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Life in Balance: Serenbe

Newton's third law of motion is often simplified to read "Every action has an equal and opposite reaction." In Georgia, 30 minutes southwest of Atlanta, a greenfield community is proving the same can be true for development patterns.

Serenbe, a 900-acre project in the Georgia countryside, already is proving what can be created when quality of life is first and foremost on the founders' minds. Steve and Marie Nygren, Nan and Rawson Haverty Jr. and garden designer Ryan Gainey are those founders, and their vision is apparent when Serenbe is the topic of conversation.

New Towns
caught up with Steve Nygren via cell phone on a sunny Saturday as he stopped for a moment at a café in Serenbe. His passion for the project runs bone-deep, and his reasons for choosing Serenbe's development pattern are solid as bedrock.

"It was a response to the realization that this area was going to be consumed by urban sprawl -- there had to be a better way," said Nygren, who discovered the parcel while on an outing to introduce his children to the Georgian countryside. "So we started to research. We invited some environmentalists in to talk about better ideas. We visited Prairie Crossing outside of Chicago and realized we needed to look at the broader community."

The founders and other like-minded citizens in the region came together in the mid-1990s during a two-year process to create a land-use change, eventually forming the Chattahoochee Hill Country Alliance. The Chattahoochee Hill Country covers 65,000 acres of south Fulton County (where Serenbe is located), as well as northwestern Coweta, eastern Carroll and eastern Douglas counties. In 2001, the organization hired a professional planning firm to document its vision. The result was the Chattahoochee Hill Country Community Plan, a plan now incorporated in the South Fulton 2015 Amended Comprehensive Land Use Plan and the Fulton County Chattahoochee Hill Country Overlay District Ordinance, both adopted in 2002.

Having broken ground in 1995, Serenbe became the first development to use the overlay ordinance, which changed all the zoning in its 40,000 acre zoning overlay. Seventy percent of its 900 acres will remain undeveloped, said Nygren, who has moved his family to Serenbe and now serves as chairman of The Chattahoochee Hill Country Alliance.

"We will accommodate more people per square mile on 30 percent of the land, than Atlanta has done per square mile using 80 percent of the land," said Nygren with well-earned pride. "The ULI has said that 70 percent of U.S. development will continue to be in the greenfields, but [the development industry] is doing very little to demonstrate how better to develop in a greenfield. That's why people have such a bad impression of development these days -- we haven't done a balanced job. We're trying to recapture that balance."

Serenbe's master plan is heavily influenced by linear village models in the United Kingdom. Crafted by Master Plan Architect Phillip Tabb, Ph.D., NCARB, the individual hamlets that comprise Serenbe borrow characteristics from both linear villages and "nucleated" villages; i.e., those with a market square or a green at their centers.

Tabb, a professor in and director of the Department of Architecture at Texas A&M University, said he looked to the U.K. precedents for inspiration, but also addressed two other critical components.

"First, including nonresidential functions, both outdoor activities and shops, is important," he said. "These are critical to the sustainability of hamlets.

"Second, the Transect. As you move from the edge to the center of a hamlet, the houses get closer to the road and each other. And, in England, the landscape buffer shifts from the front of the house to the rear.

"I had read about these elements in the mid 1980s and had begun to integrate it into a set of patterns that I thought would be appropriate for general planning -- especially for towns close to cities."

The result of Tabb's town-planning efforts is what Nygren calls "a necklace of little communities" tied together with walking paths -- a series of three hamlets, each with its own character or "theme" that contributes to the whole.

But first the similarities. Thus far, the hamlets are Omega-shaped, with the highest density located at the apex of each Omega. The centers of the hamlets are left natural and include some type of water feature, such as a stream or pond or wetland area.

"The Omega also lends a strong sense of place and nicely fits the contours of the land -- rolling hills," said Tabb. "That's part of the reason for the water features, which occur in the lower levels of the land. The Omegas encircle the boundaries of the water features."

The "legs" of the hamlets are generally mirror-images of each other, with housing options that back up against one of four types of undeveloped land: the Serenbe Farms organic farm (see sidebar), a preserved forest, a wildflower meadow or a pasture.

Because every house backs up to a preserved area, no rear alleys exist. No garages either. (That's not a typo: Serenbe currently has no garages.) "People park on the street," said Nygren, "and we've had no market push-back on the lack of garages. People have the option of a rear garage, but we're seeing no difference in sales pace between the houses with a garage and the houses without."

Of the three hamlets currently planned, two are under construction. The first, Selbourne, is about 80 percent complete and is oriented toward the performing, visual and culinary arts. It is currently home to about 100 residents, as well as art galleries, antique shops, restaurants and more.

The second hamlet, Grange, is about 10 percent complete and has an equestrian and agriculture theme; it is adjacent to Serenbe Stables and Serenbe Farms, which is irrigated by a lake. A feed and seed store also resides in Grange, where founders and Tabb are encouraging building with more sustainable construction techniques. Planned amenities include a barbecue restaurant, and arts-and-crafts studios.

The third hamlet, which has not yet been finalized, has a working name of Mado (Creek Indian for "things in balance"). Oriented toward health and fitness, Mado includes plans for a spa, medical offices, a pharmacy that utilizes Eastern and Western medical philosophies, a small recuperative hotel, a fitness center, assisted living facilities and a vegetarian restaurant.

The idea of a fourth hamlet is being kicked around, too, one that might be totally pedestrian-oriented -- no cars, although Tabb concedes it may offer golf carts and certainly access for emergency vehicles.

As for Serenbe's architecture, Tabb chooses his words carefully. "Because of the strength of the geometry of the plan and the power of all the natural environment around, we encourage all styles of architecture -- super-contemporary, southern vernaculars -- almost any style. The strength of the place is so strong that the individual architecture is, in a sense, overpowered."

Tabb believes there should be examples of contemporary architecture in places like Serenbe because these new communities mark our society's place in time. "We are, after all, living in the beginning of the 21st century, not the 1890s," he said with a smile. "Also, some people have burning desires to live in certain kinds of houses, and they should have a right to do so.

"So far, for the most part, people have been fairly pragmatic. If someone wants to stick a solar collector on their house, I think that's great. We encourage people to do different things. Sure, we have an architectural review board. But some residents' decisions, while they contribute to their personal lives, they often, in unusual ways, contribute to the community as well," said Tabb.

Throughout Serenbe, visitors will be hard-pressed to find any expanses of lawn. That's because none exist. All landscaping is natural; no lawns allowed. Serenbe's entrance provides a clue to what's inside: It's framed with native grasses and wildflowers. "It's different -- and people love it," says Nygren. "The word I keep hearing to describe it is 'authentic.'"

"When we started out, the real estate and finance people did not believe the market would support townhouses and live/works in a rural environment," said Nygren. "But it's working."

The product mix has been spot on, said Nygren, who reports that retailers are buying live/work units while restaurants are drawing crowds from outside Serenbe, many of whom come without thinking they're in the home-buying market. "It's become a joke amongst Serenbe staffers," laughed Nygren, "but we've heard this many times: 'I came for a cupcake and bought a house.'"

Nygren loves his mixed-use. He calls out one intersection in particular, where one can stand and see echoes of Harbor Town integration: a single-family house, a live/work, an attached townhouse and a commercial building all take up residence, here, side by side. Even in the face of the real estate slowdown, the development team's dogged determination to stick with their plan has paid off, for the most part. "Our pace has flattened a bit over the past several months, but we're not far off from our goals," he said.

"We have a lot more qualified buyers. We're not taking the nosedive that some people are. The biggest change we've seen is it's taking people longer to make their decisions." For Nygren, it all boils down to quality of life, and the opportunity to live the way you want to on any given day. "Since every house backs up to a preserved [area], when you wake up, you can go out your front door and see people strolling on the street and sitting at the cafes. But if you want to be quiet and meditative, you go out your back door and see one of those four preserved areas."

"Serenbe has an extraordinary sense of community," said Tabb. "Everybody knows everybody, even though you can be reclusive if you want to be. The bar is a great watering hole on weeknights. The Daisy Bakery serves lunch and breakfasts. There's something for everyone."

"For me, this is my legacy, my life's work," said Tabb with not a little emotion. "I'm in my early 60s and I'm a full-time professor. I'll live here eventually, when I retire. It has another 10 to 20 years of work ahead of it, and I'd like be around to see it grow up."


The Quarter-Mile Salad

Serenbe Farms organic farm aims to provide fresh produce for Serenbe citizens and the neighboring region. Helmed by third-year veteran manager Paige Witherington and an intern workforce that changes yearly, the farm currently has four working acres, with another 20 on the way.

Following the CSA (community-supported agriculture) model, Serenbe Farms grows 350 different varieties of vegetables, fruits and flowers, selling the goods to Serenbe residents and restaurants inside and outside the community. A Saturday morning Farmers' and Artists' Market puts the produce front and center for eager buyers. Ask Witherington what the farm has to offer: "We have laying hens, broiler hens, shiitake mushrooms, honeybees, and wide variety of fruits and herbs -- and we're certified organic."

Why does Serenbe Farms exist?

"It's a really unique attraction, instead of having, say, tennis courts," said Witherington. "You've seen how expensive food is getting; it makes a lot of sense. People who live here and others can come over and be connected to seasonality and nature. It's an extra service; they can go to market and buy fresh, great-tasting food. I think they appreciate it more than a golf course."

The farm also offers a number of educational programs, such as a kids camp and regular farm tours. "We try to make education a top priority, show people how organic food is produced, the biological systems, etc.," Witherington said.

Of all the stories you'll hear about people in the right job, Witherington is a poster child. "I love it," she said. "I knew that organic farming was for me. I studied environmental engineering and got a taste of it. I didn't want to sit in an office; I wanted to be outside, hands-on. The rewards are amazing: feed people, sleep well, work hard, get dirty.

"When I first got here, the farm was pretty new, lots of work to be done to get it up to growing capacity. That was an exciting challenge. The community had just started -- there were only 15 residents -- but seeing the concept of it, talking to the founders about their vision, I couldn't think of anywhere I'd fit in better."