Serenbe Community in Georgia Offers Alternative to Suburban Sprawl

June 8, 2011

By Johanna Lenander

Serenbe Community in Georgia
Photo courtesy Serenbe

Click on the slide show button to view more images of Serenbe, a 900-acre development in Georgia. slide show


In a scenic area located one hour’s drive from downtown Atlanta, a 900-acre utopian community is taking shape.

Photo courtesy Serenbe
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Called Serenbe—“a serene place to be”—the New Urbanism-style development is a model for sustainable living, its creators believe. Designed to be an antidote for suburban sprawl, Serenbe weaves together high-density residences with walkability, sustainability, and a self-sufficient mix of agriculture and local businesses. The community has already grown to include 260 residents, a bakery, three high-end restaurants, a weekly farmer’s market, several shops and galleries, and a 19-room inn. “We are tremendously proud of what we’ve built,” says Steve Nygren, who founded the development with his wife, Marie.

The Serenbe master plan, designed by architect Phillip Tabb, director of the architecture department at Texas A&M University, envisions 2,500 residents scattered through four interconnected villages. Currently, the village of Shelborne is 80 percent finished, while a second, Grange, is 20 percent complete. The private development is part of Chattahoochee Hill Country, an incorporated area with a governing body and public services.   

The project started in the mid-1990s, when the Nygrens bought a property in the lush, undulating countryside on the edge of the Atlanta metro area. They soon realized, however, that their bucolic landscape was becoming engulfed by new development. To keep construction at bay, “I started to buy land,” recalls Steve Nygren, “but I realized that I couldn’t buy enough to protect us.”

So he and his wife came up with a bigger plan. After an initial courtship of “dinners and a lot of wine” with their neighbors, the Nygrens eventually assembled a large group of like-minded landowners in the region and formed the Chattahoochee Hill Country Alliance. The organization partnered with the local county to create a new land use plan, which in 2002 changed the zoning of a 40,000-acre area from standard agricultural zoning, which allows one acre per lot, to an unprecedented land use plan that clusters development in dense hamlets and preserves 70 percent of the area’s open space. That same year, they enlisted Tabb.

Tabb’s plan, finished in 2002 yet ever evolving, features four horseshoe-shaped hamlets that are connected by trails and roads and are dependent on each other for services. One village, for instance, has a concentration of arts and hospitality offerings, while another is centered around agriculture and a third around health (the plan for the fourth hamlet hasn’t been finalized).

In terms of layout, the hamlets take their cue from traditional English villages, where the outskirts are more rural and include larger estates and cottages, and the interior contains smaller and more densely built lots. “As you get closer to the center, the county road turns into a street,” says Tabb, “and the buildings are attached and built right up to the sidewalk, to create what we call an ‘urban room.’” 

All of the houses in Serenbe are single-family. Four different lot sizes are available, each with a designated housing type: estate (the largest and most isolated), cottage (smaller and closer to the center), townhouse (centrally located attached dwelling), and live/work units (attached storefront buildings with living quarters on top). A charter school is scheduled to open in Serenbe this August. 

Residential properties range in price from the $250,000 to $1 million. Owners are free to hire their own architect, who must follow guidelines about placement, style, and materials. Also, all homes must be “Earthcraft Certified,” a green-building rating system devised by the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association and Southface Energy Institute. 

Despite the design restrictions, “the architecture at Serenbe is very loose and eclectic,” says the Atlanta-based architect Lew Oliver, who has designed about half of the 150 completed dwellings. He also conceived a cluster of tightly grouped (12 per acre) cottages known as The Nest. Two cottages are complete and four others are in development.

Oliver says Serenbe could prove to be a harbinger. “In this age of uncertainty, we need to build new communities, but we’re not sure of how to do it yet, so we need to be experimental,” he says. “We really think that this is where the future is.”

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