestrian/cyclist system that is as predominant in navigating the town. This is the case because some of the nicest houses front onto it and are only accessible by car from the back alleys. What makes the system so well-used is not necessarily its design, but its abundancy and efficiency in navigation.

Rosemary Beach 30A - Rosemary Avenue

The crossing of the 30A, Rosemary Avenue, the hidden pedestrian network, and the unnecessary crosswalk.

Architectural Character

While I don’t usually give architectural design the time of day, Rosemary Beach proved that after you achieve the appropriate land use design, architectural quality and style can have an enormous effect on the placemaking and identity of a place. DPZ’s strict urban code had 12 building types that established the character of the development. While each home is unique, the code ensured a “harmony and architectural integrity” through the town. Rosemary Beach’s architectural design was based on regional examples like St. Augustine, the West Indies, New Orleans, and Charleston. Deep eaves are used to provide shade and high ceilings and porches on the first floor draw breezes.

Honestly, I have been doubtful of the necessity for Duany’s urban code, and while I do not think it is necessary in every, or most urban conditions, I certainly have a respect for what it can achieve. While you might think that the code would result in monotony and boredom, it instead encourages unique, creative design form in the quest to be different. The result was pretty spell-binding.

Rosemary Beach Architecture and design

The unique architectural character of Rosemary Beach as a result of the DPZ urban code.

Is this Reality?

While I am very impressed with the placemaking, street design, and architectural quality of Rosemary Beach, I constantly question if it was a real place. It is so well done and feels so unlike any place I had every been before, I can’t quite grasp it as a real urban solution.

And I think that is perhaps its downfall.

This post has taken me so long to write, because I have been struggling with how to respond to something being so perfect its wrong. Surely that’s not possible? Urban designers and architects create something that is perfect and then we hang them for it? Because of its Walt Disney beginnings, critics say that Celebration is “too Disney” but in reality Rosemary Beach felt WAY more “Disney-like.” Walking down Rosemary Beach’s Main Street doesn’t make me feel dissimilar to walking down Magic Kingdom’s Main Street. It is so magical of a place that as soon as I did get in my car and drive 1/8 of a mile to the west my heart sank as I returned to a real-world architectural mess.

Socio-Economic Fail

Of course one of the reasons why Rosemary Beach feels so unreal, is because it doesn’t address the socio-economic context that real places have to consider. Rosemary Beach accommodates one type of person: white and wealthy. It is because of the generosity of my brother and sister-n-law that I was able to enjoy it – my husband and I couldn’t afford it ourselves, and we are securely middle class. In part, this is not necessarily DPZ’s fault because of Rosemary Beach’s beach side location. It defaults to a resort town that attracts a specific demographic. However, from my still growing knowledge of Duany’s urban code, it does not adequately address the socio-economic housing requirements of the people who might otherwise want to live there. Perhaps this is the reason that Rosemary Beach prices out the majority of the population.

Or perhaps it is because “magical” places like Rosemary Beach are so few and far between its enormous price tag is a result of supply and demand. If more places looked and felt like it, and provided a more diverse mix of housing, I am certain the cost of living (or visiting I should say) would drop.

A Few Other Observations

Rosemary Beach has zero legibility, especially to the north of 30A. I was there 4 full days and got lost every day. In plan it looks simply designed and easy to navigate. On the ground, with no street hierarchy or clear grid arrangement, it is a plethora of confusion. Alleys are used to hide cars and act as access points for housing, but they are designed at the same width and in almost the same style as the main streets. With very few through streets in the town, users have to thoughtfully weave around unclear of what direction they’re traveling. With most buildings looking similar outside of the town center, there are no landmarks to guide you on your way.

While this street network is confusing, it is extremely connected. I haven’t counted, by the intersection/per sq. mile must be through the roof. However, while it is permeable within itself, it is completely disconnected from the development to either side of it. While DPZ were constrained by the number of access points on US98, there was no effort to connect with Seacrest Beach adjacent. While the cynic in me can’t help but assume this was done on purpose to keep the “riff raff” out and eradicate through traffic, it does a disservice to the greater civic community.

Final Thoughts

If you take Rosemary Beach for what it is (a resort) it is perfection.

The problem lies in that New Urbanism provides real solutions, but the firm who are building the most genuine New Urbanism developments (or at least those that are most well-known,) are not building “real” urban places that address BIG issues like socio-economic equality and transportation. The most talked about DPZ projects like Rosemary Beach, Seaside, and Windsor have a majority of housing that sells for well over a million dollars on average. Therefore, a substantial amount of critics and built environment professionals believe that the Charter does not offer real solutions. Rosemary Beach works because on vacation people don’t need to drive to work or school, they have the time to leisurely fill their day with bike rides and walks to the beach.

However, having said that, I believe that one day far, far away, a town like Rosemary Beach with a greater mix of housing can be a real solution. If there were an extensive public transportation network that eradicated people’s want and need to drive their car, pedestrian oriented streets, high densities, and mixed uses will be the natural form of urban development. Even today in many traditional neighborhoods where kids ride their bikes in the street, curbless, shared space can be an everyday solution.

The big take away from my time living the life that Duany created for me is that for the CNU and New Urbanism to become the mainstream way of designing for all urban conditions, it must start producing more well-known and cherished places that are more relevant and accessible to the majority of people. In part this will come from clients’ willingness to pay for what I am sure is an expensive planning process, but also for people like Duany and Plater-Zyberk to loosen up a bit on the perfection. In creating a place that is not seamless in its architectural perfection, they will contribute more to reality and less to “Disney.”

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One Response to “A New Urbanist’s Pilgrimage (Part I): Rosemary Beach.”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. A New Urbanist’s Pilgrimage (Part II): Seaside. « At the Helm of the Public Realm: An Urban Design Blog - June 30, 2012

    [...] accepting my role of tourist, I couldn’t help think of something that Duany said about Rosemary Beach… that he was given the once in a lifetime gift to an architect: to be given the exact same [...]

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