Feature

A modern day utopia

The community of Serenbe, just outside Atlanta, is home to around 700 people who have chosen to put wellbeing at the centre of their lives. Jane Kitchen visits to find out more


Read on turning pages | Download PDF | sign up to CLAD

As the plane descends into Atlanta, the city stretches out beneath me in ripples of modern-day sprawl – highways clogged with cars inching along at a snail’s pace, taking their occupants to strip malls where you can buy anything you want, anytime you want it. This is the America I moved away from – this endless march towards overconsumption – the land of McMansions, 24-hour drive-thrus and endless commutes on congested highways.

And if any city exemplifies the high cost of urban sprawl and overpopulation, it’s Atlanta; home to the world’s busiest airport. Georgia’s capital also consistently ranks in the top worst cities in the world for traffic, as anyone who’s spent time trapped on the endless loop of Interstate 285 can attest.

So I find it mind-blowing that in just a 30-minute Lyft ride from the airport, I’m whisked to a new housing development filled with rolling hills, quiet birdsong, and neighbourly nirvana, otherwise known as Serenbe.

Home to around 700 people who’ve decided they want to live somewhere different, Serenbe is a place where people and planet come before cars and commerce.

It’s one of a growing number of ‘wellness communities’ which are being built around the world and nowhere are there more in development than the US. With a growing obesity problem, car-centred culture, and a failing health insurance industry, it’s no wonder many Americans are looking at new ways to bring wellness into their lives.

“The US has been the epicenter of terrible car-dependent suburban sprawl for the last 75-plus years, and especially in the last 20 to 30 years,” says Katherine Johnston, senior research fellow at the Global Wellness Institute and expert in the wellness communities market. “As people have started to recognise how terrible and unhealthy this kind of development is for both people and planet, there’s a growing impetus to try to build things that are better, and to experiment with new types of development.”

The antidote to suburban sprawl
Founded in 2004 by the Nygren family –Steve and Marie and their children – who grew concerned when land was being gobbled up around their holiday home farm, Serenbe is named for the serene environment that they hoped to create.

It’s the antidote to America’s suburban sprawl, and also Steve Nygren’s vision of what a neighbourhood should be: houses set among acres of preserved forests and meadows, where neighbours know each other by name and food is harvested locally. This anti-suburban oasis owes much of its appeal to Nygren’s commitment from the start to only develop 30 per cent of the land, leaving 70 per cent of the community’s 65,000 acres as natural green space.

This, in turn, led to a natural focus on wellbeing and created a neighbourhood designed with walkability in mind, where woodland paths connect residents with shops and restaurants, children with schools, and neighbours with each other.

“We want to bring wellness into a lifestyle that’s part of everyday life,” says Steve Nygren. “Residents share stories with me on a regular bases of how Serenbe has changed their lives for the better, and they are healthier and happier. We hear that there’s less depression, less medication, and better behaviour from children. I think we forget how much stress and our mental attitude directly affects our physical being.”

The reluctant developer
Once I settle in to my room in the Serenbe Inn – once a barn on the Nygren’s farm, now restored with a country chic vibe – Steve and Marie Nygren’s daughter, Garnie arrives to give me a tour. Garnie was in high school when the idea for Serenbe was first conceived; now, she’s COO of the company, and as passionate about responsible development as her father. She’s dressed casually in jeans and a T-shirt, with a scuff of mud here and there and the kind of fresh-faced looks that living in the country gives you.

As we meander from the inn, first down a gravel path past goats and hens, then along one of Serenbe’s many woodland trails, humming with cicadas, Garnie tells me how in 1999, she and her father were out on a run in this area, and as they reached the crest of a hill, they looked down on bulldozers clearcutting the neighbouring land. “That was the moment of impact,” she says. “That was the day, whether my dad knew it or not, that he stepped out of retirement.”

Steve Nygren had retired from a successful career in the restaurant business, and had no background in development, but he realised he needed to act fast in order to stop the Atlanta sprawl from reaching his doorstep. Nygren was inspired by European villages – and the English countryside in particular – and wanted to see the same kind of small, dense, walkable towns that exist in places that haven’t been built around cars. As he began to buy up land surrounding his farm, he looked for developers who were creating these kinds of places – ones with a palpable sense of place, that honour the arts, are aesthetically inspiring, and have plenty of green spaces. None existed. “He thought: ‘If no-one is thinking about sustainable development, then how are we leaving the land for future generations?’” explains Garnie.

‘An enormous responsibility’
Steve and Marie continued the process of buying land surrounding their farm, until they found themselves with 65,000 acres – half the size of the inside perimeter of Atlanta, bigger than all of the Napa Valley, and the largest amount of contiguous, undeveloped green space that exists in close proximity to a major airport or urban center anywhere in the US. “We realised we had a huge opportunity, but we also had an enormous responsibility,” says Garnie.

Some careful re-zoning work meant that instead of building a house on every acre – or 1,000 homes on 1,000 acres in one-acre plots – they could opt to build 1,000 homes on just 300 acres and then maintain 700 acres of permanently protected green space. That meant houses were built close together, doing the double duty of creating close-knit, walkable communities and setting aside that 70 per cent of the land for community use at the same time.

Old-growth trees have been preserved in Serenbe – a rarity in new-build American construction, where clear-cutting the trees and leveling the land makes for cheaper, easier construction. This means homes immediately look established in a way that new construction rarely does.

And houses here are anything but cookie-cutter; a 2,100sq ft traditional Colonial sits next to a 4,200sq ft modern contemporary, and yet somehow, they work together.

As Garnie explains, all this has been well thought-out, with strict rules on the way rooflines flow, and the authenticity of each style. “You can have an enormous range of architecture, because they’re all speaking to each other and relating to each other,” she says. “We’re creating an authentic place, where architecture is art and the streetscape is our canvas. Architecture should inspire, and we find that with a variety of styles, we naturally attract a variety of people.”

Community building
Serenbe will eventually grow to include four distinct neighbourhoods, or ‘hamlets’ as they’re known here, each designed in the shape of the Greek letter omega – part of a strategy to encourage interaction and community-building among residents by making serendipitous meetings more likely along the pathways and bridleways.

Two of the hamlets are fully built; in Grange, the agriculture hamlet, an on-site organic farm supplies the restaurants as well as the weekly farmer’s market, and crosswalks are planted with edibles such as blueberry bushes. The Selbourne hamlet focuses on the arts, and features a rich programme of theatre and film, with regular gallery exhibits, artist lectures, plays and outdoor concerts.

To be sure arts programming continues, the Nygrens set up the non-profit Serenbe Institute for Art, Culture and Environmental Issues. For every home sale at Serenbe, 1 per cent of a house price or 3 per cent of a vacant lot price is funneled into the institute, ensuring that there is perpetual funding for the arts and environment. This includes the successful Serenbe Playhouse, an outdoor theatre which welcomes 60,000 people annually and has a $1.4m budget.

The arts programming, proximity to the green space, and the sense of community all mean that residents pay a premium of from five to 10 per cent more than similar houses in Atlanta, but most seem to feel it’s well worth it. “We love being surrounded by people that teach us and make us better,” says Eliza Bacot, a nutrition counsellor and wellness coach, who has lived with her family at Serenbe since 2014 (see page 44). “My kids have such a unique opportunity to view the outdoors as just a part of their daily life.”

Life in balance
Serenbe’s newest hamlet, Mado – which means ‘life in balance’ in the native Creek Indian language – has a Scandinavian design aesthetic, and will focus on health and wellbeing. Here, residents will find a community pool, along with a gym, dentist, Chinese doctor and a health-focused restaurant, and there are plans in the works for a 30,000sq ft destination spa. Common areas are planted with medicinal herbs, flowers, trees and shrubs, and residents can take classes on how to harvest their front yards.

Mado will be fully built in the next five years, with 130 housing and office units being added in 2019, and another 130 in 2021. Seventy homes have already been sold, and another 40 are under construction and available in sizes and prices to fit different lifestyles: from $299,000 for a compact 900sq ft home that would fit young couples or retirees looking to downsize, to $900,000 for a 3,500sq ft family home.

A fourth hamlet will have public, Montessori and international boarding schools and a university the Nygrens hope will host students to study sustainability, while also offering executive training and lifelong learning.

Serenbe’s tagline, “The best reason to live here is the life here” may well be the easiest way to sum up this community, which has become a godfather of sorts to a growing trend of wellness communities sprouting up around the world.

For Steve and Marie Nygren, all three of their daughters have returned to Serenbe with their husbands, and their grandchildren are being raised within walking distance of their front door. If that isn’t utopia, I don’t know what is.

Gallery
Click on an image to open the image gallery
company profile
Company profile: Fabio Alemanno Design Ltd
Based on ancient knowledge – and confirmed by scientific research – warmth is one of the most important sources of healing and preventative therapy available.
Try cladmag for free!
Sign up with CLAD to receive our regular ezine, instant news alerts, free digital subscriptions to CLADweek, CLADmag and CLADbook and to request a free sample of the next issue of CLADmag.
sign up
features
The restaurant features custom-designed furniture
Daniela Colli
"The alternation of light and shadow is essential to give dynamism to a space"

Italian architect Daniela Colli tells us how she looked to classical art for inspiration on how to deal with light and shadow in her latest project

Profile: Peter Cook: Peter Cook
Peter Cook
"Somehow we’d caught the imagination of people"

As a book about radical architecture collective Archigram is released, we speak to one of the founders about the need for fun

Catalogue Gallery
Click on a catalogue to view it online
To advertise in our catalogue gallery: call +44(0)1462 431385
features
CLAD people: Kanye West
West announced the donation to the Roden Crater after a recent visit
"We will all live in Turrell spaces one day"

Musician Kanye West to help fund the still unfinished Roden Crater, designed by American artist James Turrell

A giant bear watches over Aarhus’s harbour. The playground is part of Schmidt Hammer Lassen’s Dokk1 library project
Ole Barslund Nielsen founded Monstrum in 2003 with Christian Jensen. The two met when working in theatre scenography
"Failing and falling can be a good thing"

How his background in theatre set design inspired Ole Barslund Nielsen to create playgrounds with a difference

The running track at the Bill R Foster Recreation Center
David Polzin is executive director of design at CannonDesign. He studied at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture
"We were able to create an ‘acoustic shadow’ cutting decibel levels nearly in half"

How to design the perfect community leisure centre 100 13th century pilgrimage The Vietnamese village being created using historic methods

features
Din has worked on a range of sustainability-focused projects
"It’s imperative the architecture profession takes a proactive approach to tackling the realities of climate change"

Perkins+Will’s new sustainability director

Alexandra Champalimaud
Bakos joined Champalimaud in December 2012. He previously worked for the Rockwell Group
"Construction is one of the largest generators of landfill waste, so it is important to create spaces that transcend trends"

It’s time for a new approach to sustainability, argues Champalimaud’s managing director

MVVA are leading the design of the Ralph C. Wilson Jr Centennial Park
Van Valkenburgh studied landscape architecture and fine arts at Cornell University and the University of Illinois
"Building a park is the ultimate act of democracy"

The US landscape architect on why the Obamas are his kind of clients

cladkit product news
Aotta launches sound panels made from hemp husks
The panels are designed to maintain 'healthy spaces' and consist of Hemp husks fashioned into a natural porous membrane that absorbs sound
Lauren Heath-Jones
Russian design studio Aotta has developed a range of eco-friendly, sound-absorbing panels made from the waste products of hemp seeds. ...
Water inspires Zaha Hadid Design x Rosenthal collaboration
The collection consists of three smaller collections: Weave, Strip and Lapp. Weave was inspired by 'the fluid lines of Zaha Hadid's sketching hand'
Lauren Heath-Jones
Zaha Hadid Design has partnered with porcelain manufacturer Rosenthal to create a new collection of vases. Called the Lapp collection, ...
David Rockwell partners with Jim Thompson for dream-inspired fabric collection
Rockwell has designed 12 multi-use fabrics inspired by dreams with long-time collaborator Jim Thompson
Lauren Heath-Jones
Renowned architect David Rockwell has created a collection of fabrics with long-time collaborator Jim Thompson. Called Dreams, the collection was ...
cladkit product news
Volvo partners with Reef Lab Designs to encourage ocean biodiversity
The tiles are made from marine-grade concrete and recycled plastic fibres
Lauren Heath-Jones
Car manufacturer Volvo has partnered with the Sydney Institute of Marine Science and Reef Design Lab to create an environmentally-friendly ...
Mater partners with Ditzel family to create eco-friendly furniture using reclaimed plastic
The furniture uses plastic from recycled fishing nets
Lauren Heath-Jones
Mater, an ethical design brand based in Denmark, has launched a furniture collection made from plastic reclaimed from the ocean. ...
John Pawson reimagines oil lantern for Wästberg
The Holocene No. 4 reflects Pawson's pared-back style and neutral palette
Lauren Heath-Jones
Swedish lighting company Wästberg has expanded its Holocene collection, with a new addition, Holocene No. 4, designed by acclaimed architect ...
cladkit product news
Baux creates plant-based acoustic panels
Baux has worked with scientists from the Royal Institute of Technology to create Baux Acoustic Pulp, a plant-derived acoustic solution
Lauren Heath-Jones
Baux, an acoustic products brand based in Sweden, has developed a line of biodegradable acoustic panels, using a plant-based material ...
Tredje Natur launches Climate Tile to bring green spaces to urban settings
Tredje Natur has installed the pilot system of its Climate Tile system in the Nørrebro area of Copenhagen
Lauren Heath-Jones
Danish company Tredje Natur (Third Nature) has recently installed the pilot system of its innovative street paving system in the ...
Zaha Hadid Design partners with Royal Thai to create carpet collection celebrating Zaha Hadid's legacy
The carpets capture Hadid's notable use of layering and interweaving as well as her use of light and shadow
Lauren Heath-Jones
Zaha Hadid Design has partnered with carpet manufacturer Royal Thai to create a new carpet collection inspired by the work ...