Serenbe, Georgia: A Modern Utopian Village

A new kind of rural community is an ideal of sustainable living.

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This podcast is part of the Sustainable Design radio program, a collaboration between IEEE Spectrum and the National Science Foundation.

In the American South, a rural community is proving that economic development doesn’t have to mean the end of sustainable living.

Susan Hassler: Utopia is a concept that cannot exist. But in the Deep South, a new kind of rural community is an ideal of sustainable living. Ariel Bleicher has our story.

Rebecca Williams: Hey, Ross. Give ’em a call. See if they’ll talk for the microphone.

Ross Williams [off mic]: Sheee---eeep! Sheee---


Ross Williams: I’m Ross Williams.

Rebecca Williams: And I’m Rebecca Williams. And this is Manyfold Farm. Our farm.
Ariel Bleicher: The Williamses own 101 acres of Georgia pasture on one of the last undeveloped stretches of land within a 30-minute drive from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. Their flock is small—just 52 sheep—but it’s breeding season, and they’re expecting as many as 70 lambs this spring.
Ariel Bleicher: Eventually, they plan to turn the ancient, withered barn into a creamery, where they’ll make sheep cheese and sell it in Atlanta. It’s not an occupation you’d typically find in rural Georgia. But then again, Ross and Rebecca Williams, who are in their late 20s, aren’t your typical southern farmers.

Ross Williams: The folks that are here now are by and large in their 50s, 60s, 70s. They’re mostly cattle farmers who raise cows and calves and ship off their calves to feedlots in the Midwest.

Ariel Bleicher: And one by one, the Williamses say, the cattle farmers are selling off their farms.

Rebecca Williams: It’s a danger when farmers and people who have had this property for their whole lives pass on or move on. It’s a place where people who want to develop get in there and develop in ways that are not sustainable—that create a suburban strip-mall world, where “Oh! It used to be farms over here, and now it’s a Walmart.” It happens.

Ariel Bleicher: Development has happened here, but not in the big-box-store, strip-mall way.
This is Serenbe, where the Williamses live just miles from their farm. It’s something of a modern utopian village—what’s sometimes called a “New Urbanist” community—one of more than 1000 that have sprung up across the country in the past decade. The idea is to marry the principles of economic development and environmental conservation—to design a place where people will invest in not just a home but in a sustainable way of life.

Ariel Bleicher: Across the street from the Williamses’ house, construction has begun on a cluster of small, energy-efficient cottages. The model house is compact—just 1076 square feet—with a slab of black solar panels on the roof and a heating and cooling system that works by swapping heat with the deep water of a nearby lake. Independent evaluations say that the cottage is so energy efficient that the electricity bill for this house will be just $450…a year.

Ariel Bleicher: Steve Nygren, whose family founded Serenbe seven years ago, is showing prospective buyers around the property, which backs up to the lake and, beyond that, a thousand acres of protected woodland.

Steve Nygren: …and put your main house here with the porch that way and that’s totally woods, totally permanently preserved.

Buyers: Yes! Oh my God, this is so beautiful!

Steve Nygren: And then, did you see the trail system? And it takes you right into the community…and in half the distance on the road, you’re at the Blue Eyed Daisy for coffee.

Woman: Oh, how nice. Well, we had lunch at the Hill, or brunch…

Steve Nygren: So that’s the big thing, you see, you have this rural existence, but then we have the sophistication the cities have, with some of the best food.

Woman: The bike shop.

Steve Nygren: The art galleries.

Ariel Bleicher: Energy-efficient houses are just part of Nygren’s design for a sustainable community. We walk up the road, past a 5-acre organic farm, past horse stables and rows of town houses, and take a detour through the gravel courtyard behind Blue Eyed Daisy bakeshop. Under our feet, Nygren says, geothermal wells are running the air conditioners in the nearby shops and houses. Then we head into the woods.

[footsteps on leaves...footsteps on wooden boardwalk]

Steve Nygren: And now we’re in the constructed wetland area that handles all of the wastewater for the community....The effluent from our wastewater flows by natural gravity into these constructed wetlands, then into this sand filter pit to our left and over to be pumped back into the community for irrigation. You notice we’re walking right over the treatment center and there’s no smell. It’s all very natural.

Ariel Bleicher: Yeah, it just smells like fall leaves.

Steve Nygren: Fall leaves, that’s right.

Ariel Bleicher: In the fall of 1991, when he first saw it, Nygren says, all of Serenbe was a sea of leaves. He and his wife, Marie, were restaurant owners living in Atlanta. One Sunday afternoon, they took their three daughters for a drive in the country, and on a whim, bought a 60-acre plot with an old farmhouse and a barn. Three years later, they moved in, planted a garden, cleared some trails.

Steve Nygren: We had discovered Paradise on the edge of Atlanta.... And one morning when we were jogging, they were clearing some land and I thought it was for development, and I was afraid that the urban sprawl that’s affecting every urban city in America was going to follow us out here.

Ariel Bleicher: So he bought up more land and was signing a deal on still more when he realized he couldn’t fight development forever. And if he couldn’t stop the city from sprawling, he decided he had to change the way it happened. Georgia zoning laws, which separated neighborhoods from businesses, had created commercial centers with big parking lots and one-stop-shop superstores in many of the suburbs surrounding Atlanta. Over dinners and several bottles of wine, the Nygrens convinced the other big landowners of their rural paradise to vote for rezoning their joint 40 000 acres. Together, they passed a new zoning plan that would permanently preserve 60 percent of the land. The rest would be devoted to building small, self-contained communities—places where almost everything you needed was just a short walk away. Serenbe would be the first.

Steve Nygren: We broke ground in 2004, and we could not put infrastructure in fast enough.

Ariel Bleicher: People rushed in from all over Atlanta to buy up the lots: families, newly married couples, retired people. They opened shops and restaurants, started small businesses, bought farms nearby.

Rebecca Williams: There’s something about Serenbe that people want even when times are hard and maybe want even more because times are hard. They see that the old way of buying houses maybe wasn’t so good, wasn’t so sustainable, wasn’t making them happy. And they want a sense of community, and they want amenities that they can’t quite put their finger on. Like, “Yeah, there’s no golf course here, but there’s something else, and I don’t know what it is, but I want it”—you know?

Ariel Bleicher: Of course, living in a place like Serenbe comes with a price. Ross and Rebecca Williams paid about [US] $600 000 for their house two years ago, when houses of similar size were selling for about a quarter of that in their neighboring town of Palmetto. But the Williamses are convinced that moving here was the best decision they could have made for their future. Because they’re not just investing in a place to live now; they’re helping build a community—and a way of life—they hope will last a long while. I’m Ariel Bleicher.

This podcast is part of the Sustainable Design radio program, a collaboration between IEEE Spectrum and the National Science Foundation.