Serenbe: A Down-On-The-Farm Antidote to Suburban Sprawl

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Serenbe, a down-on-the-farm New Urbanist community outside of Atlanta. (Photo: Serenbe)

Serenbe, a self-described “progressive community connected to nature on the edge of Atlanta,” has curious DNA. To start, Serenbe is an exercise in New Urbanism with Seaside, Florida, serving as a template.

Seaside was founded in 1981 as a neo-traditional subdivision-cum-beach utopia on the Florida Panhandle where connectivity, walkability and a diversified range of housing options are melded together into a single, sometimes unnervingly picturesque package. (And if you're not familiar with the locale, you might recall its pop-culture debut as filming location for “The Truman Show,” starring Jim Carrey.)

Like with Seaside, a smattering of commercial businesses can be found in each of Serenbe’s English village-inspired neighborhoods — or, in Serenbe-speak, “hamlets.” These businesses — they include a bike shop, a wine-peddling general store, an indie bookseller and, most recently, a satellite location of Atlanta’s Little Barn Apothecary with a sushi joint soon to come — are just a stone’s throw (or golf cart ride) away from a pointedly non-homogeneous range of housing options: townhouses, cottages, spacious single-family homes, rental lofts and small residential farms or “farmettes.”

And speaking of farms, Serenbe has one — a 25-acre organic affair complete with CSA and educational programming. The agrarian centerpiece of Serenbe’s second-completed hamlet, the Grange, Serenbe Farms has been in operation since 2004 and harvests over 60,000 pounds of produce annually.

The presence of a working farm qualifies Serenbe as a fine example of an agrihood. These agriculture-centered planned developments have increased in popularity as young homeowners eschew the golf courses and resort-style amenities favored by their parents’ generation. (To be fair, plenty of boomers are opting for more countrified trappings, too). Thanks to the nearby presence of a hair salon, a yoga studio and, further afield, a major international airport, even Lisa Douglas from “Green Acres” fame would feel right at home down on this particular farm in semi-rural Fulton County, Georgia.

Serenbe, a down-on-the-farm New Urbanist community outside of Atlanta.
Blue skies and backyard bocce courts: Life on the Grange, an agriculture-themed hamlet in Serenbe. (Photo: Matt Hickman)

Last but not least, Serenbe possesses a heaping dash of Epcot.

It’s hard not to be mesmerized — perhaps overwhelmed — by the European sensibilities and disparate architectural styles that give the community a transportive yet oddly cohesive globetrotting theme park (some might say Hollywood backlot) vibe. One minute you’re facing a row of stepped gable canal houses in Bruges; walk down the road a few minutes and you’re in a small village off the southern coast of England in Hampshire. The charming brick cottages under construction in Mado, Serenbe’s newest hamlet, are lifted straight from the Swedish city of Malmö. In the Grange, there’s a mishmash of stately Victorians, Arts and Crafts-style bungalows and modular modernist mini-manses. There’s also white-painted nouveau farmhouses aplenty, all fronted with generous Southern porches — the ideal spot to sip sweet tea and fan oneself with the latest issue of “Dwell” on a sweltering summer's day.

All of the architectural rubbernecking is enough to give you a minor case of whiplash. Still, somewhat amazingly, nothing feels overly contrived.

In a major metro region known for fast-creeping sprawl and cookie-cutter tract housing, there’s no arguing that Serenbe’s curious DNA all adds up to something truly special. And this specialness can all be traced back to this New Urbanist agratopia’s true raison d'être: land conservation.

Serenbe, a down-on-the-farm New Urbanist community outside of Atlanta.
The road to the Inn at Serenbe remains unpaved, maintaining the original property's rustic charm. (Photo: Matt Hickman)

Sprawl vs. the simple life

Serenbe’s emphasis on the arts, agriculture and wellness is no doubt attractive to potential homeowners. The three established hamlets — Selborne, the Grange and Mado — each, respectively, represent one of these three “elements of a well-lived life.” One percent from the sale of all homes (and 3 percent from the sale of undeveloped lots) are donated to the Serenbe Institute for Art, Culture & the Environment, a nonprofit that funds, among other things, an on-site artists’ colony, cultural programming and various sustainability initiatives.

Who wouldn't want to put roots down (or at least visit) a progressive, pedestrian-oriented village that’s home to an organic farm, a top-notch regional theatre company and an under-development destination spa? It's a seductive place.

Serenbe, a down-on-the-farm New Urbanist community outside of Atlanta.
Serenbe, a down-on-the-farm New Urbanist community outside of Atlanta. (Photo: Matt Hickman)

Yet for a 550-homeowner-strong community moving at a slower, more conscientious pace so that ordinary daily activities are savored, it might come as a surprise that Serenbe — a portmanteau of “serene” and “being” — was borne from panic.

Indeed, Serenbe’s origin story comes complete with a “bulldozer moment" in which founder Steve Nygren all but threw himself in front of encroaching development while out for an early morning jog near his property in Chattahoochee Hill Country, just 30 miles southwest of downtown Atlanta.

Okay, this origin story isn’t quite that dramatic. But the presence of a bulldozer on a neighbor’s property was a wake-up call for Nygren — and if he didn’t do something, this pastoral scene could, perhaps sooner than later, be overtaken by development.

Beginning in earnest in the 1980s, sprawl began to consume the once-bucolic lands north of the Atlanta. And from there the sprawl-beast grew, a quivering blob, in all directions. By the late 1990s, one of the few areas around the city that it hadn’t threatened was a quiet corner of unincorporated Fulton County (now the sprawl-killing city of Chattahoochee Hills) just 20 minutes but a world away from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. It was in this quiet corner that Nygren and his wife Marie operated a bed and breakfast nestled within a turn-of-the-century farmstead.

The Inn at Serenbe, aerial
The inn is a walk through the woods and across a wildflower meadow away from Serenbe the community. (Photo: Serenbe)

“Once it starts, it’s like a fire you can’t put out,” explained Nygren of Atlanta's sprawl over a breakfast of grits, pancakes and scrambled eggs on a bright and mild February morning at Serenbe this past February.

In 1991, Steve, a Colorado-born Atlanta restaurateur and Marie, a chef with roots in the Atlanta culinary scene, purchased 40 acres of gently rolling wooded land surrounding a creaky 1905 farmhouse located just off of Hutchesons Ferry Road — a lovely mouthful of a country lane if there ever was one. In the early years, the property served as a weekend getaway. By 1994, the couple, wooed by country life, had sold their main residence in Atlanta and, with three young daughters in tow, moved to the farm full-time.

From there, the Nygren compound grew — additions were made to the old farmhouse and the barn was gussied-up to include a sleeping loft. Within time, the family homestead evolved into an informal hermitage of sorts populated by a revolving cast of interloping Atlantans — largely friends, associates and old neighbors of the Nygrens — who would arrive for the weekend, maybe a few days, and never leave. Steve and Marie relished their home’s role as a refuge for city dwellers seeking long walks, starry skies and the faint whiff of manure for authenticity.

“Sometimes we forget how to be just simple,” says Steve.

Peeping sheep at Serenbe's on-site animal village
Serenbe is much more than just a subdivision with sheep (and llamas and pigs and chickens). (Photo: Matt Hickman)

The simple life that had lured the Nygrens away from Atlanta proved to be highly addictive to guests. “Our home had become so popular with friends from the city that at one point we posted bed and breakfast rates as a joke,” Nygren recalls. “It stuck.”

And so, in 1996, the Nygrens converted their home into a proper bed and breakfast large enough to host their friends and paying guests.

Today, the property — now complete with a range of lodging options, 15 miles of hiking and riding trails and an acclaimed farm-to-table restaurant — is known as the Inn at Serenbe and is a popular destination for vacationing families with children (swimming pools and an on-site “animal village” doesn’t hurt), corporate retreats and weddings. And much like in the early days when R&R-deprived; friends showed up and were loath to return home to the city, the Inn attracts Atlantans in need of a convenient, thoroughly therapeutic escape from the grind.

Chez Nygren was now Serenbe — a named coined by Marie. “When we slow down to simply be, we find serenity,” says Steve.

Serenbe, a down-on-the-farm New Urbanist community outside of Atlanta.
Serenbe: Where nature, farming and yes, play, take center stage. (Photo: Matt Hickman)

Keeping growth in check with sustainability, smart design

By 2000, the year of the aforementioned “bulldozer moment,” Steve and Marie Nygren’s rustic hideaway in the country had multiplied from 40 to 300 acres.

Again, this particular bulldozer wasn’t an immediate threat to the Nygrens but it was symbolic, a portent that their little corner of the world wasn’t necessarily invincible. The sprawl-beast was slow in reaching this rural stretch of Fulton County ... but this didn’t mean it wasn’t on its way. (The bulldozer, by the way, was clearing trees to make way not for a strip mall or gated subdivision as feared but a small runway to accommodate a neighbor’s prop plane).

And so, Steve Nygren, not quite sure what else he could do, bought more land to ward off the inevitable. The green buffer grew from 300 acres to 600 acres.

At the same time, Nygren, through relentless outreach and coordination, brought together 500 neighboring landowners in Chattahoochee Hill County to devise a plan that would insure that their 400,000 collective acres would remain strip mall-free for the long haul. Inspiration and insight was gleaned from a two-day, Rocky Mountain Institute-facilitated charrette on sustainability and smart development led by Ray Anderson, the visionary chairman of Interface and environmental thought leader.

“That put us at the forefront of the cutting-edge,” says Nygren of the conversation. “Meanwhile, I was just trying to save my own backyard.”

Aerial view of Serenbe, 2013
An aerial view of Selborne, Serenbe's arts-centered founding hamlet, taken in 2013. (Photo: Serenbe)

A couple of years and some crucial zoning tweaks later, the Chattahoochee Hills Country Master Plan was established. As laid out in the plan, 70 percent of land within the city of Chattahoochee Hills must be kept in its natural state while the remaining 30 percent can be developed in a non-intrusive manner that respects the area’s historically agrarian nature.

The current suburban form of development occurring throughout the Atlanta area threatens the natural beauty and resources of the area. Most importantly, the demand for residential development, with its typical cul-de-sac subdivisions and wide roadways, is the most threatening to the Hill Country’s scenic character and environmental resources. Therefore, the demand by the residents to protect the area’s rural character, cultural and sensitive landscapes and habits from the pressures of future growth is at the forefront.

Nygren ultimately decided to fight development by developing himself in a sensitive, sustainable manner.

And so, in 2004, Serenbe the bed and breakfast became Serenbe the new-model community. Currently spanning 1,000 acres, it's a community that stands as proof that one of the most effective ways to stave off unwanted development isn’t to block it altogether but to foster development that’s congruous with the natural world.

Serenbe, a down-on-the-farm New Urbanist community outside of Atlanta.
From shotguns to dogtrots to Craftsmans, Serenbe is a showcase of architectural styles. (Photo: Matt Hickman)

A 'vessel to building something'

Biophilia, a theory that explores humans’ innate bond between nature and other living organisms, played a central role in the conception of Serenbe. It’s not a term you’ll likely hear casually thrown around the sales office. However, the influence of biophilic design on Serenbe speaks for itself, from the blueberry bush-lined sidewalks to a stormwater retention pond designed by landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand that’s so picturesque that, as enlightened — and largely accidental — real estate developer Steve Nygren likes to point out, it’s become a popular backdrop for high school prom portraits. Who knew that wastewater treatment and rented tuxedos could go quite so well together?

The layout of Serenbe and its English village-inspired hamlets is also a departure from the norm in that it abides by the principles of sacred geometry. “It looks random but there’s a balance to it,” explains Nygren of the development master plan.

Conceived by Phillip Tabb, a sacred building expert and professor of residential design at Texas A&M; University, the Serenbe master plan is sprawl turned inside out. In lieu of homes set back on large lots that seem to stretch on and on and on through once-undisturbed nature, Serenbe condenses these lots into tight residential pockets and surrounds them with it. Sure, your neighbors might be a bit closer than in typical suburban neighborhoods but, like in rural England, Serene is enveloped by the countryside — an agrarian village in the middle of the woods in the middle of Metro Atlanta.

As the Serenbe website explains, homes and commercial businesses are “clustered around serpentine-like omega forms fitted to the undulations of the land. This method of arranging the community requires minimal land disturbances and allows the community to reserve large areas of undeveloped green space.”

Serenbe Labyrinth
Unique amenities at Serenbe include stables, an organic farm and one very large labyrinth. (Photo: Serenbe)

Like biophilic design, “serpentine-like omega forms” isn’t language that most new residential developments use to entice potential homeowners. But then again, Serenbe isn’t most new residential developments.

Blue-Eyed Daisy, a bakery-cafe in Serenbe
The Blue-Eyed Daisy, a bakery-cafe in Serenbe. (Photo: Serenbe)

It’s Serenbe’s peerless-ness and the gentle beauty of the surrounding landscape that attracted its first wave of homeowners back when the community didn’t consist of much more than a handful of spec homes clustered around the Blue Eyed Daisy, a bakery-café/community hub housed in America’s smallest LEED Silver-certified commercial building. Just think of it as Luke's Diner but with cold-pressed organic carrot ginger juice instead of heaping mugs of coffee. (They serve coffee, too.)

In the beginning, Serenbe functioned as a New Urbanist pioneer town — a lonely settlement in the middle of the nowhere. And it still is very much a pioneer town, as no other New Urbanist communities are doing anything like it. (Nygren points out that while the New Urbanism is embedded in its DNA, Serenbe is in a league of its own, particularly with regard to walkability.)

During its first couple of years as the community grew from one from hamlet to two and the construction of new homes developed into a steady flurry, Serenbe’s agrarian-cosmopolitan identity strengthened. Curious Atlantans came to investigate and discovered that the enigmatic eco-village out in the sticks that everyone was talking about wasn't necessarily crunchy, sanctimonious or — annual May Day festival notwithstanding — "Wicker Man"-esque. It was smart, friendly and vaguely European, particularly in the way it was planned for humans, not cars.

You see, sidewalks rule at Serenbe. Garages are tucked away under and to the rear of homes, not prominently sticking out in the front like the “snout houses” that dominate suburbia. Sociable front porches and edible landscapes replace water-guzzling front lawns and benches are abundant. Fences, which Steve Nygren says are “built of out fear,” are nonexistent aside from a few largely ornamental white picket ones that keep with the vernacular style of many homes.

Although she wasn’t part of the first wave of Serenbe settlers, the community’s vice president of marketing and communications, Monica Olsen, is a relative old-timer having moved to the community in 2009. A native Californian who relocated with her husband to Atlanta in 2001, Olsen initially found herself more beguiled by than wary of the community’s relative remoteness.

“My initial impression was: ‘How can I live here?’ We enjoyed an incredible early spring day at Serenbe and we just didn’t want to leave. So we went to the real estate office, and two days later we were under contract on a house.”

Apparently, this isn't too uncommon. Folks arrive at Serenbe for an exploratory visit and they immediately know.

Serenbe, a down-on-the-farm New Urbanist community outside of Atlanta.
All homes at Serenbe are EarthCraft certified, a regional green building standard comparable to LEED. (Photo: Matt Hickman)

As for the commute, it didn't deter Olsen: “The distance from Atlanta didn't bother us. We both came from California where it's typical to drive 45 minutes and find mountain, ocean or desert playgrounds.”

Olsen notes that Serenbe has a considerable population of work-from-home freelancers, small business owners (some having set up shop within the community) and professionals employed in creative fields that allow for greater flexibility. Still, Olsen estimates that roughly half of Serenbe-ites are traditional nine-to-fivers who commute daily into the city. And given Atlanta’s growing reputation as a hotbed of film and TV production, Serenbe is also home to a transient — and increasingly permanent — population of residents working in the entertainment industry.

Work schedules and chosen professions aside, Olsen believes it’s these folks — the residents of Serenbe — that truly make the community.

“Steve created a place, a vessel, for people to come and build something — to build community. And it’s continuing to happen every day,” says Olsen. “And that is the most exciting thing for me — being part of community as it grows, to see it change. Every day, week or month something new happens or opens, and I think everyone here embraces that change. They embrace it with a hopefulness, a togetherness and the opportunity to take part. We are all seeking connection and meaning.”

Mado at Serenbe, Aerial
An aerial view of Mado, a wellness-themed hamlet inspired by the residential cityscapes of Swedish cities. (Photo: Serenbe)

Constructing wellness, one cottage at a time

When breaking down Serenbe’s three hamlets by theme park quality, Mado — a Creek Indian word for “in-balance” — joins Selborne (Artsland) and the Grange (Agrarianland) as a Scandinavia-inspired health and wellness wonderland that pays mind to children and the elderly, two populations that Steve Nygren refers to as “the forgotten bookends."

When completed in 2020 (work is currently underway on the first phase with 45 new homes completed or under-construction), Mado will be Serenbe’s largest and densest hamlet with 380 new residences.

With a strong focus on multigenerational living, Mado will also be the most ambitious of the hamlets. There will be more commercial space (an estimated 250,000 square feet) and an expanded variety of housing options including garden cottages reserved for buyers over the age of 55. Built by Monte Hewett Homes, the two-bedroom cottages are currently listed on the Serenbe real estate website for $439,000.

Like in the rest of Serenbe, lots are small and fences are scarce in Mado. This is particularly important here as seniors tend to retreat and become less social as they advantage in age. Fences and isolation from one's neighbors are an excuse to disappear further into the shadows.

Mado, a wellness-themed neighborhood at Serenbe.
Mado's Anders Garden 55+ Cottages are designed to promote connectivity amongst elderly residents. (Photo: Serenbe)

Mado's Anders Garden 55+ Cottages are designed to promote social interaction amongst shy seniors. (Rendering: Serenbe)

There’s no disappearing in Mado, a neighborhood that, through various design strategies, promotes social interaction between residents of a certain age. Boasting flexible, single-story floorplans that foster aging in place, The Anders Garden 55+ Cottages all face a common green filled with medicinal plants and herbs; a Common House, equipped with a full kitchen, serves as a convenient gathering spot; and well-shaded pedestrian pathways encourage exercise, connectivity.

“We’re creating a program of hope and vitality instead of fear,” says Nygren.

What’s more, Nygren hopes to populate the hamlet’s commercial storefronts with the offices of practitioners of Eastern and Western medicine, health-tech startups, pilates studios, juice bars and the like. A medical clinic along with fitness center, outdoor swimming pool and assisted living facility are also in the works.

The Organic LIfe House at Serenbe
The Organic LIfe House at Serenbe. (Photo: Serenbe)

Still largely under construction, Mado’s first phase is just beginning to resemble a neighborhood. Already, it seems like an excellent place for kids to frolic.

With vehicular traffic and parking pushed to the periphery and tucked away underground, Mado promises to be a dream for pint-sized explorers and parents alike — all paths and plazas, nooks and crannies, woods to wander in and on-site facilities to mend cuts, scrapes and broken bones. There’s a close-knit yet great wide openness to it all, a quality that first attracted Monica Olsen to Serenbe as she and her husband found themselves outgrowing their Atlanta home following the arrival of their two children.

“We did not want to move to the suburbs — we consider ourselves city people and wanted all the offerings of city life,” Olsen says. “We found it at Serenbe but with fresh air, safety and nature all around us.”

Mado, a wellness-themed neighborhood at Serenbe.
Mado's dense yet green layout more closely resembles Stockholm than suburban Atlanta. (Photo: Serenbe)

Mado's dense yet green layout more closely resembles Stockholm than suburban Atlanta. (Rendering: Serenbe)

In a nod to Serenbe’s education-themed, yet-to-be named fourth hamlet, Mado will be home to a new campus for Children’s House, a Montessori school currently located in the Grange just across the street from an Industrial Revolution-chic rental loft complex fashioned after a cotton mill. (That Epoct DNA creeping in again.)

And what’s a wellness-promoting neighborhood without a spa? One of the Mado’s later development phases will see the construction of a destination spa within walking distance (a rejuvenating amble straight through the woods, no less) to a luxury boutique hotel that Nygren anticipates will be “totally unique.”

A bold claim but when Steve Nygren says it, you believe it.

Art Farm Cottages at Serenbe
Rural Studio's 20K Houses, the first to be built outside of Alabama's Black Belt, at the Art Farm at Serenbe. (Photo: Serenbe)

Wining, dining, placemaking, trailblazing

As Mado begins to take shape, the rest of Serenbe is vibrating with activity.

In recent weeks, Daniel Horowitz of StoryCorps Atlanta presided over Art Over Dinner, a regular series of talks held at the Serenbe Art Farm; Rodale’s Organic Life magazine recently wrapped up a month of public tours and special events held in a stunning — and highly sustainable — custom-designed showhome; and the beginnings of a land art installation by Scott Hocking are taking form in a secluded woodland clearing above Serenbe's newest hamlet. And let’s not forget the upcoming Shiitake Mushroom Log Inoculation Workshop.

Anticipation is also mounting over Serenbe Playhouse’s site-specific al fresco spring production, “Grease,” which runs from March 23 through April 16. People are still talking about last summer’s staging of “Miss Saigon” — an immersive production that “works so splendidly on so many different levels that it’s difficult to know where to begin” raved Atlanta INtown — that, among other things, featured a real helicopter landing and taking off from Serenbe’s wildflower field (much to the chagrin of some Chattahoochee Hills residents).

Serenbe master plan
Rendering of Serenbe Master plan. (Photo: Serenbe)

Given Serenbe's deep ties to agriculture and food, it's understandable that this community — culturally rich and nourishing to the soul as it may be — isn't to everyone's taste.

The Mayberrian ambience might be a bit too on the nose for some and the quiet, far-ish-flung locale — one of Serenbe's finest attributes, in this harried New Yorker’s opinion — unsettling for others. (I got over the fact that the nearest CVS, a sure sign of civilization, was a 20-minute drive away real quick on my visit.) But those who have live here and the many others who come to recharge and take advantage of the myriad cultural offerings wouldn’t have it any other way.

And in a somewhat ironic twist, Serenbe, which has so pointedly positioned itself as an antidote to fast food-laden strip mall culture, has inspired Pinewood Forrest, a 234-acre mixed-use development lead by Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy in nearby Fayetteville. Located directly across from Pinewood Studios Atlanta, the under-construction Pinewood Forrest will similarly feature themed neighborhoods, ample open green space and a range of housing options including micro-cottages geared to attract millennials and boomers alike.

Lew Oliver, Pinewood Forrest’s town planner, tells Atlanta Magazine that “Serenbe was a trailblazer for us,” before going on to explain that, despite some similarities, the overall atmospheres between the two pedestrian-oriented communities will be different. “Serenbe is much more pastoral,” he says.

And indeed, when it comes to planned developments you can’t get much more arcadian than Serenbe, a singular slice of paradise nestled within the rolling, loblolly pine-stud terrain of Chattahoochee Hill County. Now matter how many new amenities it adds or how many homeowners and commercial businesses it attracts in the end, Serenbe will be forever intrinsically linked to this landscape, the same landscape it was borne to save and protect.

Inset photos: Horse: Matt Hickman; Blue Eyed Daisy: Serenbe; Inset photo, Organic Life House: Serenbe; Master plan rendering; Serenbe