Parallel Utopias

Parallel Utopias: The Quest for Community, Sea Ranch, California, Seaside, Florida
Richard Sexton; Chronicle Books
ISBN 0-8118-0547-6; 168 pages, 200 Color Photographs; Hardcover $50.00
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Anyone in this business must be aware that we are going through a time of transition driven by developments in technology. Our end product—actual ground locations and maps depicting those locations—remains the same, but how we gather, process and display this information is changing. The business of surveying and mapping will be very different in the near future even if our product isn't. The town planning profession is also going through a time of change but for very different reasons. Unlike surveying, where customers are generally satisfied with what we deliver, planners are being criticized for their work and its result, the modern subdivision.

Assessing Subdivision Design

Contemporary subdivision designs are generally controlled by modern zoning and municipal plans. This regulation has resulted in what many consider to be a uniform blandness in new residential stock. Richard Sexton has written this interesting and timely book on the assessment and analysis of community design standards currently underway by planners (and their critics). Note that I write "community" and not subdivision. The focus of this book is not on roads and infrastructure, but on places were people live and interact. The author conveys the belief that encouraging design that promotes a sense of community is one of the primary goals of good planning.

First, a note about the book itself. Chronicle Books is a San Francisco-based publisher of fine-looking art and architecture books. Parallel Utopias is a good example of the company's work. It is a beautiful, oversized book with more than two hundred color illustrations of the subject communities and their buildings. It is what is often called a coffee table book because of its size and attractiveness. It is a book to enjoy both for its ideas and its illustrations.

Parallel Utopias is divided into three sections. The first part is an interesting introductory essay on what is wrong with contemporary American planning. Sexton's focus is on the suburbs, where most of this century's growth in American housing stock has occurred. He provides the history of suburbs from their Victorian English origins to their present American incarnation. Sexton does not like them, and he lets us know why. Modern suburban housing is dominated by the car, and because of this the developments use too much land, isolate neighbors from each other and have too great an impact on the environment. Another source of distaste for the author is the homogenization of housing design. He points out that the ranch house used to be seen only in its native locale, the West. Now it is seen all over America because it is relatively inexpensive to build. Entire subdivisions in New England and the South (two parts of the country that have an appealing indigenous architecture) are now filled with ranch houses. The requirements for subdivision street layout, lot and house size are commonly specified in local town plans. Many of these plans have an unintended, hidden design that is overly plain at best and disorienting or dysfunctional at worst.

The alternative is represented by the two development projects that are the subject of this book, Sea Ranch in California and Seaside in Florida. Although the author acknowledges that residential subdivisions do not compare exactly with these two upscale vacation retreats, he sees Sea Ranch and Seaside as productive experiments in improved site design that can provide lessons to planners and designers.

Both locations are on the ocean, but aside from that they are very different. Seaside, on the north coast of Florida, was designed to be a high-density, urban community where residents walk to their destinations. Sea Ranch, on the coast of northern California, has a much lower occupational density and was designed to have a low impact on the land. The Florida location has long, warm summers, whereas the California one is almost always cold. What makes the sites similar is that they were consciously designed as alternatives to the typical residential pattern. The developers set out to build something special and out of the ordinary. Both communities have been very successful, Seaside in particular. It has been the subject of numerous magazine articles, a book and at least one television show. The residents of both of these sites are thrilled with them. Visitors are also impressed and often return.

Sense of Community

What appeals to users of Seaside and Sea Ranch is not just the view of the ocean and the cozy buildings, but the communities that have grown up in each place. People fit into these places and enjoy it. They know their neighbors. They share the space. They come to feel part of the place. The question that has to be asked is whether the design and construction of the physical setting caused this sense of community to develop or whether it sprang forth from the fact that people of similar backgrounds, with similar interests, came to the same spot. The author leans toward the physical setting side of the issue but takes no firm stance. What he is firm on, however, is that the current way of building in the suburbs has created an unsatisfying way to live. Everyone may not be persuaded by his arguments, but I think readers interested in the land development business will find this a fascinating book.


Patrick Toscano is the City Surveyor for New Britain, Connecticut, and the Book Review Editor for the magazine.

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