Sustainable design leads to a sense of community in Serenbe (VIDEO)
When the rare snowfall hit central Georgia in December 2010, Serenbe residents used it as an excuse to come together.
“We had a couple of days where you’re shut in with the weather, people started calling each other, next thing you know there’s 10 people meeting for dinner at someone’s house,” said resident Steve Hawthorne. “There were people of all different ages and persuasions with little kids running around. Many of the greatest activities here are not planned.”
Hawthorne and his wife, Honey, moved to the Serenbe development southwest of Atlanta from their home in a gated executive community in the northern suburbs. They are just one of the more than 200 families who have made their home in this unique, sustainable housing development that spawned a new city and a new way of living.
Serenbe occupies about 1,000 acres in the new city of Chattahoochee Hills, Ga., which encompasses 33,000 acres of the larger Chattahoochee Hill Country area. Developer Steve Nygren worked with other landowners in the area to write new zoning laws and, when no other government entity would back up the sustainable development approach, helped launch the city in 2007.
Serenbe represents the hope of the new city, a community that fully lives up to the name as a place that brings diverse people together in eco-friendly living. The development was designed to bring people together in ways that are missing from most traditional suburban sprawl developments.
Inspiration from the past
To take a new approach to sustainable land use and create a new type of community, Nygren tapped Phil Tabb to be the master plan architect for Serenbe. Tabb, a professor and director of the department of Architecture at Texas A & M University is a planning consultant who studied the old English village system of land use.
Serenbe’s zoning calls for high-density development, with about 70 percent of the surrounding land set aside to be undisturbed. Because of that, the population density will be higher than a standard neighborhood. Therefore, many of the homes will be attached units such as townhomes and live-work spaces for offices and retail entrepreneurs, in addition to single-family units.
After looking at the lay of the land, Tabb designed a town based on a series of Omegas, or U-shaped roads, with clusters of development separated by buffers of untouched forest land.
“The Omegas came from the land itself, where there were rolling hills with valleys and in the center were ponds or streams,” Tabb said. “With the open U-shape, the inner part of the Omega connects to the open space and forested land at Serenbe.”
The Omegas are crisscrossed by trails, open for walking, bicycles and horses, which connect all parts of the town with every neighborhood. In many cases, residents find it faster to walk across the Omega than drive around the perimeter to the local shops or a neighbor’s house.
“I can walk here faster than my wife can drive here,” said resident Tom Reed, having coffee at the Blue-Eyed Daisy bake shop, one of the restaurants in the development.
He likes the fact the trails offer a natural respite from the social life of the neighborhood.
“If I walk out of my front door, it may take half an hour to get to the mailbox because you’re running into folks and catching up,” he said. “I can walk out the back door and take the dogs on a two-hour walk through the trails and not see anyone.”
Creating a sense of community
Other design features deliberately give people the opportunity to interact. For instance, mail is delivered to common mail stations in the various hamlets, or small villages, within each section. There are no front lawns and only the largest homes have garages. In comparison to traditional suburban developments, most parking is on the street and homes must be designed with a minimum of 70 percent of the front elevation covered by a porch.
“That way people don’t drive into the garage and close the door and they never talk to their neighbors,” Hawthorne said.
Serenbe’s walkability reduces the need for people to drive anywhere within the neighborhood and brings people in contact more often.
“By living closer it fosters community,” Nygren said. “People are always telling me in their old subdivision they knew only a few neighbors. Within a couple of months of moving here, they know everybody.”
Although the physical features of Serenbe were designed to foster a sense of community, the actual group of people who call it home is different than anyone expected. For instance, the Hawthornes left a development with neighbors of their same age to come to Serenbe with residents of a wide range of ages and backgrounds.
“The difference is, this is a self-selecting community,” Hawthorne said. “The self-selection has more to do with philosophy and future dreams than it does about age, income, color or religion. That’s what’s caused this to be a place where babies are being born, and where kids ride bikes on the street in the summer in their pajamas.”
Serenbe’s developers had a vision for a multi-generational community, given the fact that 10,000 Baby Boomers will turn 65 every day. Rawson Haverty, one of the partners in Serenbe, said the community was set up to allow for multi-generational housing to accommodate families in different stages of life.
“What makes people vibrant is the connection of their families over generations,” Haverty said. “We’ve seen the power when you have three generations living in a community that’s walkable.”
Houses in the development range from $275,000 to $1 million.
Hear one of the residents describe life in Serenbe.
Read the first story in the Serenbe series.
For more information, visit our Sustainable Communities Research Center.
Gary Wollenhaupt is an experienced writer and editor, with a background as a daily newspaper reporter as well as corporate and agency public relations and marketing. He is constantly looking for affordable green upgrades to make to his home in eastern Kentucky.www