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America’s Lackluster Beach Towns

They imitate the architecture of classic beach communities, but too many towns on the coast care more about parking than an ocean view.

It’s summertime in Washington, D.C., which means insufferable humidity and routine weekend exoduses of young professionals from the swampy capital to the breezy beach towns of nearby Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey. On one such recent trip, it became painfully clear to me how much of America’s coastline has been squandered by outdated modes of urban planning.

It’s been said that if an alien race visited Earth and observed the United States from their flying saucers, it would appear from our suburban development pattern that the planet was inhabited by a race of machines. And if they were to hover over any of America’s beachside communities, it would appear as if these machines don’t actually enjoy views of the coastline all that much.

America’s love affair with the personal automobile and the auto-centric development pattern that resulted from it is especially destructive to beach communities; it severs the connection to the very thing that gives people a reason to live there in the first place. In beach towns, building for cars means building away from the shore.

Driving into Rehoboth, Delaware, with a group of friends earlier this month, it struck me just how much of this beach town, the state’s largest, had absolutely no connection to the beach whatsoever. Like many American cities, Rehoboth’s entrance is an unceremonious stretch of highway surrounded by a hectic assortment of strip malls and maze-like residential developments.

But unlike the typical sprawl surrounding inland cities, places like Delaware, Maryland, and numerous beach towns down South have opted to build their strip malls, grocery stores, and banks in a faux-beachy style reminiscent of traditional coastal architecture. These buildings, complete with grotesquely distorted proportions suited to the surrounding machine-scaled environment, make a mockery of the idea of a town by the beach. Our drive toward the shore emphasized the sad truth of car-centric development and zoning practices: They splinter our towns into component parts and deprive them of meaning.

Our rental house, a newly renovated townhome complete with nautical and shiplap-covered interior, had views of an arterial road and a parking lot. This development and numerous others on the way into town all advertise their proximity to the beach to prospective buyers and renters, including a small strip of pastel-colored rowhouses off the side of Coastal Highway One ironically named “Savannah East.” I imagined how much more at home these houses would feel if they looked out onto water instead of asphalt.

The beach town is a simple concept: a place where people can live and enjoy the beach. For this to happen, a certain amount of density is needed in order to make the beach accessible and enjoyable for all. In a review of Alys Beach, a successful follow-up project to the inaugural new urbanist development of Seaside, Florida, the Congress for the New Urbanism explains that the town’s gradual increase in density toward the coast is what makes it a success: putting homes where people want them and tapering off into less-dense but still walkable neighborhoods.

There’s a reason why America’s first new urbanist development was a place built for life on the water. Seaside and subsequent new urbanist towns in Florida’s panhandle and Caribbean developments like the Cayman Islands’ Camana Bay and Belize’s Mahogany Bay Village offer a concrete connection to the oceanfront and relief from the heat. More development near the water means more of the activities that people come to the beach for: spontaneous evening strolls on the sand, meet-ups with friends, and quick access to margaritas.

When beach towns make car accessibility their main focus, they miss out on the features such as courtyards, plazas, and narrow, shaded streets that make life in hot, sun-drenched places more livable and pleasurable for both visitors and residents.

None of this is to say that there isn’t a place for cars in beach towns. God willing, there will one day be a high-speed rail system that connects Washington to Miami, that could make it feasible to have a car-free summer vacation. But for the weekend beach tripper visiting a neighboring state, a car is the only reasonable option for toting boogie boards and umbrellas to the sand.

In a 2018 piece for NewUrbs here at The American Conservative, attorney and urban advocate Theo Mackey Powell points out that in the original town plan for Asbury Park, New Jersey, “the crown jewel in a long string of late-Victorian urban gems” in the county—and America as a whole—the planner allowed for limited parking at the ends of some beach adjacent streets that doubled as conduits for the ocean breeze. This plan debunks one of the most persistent fallacies in modern American urban planning: Just because a town doesn’t make automobiles the center of its identity doesn’t mean it isn’t car-friendly. But in Asbury Park and similar towns across the East and West coast, the glut of ocean-facing city blocks devoted to parking could instead “sustain a more intricate, richer urbanism.”

The one-size-fits-all urbanism that dominates the nation prohibits the kind of innovation that benefits towns built in unique environments. Instead of exiting the beach into a sweltering sea of blacktop, a family could instead take a short walk or ride a cargo bike back to their rented condo or townhouse nearby. More mixed-use neighborhoods and pedestrian-friendly streets could encourage kids to make their own plans and explore the town without depending on their parents for car rides and constant supervision. When amenities and attractions are more accessible, then there’s more time for leisure. Do people go to the beach to spend time in transit or to enjoy time with friends and family?

America, which boasts massive coastlines on both sides of an entire continent, could also boast of the best beachfront civilization in the world. For this to happen, it needs to leave behind the stale and unimaginative urban layouts that dominate the vast majority of these precious landscapes.

Josh Delk is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He is a proud graduate of Grove City College and avid bicyclist. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.

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