Observations about places, planning and architecture, as I accompany client RobertsDay on the 2013 Great Places Tour. More detailed posts, with video, will appear at www.robertsday.com.au.And yes, pics to come in a jiffy.

I'm always interested, on a tour like this, to see what the experts take away. And, while Mike's unquestionably passionate about Seaside, I do wonder what these other assorted developers really think. I sat down at dinner to find out. Now, after the discussion we've just had, I'm wondering whether I even asked the right question. Here are a few anonymous thoughts from the Great Places tour group.

Seaside: public - private boundaries

One interesting observation about Seaside is that the execution of the architectural form has been done very well; it's very consistent with the vision the developers and planners had at the outset. The key is that while there are design guidelines, there's enough flexibility in styles to enable people to get variety in their houses as well as deliver a consistency of character; a character that lets you know you're in Seaside all the time. 

An example of this at work is in the execution of the front fences: they're all different but similar. And you can understand their thinking: it's a front fence, it's low, and you're just not allowed to have a high front fence. In that context, the character of the place is set by the people sitting on their front porches where everyone can see them.

However, there's an interesting thing to note about this porchside living - which isn't positive. And that's the way people have now turned their front porches into contained rooms with curtains and flyscreens. What happens then is that this becomes the front boundary not the front fence; the area from fence to porch just ceases to be a transition space from public to private.

You could say then, that the front porch has become the boundary as a consequence  of their building controls,  which means that place creation has therefore failed to a certain extent. Maybe there should have been a greater level of understanding of people's privacy in the first place - now that's something I'd take back to Australia and remember.

Town centre: does it work as well as it could?

While not everyone might call it a disgrace, as one of our number did, it was clear that the town centre had a few problems. For instance, the large apartment building that forms the centre piece has a huge arch that your eye is drawn to; the problem is that it takes away from the entry to the intimate and largely undiscovered Ruskin Place. It's a quality space which someone noted was almost dead this afternoon - because everyone was concentrated at the mouth of the alley and no one had gone further.

In comparison, if you look at Rosemary Beach, it's a town centre that works really nicely. Despite the difference in building heights (lobbying pressure resulted in a different interpretation of the 50 foot height limit, effectively adding about 10 feet to the envelope)the separation was OK and it's a town centre that is a very pleasant experience to walk down. The spaces work really well and, in fact, work better than at Seaside. There's a lot more urban fabric: when you're there, you know you're in an urban environment; it's unified.

Kerb or no kerb: blurring the edges

One thing we've all noted is that the informal infiltration alongside the roads works really well. It blurs the line between public and private, which is critical, because everything in front of the fence is what people see. Well, if such a seemingly simple things has such a positive outcome, why isn't it used more often in Australia? The answer is in a context where engineers drive the decision to have the rigid kerb and road and council's need to take over and manage the asset, it just wouldn't work..

Which is where some felt that the neighbouring development of Water Colour had some aspects that could be deliverable in Australia, precisely  because you can see the delineation between private and public. The line isn't blurred but that's achieved purely through landscaping, which still creates the street as a place. It's applicable to the Australian condition because it's just more likely to be accepted by key stakeholders.

Who we are: don't tell me what to do

When it comes to architectural character, you can't help but wonder, if you so admire the architectural consistency and character of Seaside, why we can't or don't achieve the same in Australia. Economics is part of this of course - the value of land relative to the cost of the house and all of the subtle tax incentives at play here but not in Australia - but that's all a subject for another post. The other part of the answer is that our neighbourhood community associations just don't have the same teeth or litigious mindset of the Americans. Once we deliver a home, one said, we set design guidelines and they're not a legislative framework. Here, as we heard at length today, it's stiff penalties if you dont comply.

Others contend that it's not just economics or legalities; it's also our mindset. Sheer bloody mindedness in other words and the cynicism of the Australian consumer - 'I won't buy here if you're going to tell us what to do'. And let's face it, for all that it's good, Seaside is a monoculture; it's basically white southern American, whereas in any development we're likely to do in Australia, there's an enormous cultural mix.

Seriously now, could we do this in Australia?

The consensus on the corporate developer side of the table was that no Australian business is going to do a large resort community in the forseeable future. Those that perhaps have tried, like Casaurina Beach and Salt perhaps, have dropped the ball. At Salt, it's all about the buildings: 'look at me' they say. Seaside is nice because its got a nice curtilage. The scale is important; the envelope is important; and the space between the buildings is important.

However, more to the point is that this area, of Seaside, Alys and Rosemary and the wider Walton country serves a catchment area of 20 million people, and that, here, is Australia. Now think about the size of the discretionary market in Australia, and who populates it, and who got hit in the GFC and what do you come up with? That's the reality for Australia. The market - the bonus-boys and wealthy retirees - just aren't there. And, in the US, there are a lot of subtle financial factors like a tax offset on your primary residence and your second home, that just make this kind of development more viable here.

While MIke would argue loud and long about the need to leave something of lasting value, in a corporate context, it's more about managing the pennies than it is about what's effectively philanthropy. But in the future? Who knows. When survival is in hand once again, perhaps it's time  to think how can we do more in  the community. And you can't create one by adding water. It takes time.


AuthorAmanda Falconer