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The Seductive Power of a Suburban Utopia

Serenbe, an intentional community outside Atlanta, promises urban pleasures without the messiness of city life.
Courtesy of Serenbe
March 16, 2018 at 3:24 PM GMT-3

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Mimi Kirk writes for Bloomberg.
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CHATTAHOOCHEE HILLS, GEORGIA—On a recent drizzly morning, I tromped through pine needles and mud past a couple of glowering llamas and through a wildflower meadow until reaching Selborne, one of three neighborhoods in Serenbe, a 1,000-acre intentional community southwest of Atlanta. Around 600 people live in Serenbe’s 350 homes, and plans are afoot for many more.

The community’s founder and developer, Steve Nygren, has built Serenbe over the past 15 years. At 71, he easily outpaced me on our two-hour walk around the town he made. Along the way, he proudly pointed to the variety of styles among Selborne’s tidy, well-appointed houses: A modern, boxy structure abuts a classic bungalow, and a colonial is a few doors down. Townhouses mix with single-family homes, and a few buildings feature apartments on the second floor and shops below. Each of Serenbe’s three neighborhoods boasts a central, downtown-like area with a smattering of retailers—a bakery, a salon, a dog grooming outfit.

"We wanted a mix of architecture so that all the buildings don’t look the same," said Nygren. "That’s the difference between building a town and a development."

A street in Serenbe features buildings with businesses on the ground floor and apartments above.
Courtesy of Serenbe

Nygren conceived of Serenbe—the name is an amalgamation of "serene" and "be"—in 2000, after he saw bulldozers taking down trees near his property line. In the 1990s, Nygren, a successful Atlanta restaurateur and real estate developer, had moved with his wife and three daughters to their weekend home in Chattahoochee Hill Country, a largely undeveloped rural area of rolling hills, farms, streams, and woods. The expansive white clapboard farmhouse sat on 40 acres of land about an hour’s drive from downtown.

"Our retreat to the country was understanding the need to find balance through a relationship to nature, which we weren’t experiencing in the urban center," said Nygren.

The bulldozers alarmed Nygren: He feared that Atlanta’s signature suburbanization was poised to encroach on his bucolic idyll. To preserve the land around his property and fend off sprawl, he decided to found a development based on balanced growth—one in which 70 percent of the land would be protected and 30 percent would be filled with comparatively dense neighborhoods of homes, shops, restaurants, schools, medical offices, and the like.

Serenbe would be a simultaneously rural and urban utopia.

For inspiration, Nygren drew on New Urbanist tenets of design that emphasize walkability, public green spaces, and mixed use development. He was particularly keen on emulating older European villages—small towns, he said, where multiple generations lived close together and had more of a connection to nature and each other, creating the conditions for a balanced and fulfilling life. Serenbe would be simultaneously a rural and urban utopia: Residents would be surrounded by nature, but would enjoy a tight-knit community with urban-style amenities.

The Nygren’s original farmhouse is now an upscale inn and restaurant whose dishes feature ingredients grown on Serenbe’s 25-acre organic farm. Most residents pick up a weekly share of the fresh veggies; the week I visit, beets, kale, collards, arugula, and more were on offer. The llamas I passed and other beasts—pigs, chickens, goats—hang out nearby in the "Animal Village."

A row of houses abut Serenbe’s 25-acre organic farm.
Courtesy of Serenbe

But just steps from these agricultural activities, Serenbe residents can partake of urban-style cultural ones: Serenbe Playhouse stages family-friendly fare on outdoor sites around the community, and an artist-in-residence program brings playwrights, novelists, musicians, and painters from all over the country. In 2016, the Playhouse staged Miss Saigon, with a real helicopter landing during a scene, and this summer it will offer a perhaps even more ambitious show: Titanic, complete with an ocean liner sinking in one of Serenbe’s large ponds.

The development also boasts an array of amenities to rival any gentrified urban neighborhood: a spa, a yoga studio, a coffee shop, a Montessori school, and a small Whole Foods-esque grocery. Most of Serenbe’s residents opt to live there full-time; less than a third use it as a weekend retreat. Those who are permanent fixtures are a mix of retirees, teleworkers, and Atlanta commuters.

And those bulldozers? They were prepping the area for a small airstrip. Nygren subsequently bought the land and planted the wildflower meadow I walked through.

A modern twist on the 19th-century utopia

There’s a long history of similar efforts to get away from the city without leaving the benefits of city life behind. Early 19th-century French philosopher Charles Fourier argued that the ideal number of people for a community was around 1,600, and that they should live communally in a U-shaped structure and work in jobs based on their desires and interests. He saw this as a means of escaping the industrial revolution and the chaos and filth of the cities in which it thrived. He wrote of his vision:

"The idea was to move away from the metropolis and begin again," said Keith Murphy, an anthropology professor at the University of California, Irvine, who teaches a course on utopias. "Serenbe is similar in its promise that a life away from the city and in proximity to nature provides a fresh start and a better existence."

A golf cart "concierge" fetches garbage once a week, cutting down on noise pollution.

Fourier’s ideas inspired now-defunct intentional communities in France and the United States, places like Utopia, Ohio, and La Réunion, Texas. Such settlements were precursors to the "garden cities" conceived by late 19th/early 20th-century British urban planner Ebenezer Howard, which, like Serenbe, aimed to give their residents the best of both the country and the city.

Howard’s plans involved circular cities of around 30,000 people on 6,000 acres with all the necessities and pleasures of urban life—shops, residences, parks, and even industry on the outskirts—densely situated and surrounded by a wide rural belt. Garden cities proliferated around the world, with Greenbelt, Maryland, perhaps the most well-known in the United States. "Over 100 years ago we have a similar vision to Serenbe," said Deborah Cowen, a University of Toronto geography professor who specializes in cities, suburbs, and social justice. She calls it "a different kind of suburbanization."

Designed for your best life

Ebenezer Howard’s plans for his garden cities were meticulous in their attention to detail, but Steve Nygren may have him beat. He’s been almost obsessive about Serenbe’s design in his quest to make the village as pleasant, green, and convivial a place as possible.

As in the pioneering garden-suburb plans of Frederick Law Olmsted, Nygren ensured, for example, that the neighborhoods’ streets do not follow a straight line but instead follow the contours of the natural landscape, helping to reduce the look and feel of artificiality from which many New Urbanist developments suffer. Though it’s difficult to make a new development feel like it’s been around a long time, Serenbe does feel more organic and less contrived than counterparts like Seaside, Florida—the planned community that served as the set for the movie The Truman Show, in which the protagonist discovers his entire life is a television program.

The dwellings themselves are rarely gaudy—the homes range from 1,000 to 3,000 square feet, with nary a McMansion in sight. Trash and recycling cans go in a hole in the ground next to one’s house, so as not to visually pollute the premises. A golf cart "concierge" fetches them once a week, cutting down on noise pollution as well.

An aerial view of Selborne, the first of Serenbe’s three neighborhoods.
Courtesy of Serenbe

Strategies to reduce the settlement’s environmental footprint abound. The 30 percent of Serenbe’s land that may be built on is done so more densely than Atlanta’s usual sprawl model, resulting in 20 percent more housing per square mile compared to other suburbs. Houses do not have traditional lawns, but rather sit right on the street or, if set back, feature swaths of pine needles and ground cover that doesn’t require excessive watering. The energy-efficient homes cut utility costs by 35 percent; in the future, the use of more geothermal energy will, said Nygren, reduce costs by another 30 to 35 percent.

All homes have front porches or sitting areas just outside the front door to encourage interaction among neighbors. (Garages are often tucked out back.) Mail is collected from a communal space, similar to what you’d find in an apartment complex, with rows of individual boxes—another trick to design in more neighborly conversation. And multigenerational interaction is encouraged; single-floor homes geared for those looking to age in place, or remain in their houses as they grow older, are found throughout the community.

"I don’t have parents anymore, so I’ve created a family here."

Lorrie Thomas Ross, a working mother in her 40s who runs a marketing business from home and has lived in Serenbe for more than two years, said she particularly appreciates this multigenerational aspect. That night, she told me, she was having cocktails with an 80-year-old girlfriend, and is also close with her older neighbors. "I don’t have parents anymore, so I’ve created a family here," she said.

Ross and I went to meet her six-year-old daughter, Edyn, at The Children’s House, Serenbe’s Montessori school. Edyn was looking at bugs outside with her classmates when we arrived, and then ran off to jump on a trampoline with them and some parents across the street. Ross accompanied me to the nearby bookstore, keeping an occasional eye on Edyn through the window. "I know who she’s with, so I’m not worried," she said.

Nadine Bratti, who runs the grocery store next to the school, said this feeling of safety is one of the things she likes best about living in Serenbe. "My 13-year-old daughter can spend the night at a friend’s and then they can walk to a café for breakfast," she said. "I don’t need to go with her or take her. She has freedom she never would anywhere else."

Serenbe’s design does seem to encourage the behaviors Nygren is aiming for—walking, healthier eating, sociability, children’s independent play. At the same time, it offers a panoply of high-end goods and services that the average rural or suburban area might lack. In some ways, Serenbe is like a less-gritty version of a gentrified urban enclave, one that’s surrounded by woods instead of less-affluent neighborhoods.

And, just like those polarizing bubbles of urban inequality, Serenbe is not immune from difficult questions about inclusion, diversity, and the perils of self-segregation.

Inside a seductive bubble

Serenbe bills itself as a wellness community, and its newest neighborhood, Mado (still under construction), is particularly focused around this idea. Mado’s streets are already lined with blueberry bushes that residents can pick from at their leisure, and more green areas filled with edible and medicinal plants are planned. Mado will also host practitioners of both Western and Eastern medicine. "It’s about vital living instead of treating sickness," said Nygren.

Wellness communities are big business, according to a recent Fast Company article that profiled Serenbe. Wellness real estate, the article reported, is worth $52.5 billion in North America alone, and is growing 6.4 percent annually. Serenbe’s homes run upward of $700,000; the most affordable is $359,000. Some smaller homes and apartments are available for rent; the day I checked the listings, a furnished two-bedroom loft was on offer for $3,800 per month, and a one-bedroom carriage house was listed for $1,900. Serenbe life doesn’t come cheap.

Cowen of the University of Toronto said it’s this element of profit that needs a critical look. She likened Serenbe to a post-industrial company town, one in which the commodity being sold isn’t made in a factory, but the real estate itself—as well as the fantasy and narrative that accompany it.

"Serenbe is intended to be environmentally oriented, but it’s also creating land as a scarce commodity through preservation, which makes it a lucrative enterprise," she said. "It’s a great business model, but I’m not sure it offers anything in terms of future urban development."

The community is indeed a showpiece of certain progressive urban ideas—its comparatively dense building stock, energy-efficient homes, and emphasis on local agriculture certainly distinguish it from Atlantan suburbs like Marietta or Stone Mountain. But it largely leaves untouched the broader issues that are at the center of the contemporary urban and ecological crisis, including racial justice, income equality, and the severe lack of affordable housing.

"Serenbe feels like the creation of a largely white community as shelter."

"We’re in such a fraught urban moment, whether we’re looking at the environment, extreme concentrations of wealth, the corporatization of the world, or deepening racial segregation," Cowen said.

In this context, a place like Serenbe seems to offer a progressive twist on a familiar pattern: Wealthy and mostly white urbanites fleeing cities in the face of potential catastrophe, whether environmental or social. "Serenbe feels like the creation of a largely white community as shelter," said Murphy of UC Irvine.

Added Cowen: "It’s a question of the defensive futures being built by those who can afford to escape."

This is also a critical distinction between enclaves like Serenbe and the utopias of Charles Fourier and Ebenezer Howard, which were envisioned as ways to give the working classes an alternative to the misery of their industrial urban lives. In this early 21st century model, utopia is a more exclusive proposition.

Serenbe told me it doesn’t keep demographic data on its residents. Its website and marketing materials show a few people of color among a solidly white community, and that’s an impression that mirrored my own after spending the day there. The larger community in which Serenbe sits, Chattahoochee Hills, is almost completely white, compared to the suburb next door, Palmetto, which has a large African-American and Latino population—as well as twice the percentage of people living in poverty. (For a detailed account of the complex racial dynamics of suburban Atlanta, see my colleague Brentin Mock’s recent CityLab series on the area’s "cityhood" movement.) Easy access to the town is also limited to those with a private car; it’s about a 30-minute drive to the nearest MARTA stop.

Nygren counters that Serenbe can serve as a model for how to more thoughtfully build communities to benefit people from all walks of life. Some elements of the development—such as its emphasis on giving residents more time immersed in nature or promoting socialization among neighbors—can be implemented in any community looking to improve the general well-being of its citizens, without excessive cost. "While Serenbe’s model cannot solve all of the major societal issues currently impacting our country, we do not shy away from confronting complex issues and having an open dialogue about them," he said. "We value diversity and everyone is welcome within our community."

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Serenbe’s housing prices are comparable to the Atlanta market, he added, and overall home prices are becoming increasingly affordable as more builders adopt environmentally responsible methods, driving down construction costs. Nygren has also worked to diversify housing options to attract buyers across price points, offerings lofts, work/live units, and smaller cottages while also increasing the number of rentals.

As time goes on, debates about Serenbe’s diversity and inclusivity may fade or fundamentally change. Utopias aren’t static: Greenbelt, Maryland, and other towns inspired by Ebenezer Howard’s garden city movement—places like Reston, Virginia; Jackson Heights, Queens; and Chatham Village, Pittsburgh—eventually became either run-of-the-mill suburbs or were folded into nearby urban neighborhoods. Others have succumbed to shifting economic tides and changing tastes. Even the dream towns of developer-visionaries eventually escape their creators’ grasp. Add a century, and Serenbe may share a similar fate as its predecessors.

I asked Nygren what he thought Serenbe might be like in a hundred years—should the community last that long. He laughed.

"It’ll last at least two hundred."

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