How can Seaside be an exemplar of urbanism?

The community of Seaside, in Florida, is revered by many as the icon of new urbanism. But this seems somewhat ironic, given than Seaside is about as non-urban as you can get. Consider the following:

Seaside is tiny. It’s all of 80 acres, with somewhat more than 300 housing units.

Seaside is in a largely rural area on the Florida panhandle.

Seaside is a resort community on the beach. Most of the homeowners do not live in Seaside. They visit occasionally and many rent the units out to other tourists the remainder of the time. Seaside is not an incorporated municipality so census data are not reported for this area. And the smaller census units, including the census blocks, do not conform to the boundaries of Seaside. But if you take the census blocks that most closely cover Seaside (missing some parts but including some areas outside), the 2010 census reports 340 housing units–and a population of 25!!!

The only employment in Seaside is in the numerous restaurants and shops that one would expect to find in an upscale resort community. And few residents of Seaside are employed in Seaside or in the surrounding area, simply because there are very, very few permanent residents of Seaside.

The sociologist Louis Wirth, in his article “Urbanism as a Way of Life,” identified three characteristics that make an area urban: size, density, and heterogeneity. Size has already been addressed. Density gets a little tricky. If one considers the population density based on the resident population as reported by the census, the density is miniscule. The Census Bureau does not consider Seaside or the surrounding developments urban.

But obviously people come to and spend time in Seaside. The official Seaside website says the community has over 300 housing units. (It seems strange that they can’t or won’t give an exact number.) So it’s reasonable to assume the number is somwhere between 300 and 400 units (or else they presumably would have said more than 400 housing units). For the United States as a whole, in 2010 there were 2.34 persons per housing unit. Using this figure, we could estimate that a population might be between 702 and 936. On 80 acres, this would produce a reasonable urban population density between 5,616 and 7,488 persons per square mile. So that’s at least urban, though it is worth putting this into perspective by noting that in 2010, 57 suburbs of Los Angeles (incorporated cities) had population densities greater than the higher value.

Given that practically no one is resident in Seaside, census data cannot provide any information with respect to Wirth’s final characteristic of heterogeneity. The official Seaside website includes lots of pictures, including an extensive photo gallery. As far as I could see, everyone pictured was white (and many were wearing white as well!). The website also includes an extensive Seaside store, with more pictures and models displaying the various clothing items. Again, all white.

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