A Workable Utopia

The prospect of a utopian society has bewitched humankind for centuries. In the early nineteenth century scores of “intentional communities” were founded in the United States, in pursuit of a variety of lofty goals. Most vanished with the Victorian age. The new century, with its dreams of suburban comfort, dulled our communitarian impulses. Yet the old yearning to scratch-build a community in harmony with the earth has survived the opiates of mall and media. Ecovillages are no longer just for the macrobiotic fringe; dozens are under way around the United States, like the Abundant Dawn community in Virginia or EcoVillage at Ithaca. And out in the Arizona desert is Paolo Soleri, doggedly building Arcosanti, his super-dense mixed-use pods of urban matter—a radical, if somewhat impractical, vision of the city as conservation machine.

A more workable vision of sustainable urbanism is unfolding some two thousand miles away from Soleri’s desert camp, at a place called Serenbe. Set amid the rolling hills south of Atlanta, the Selborne Artist Village at Serenbe—the first of several planned villages—at first appears to be a page out of the New Urbanist playbook. But to label it so is to miss the project’s larger mission. Serenbe certainly has the place appeal of a good New Urbanist community, but it is framed within a vision of regional sustainability that would make Aldo Leopold smile.

Serenbe is the brainchild of Steve Nygren, a former restaurateur. He is an improbable visionary—as talkative and engaging as Soleri is oracular. Nygren purchased the original Serenbe tract in 1991, looking forward to a quiet retirement with his wife, Marie. “I sold the restaurant company [Pleasant Peasant] and retreated to the countryside when my children were small,” Nygren says. “That countryside though is just thirty miles outside Atlanta. We’re on the edge of urban sprawl. One day they were bulldozing the forest next to me, and as a result of that I sprung into action.” Nygren feared, reasonably enough, that the unplanned vomitus of metro Atlanta had arrived on his doorstep. (In fact it was only his neighbor clearing a runway for his airplane.) The experience turned Nygren overnight into a smart-growth evangel. He began hoarding as many of the adjoining parcels as he could afford, eventually accumulating several hundred acres. But he knew he could not save the region by himself. Instead he made a list of the largest landholders in the area, who together held the lion’s share of a remarkably pristine 65,000-acre region known as the Chattahoochee Hill Country. Over many months Steve and Marie hosted a series of meetings with this diverse group; the discussions, sometimes contentious, eventually led to the formation of the Chattahoochee Hill Country Alliance in 2001.

That there was so much unspoiled country so close to Atlanta to save is itself something of a miracle. Atlanta has long been a poster child for urban sprawl, but that has largely occurred on the north side of the city. As the Brookings Institution put it in a report several years ago, “Jobs, people, and prosperity have moved northward and outward, leaving a large arc of little or no population growth, economic decline, and an unusually high concentration of poverty on the south side.” Being the South, it is hardly surprising that race had something to do with this: the north-south development divide, it turns out, corresponds strongly with what the Brookings report called “long-standing residential racial segregation patterns.” In effect, the real estate industry could not get past the blackness of south Atlanta. But while economic opportunities have lagged, south Fulton and neighboring counties have also been spared the sprawl-marts and subdivisions that have ruined so much of the region.

The Hill Country Alliance, led by Nygren and partnered with the Nature Conservancy, set about creating an innovative land-use plan for 40,000 acres. The plan is not antigrowth; development is welcomed but checked by the imperatives of regional conservation. “What the plan demonstrates,” Nygren says, “is that land preservation and economic value can coexist.” Farmland and forest are protected by concentrating development into a small number of selected locations. Doing so also makes it easier to create dense walkable communities that are inspired by historic patterns of village and hamlet settlement in the area. “We are really not doing anything new here,” Nygren says of the development model. “We are just remembering how things were done well in the past.” Additional protection comes from greenways and buffers that guard scenic corridors, historic landscapes, and the Chattahoochee River’s tributaries. Saving the Hill Country preserves a landscape and traditional agricultural ways of life. It also ironically protects the real estate industry from its worst enemy—itself. Unplanned sprawl diminishes the very qualities that made a region attractive to developers in the first place and is hardly a selling point to potential home buyers.

The mechanism that really makes the Hill Country plan tick is a concept known as “transfer of development rights” (TDR). It is not a novel idea, and was actually pioneered in New York City in 1916. As an Alliance fact sheet puts it, TDRs simply recognize that “development rights in land are themselves distinct and severable from the land.” This means a landowner can sell and transfer the rights to develop land in a protected “sending zone” to a property in a developable “receiving zone.” According to Dr. Phillip Tabb, Serenbe’s master planner, “It’s a classic case of working within the system to bring about radical change.” The current county zoning in most of the Hill Country allows one housing unit per acre. Usually this is a prescription for sprawl; a landowner with 30 acres can build a 30-unit subdivision. With TDR that same landowner can build one house for his own use and sell the right to build 29 other units to a developer in one of the designated village areas. With the Alliance plan, Fulton County became the first in the entire southeastern United States to allow TDR transactions. This is an extraordinary accomplishment given the holy nature of property rights in the region. There are few things that get Southern blood pumping faster than being told what to do with one’s land. But the Alliance tapped this love of land and turned it toward a progressive agenda of regional conservation.

The Artist’s Village is the first of five hamlets planned for Serenbe itself; a second, the Farm Village, is soon to break ground. Together these communities will yield something greater than the sum of their parts. Tabb, who teaches architecture and urban design at Texas A&M University, describes this effect as “constellated urbanism—this idea that you achieve a higher level of unity by connecting smaller, individuated settlements.” Each of Serenbe’s five hamlets is organized around a main street laid out in the shape of a horseshoe or omega. The form, Tabb says, “was not something preconceived and imposed on the site but emerged out of a planning charrette as a logical solution to the terrain and topography. It suggests a sense of place but at the same time opens itself out and allows the inner part of the community to receive the landscape.”

Along the main street is an eclectic array of houses and commercial buildings, largely the work of Atlanta architects Lew Oliver, Randall Miller, and David Butler. Tabb convinced Nygren to allow a wide range of styles at Serenbe, something most New Urbanists frown upon. There are Greek Revival houses, bungalows inspired by the regional vernacular, and brick neo-industrial lofts and shops. There is even a gleaming white Modernist house, which somehow looks right at home. Butler’s StudioSwan Art Gallery is nearing completion, and a major new building, designed by Mack Scogin Merrill Elam, will eventually house the Serenbe Center for the Arts and Culture. Serenbe’s infrastructure carries the green mandate underground, incorporating an on-site wastewater treatment system that eliminates the need for miles of pipeline. Storm-water runoff is recycled using an innovative infiltration system designed by landscape architect Bruce Ferguson. The community also boasts a 25-acre organic farm, along with a farmer’s market modeled on the extensive one in Ithaca, New York.

There are aspects of Serenbe and its marketing that some might find over the top—the media kit wrapped in burlap, for example, or Cooking Light magazine’s model FitHouse (which, at a whopping 4,300 square feet, needs a diet itself). The insistent emphasis on green living makes you occasionally long for fried chicken or a martini. Serenbe is also not going to be a particularly affordable place: the cheapest cottage in Phase I was priced at more than $350,000 and building lots at $130,000. Yet every house has been sold, and demand is steep for more. It seems inevitable that the community will become an enclave of bright, healthy creative-class types—and so be it. The real danger is that Serenbe may become a kind of play town where rich Atlantans maintain second homes for weekends of art, music, and slow food. Nevertheless, the significance of Serenbe goes beyond the community itself. Set within an innovative regional land-conservation effort, it offers a workable place-making alternative that might be applied wherever corporate builders are threatening to sprawl their way across America.

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