My boyfriend and I recently took an overnight trip to the Florida panhandle and it got me thinking about a film I have not seen in many years – The Truman Show.
Filmed not far from where we were staying, The Truman Show is about a man who does not realize he is actually the star of a reality TV show which airs around the country 24/7. Unbeknownst to our protagonist, he has been on live TV since his birth, and everyone around him, including his wife and best friends, are actors taking cues from an offstage director. His hometown of Seahaven which he believes to be real is actually an enormous set constructed just for him and The Truman Show.
Eventually, Truman realizes that something isn’t quite right about his existence. He struggles to uncover the truth, and by the end of the film finds his way to the edge of his artificial town. The film ends when he chooses to leave his safe, albeit scripted, life in exchange for the unknowns awaiting him in the real world.
What makes this film of particular interest from a city planning perspective is that Seahaven, the town The Truman Show takes place in, is actually very real. It takes place in the picturesque, master-planned community of Seaside, Florida, about 45 minutes east of Navarre Beach, where my boyfriend and I were staying.
Seaside, which began development in the early 80’s, is one of the earliest master planned communities in the U.S. It exemplifies what was then a new trend in city planning called new urbanism. As a response to the sprawling suburbs and big box stores which spread like wildfire following World War II, new urbanism was a movement focused on good old fashioned town building. Walkable neighborhoods, ample public space, and thoughtful, native architecture. Classic Main Street, USA kinda stuff.
I visited Seaside once several years ago and found the result of an entire town planned from the ground up to be a delightful, if not Disney-esque, beach side village.
As I ruminated over the Truman Show on my way to work the next day, I imagined the theme of the film must be something along the lines of: it’s better to live a life which is real but possibly unpleasant, than one which is scripted and certainly safe. You could say it was a red pill / blue pill conundrum, but several years before The Matrix.
Setting such a film in Seaside, then, makes perfect sense due to the town’s planned and somewhat cookie-cutter aesthetic. A planned town for a planned life, right?
As I tossed this over in my head, it would seem that for the Truman Show / Seaside analogy to hold up, everyone would be wanting to bravely escape Seaside the way Truman struggles to escape his televised life. But here in the real world, folks are actually clamoring to get in to Seaside, not out.
Do a quick Zillow search for Seaside, Florida. Go ahead.
In the U.S., the average price per square foot for a home is about $120 – in Seaside, its around $460 and up.
Perhaps the premium is due to Seaside’s proximity to its lovely beaches, but even in nearby Navarre Beach where we were staying (who’s beaches are nothing to sneeze at, mind you) average price per square foot clocks in around a measly $131. There’s just something about old fashion town building that exerts an inexplicable pull on people.
New Urbanism has come under a lot of criticism since the 80’s, some of which I agree with, some I don’t. But although Truman fought to escape life on a TV set, many folks fight to get in.