Image Credit: Alex Wilson The Bosch Experience Center in Serenbe. An iron sculpture that greets visitors to Serenbe at a native meadow. The Blue Eyed Daisy Bakery. A constructed wetland treats all of the wastewater at Serenbe. Traffic calming and edible landscaping are both provided by these curb bump-outs planted with blueberry bushes. Houses and townhouses are clustered to achieve density, helping to create a strong community. Solar panels are found on many homes at Serenbe. Some homes are net-zero. A low-maintenance polished concrete floor at this demonstration "Proud Green Home" at Serenbe. Rainwater harvesting on many buildings at Serenbe help to reduce runoff while providing irrigation water for landscaping Developer Steve Nygren in front of a 1,400-square-foot model "Nest Home" at Serenbe. The inclusion of high-density townhouses right at the street give several town centers at Serenbe a real urban feel. These townhouses include passive cooling features. The variety of styles with these townhouses and live-work units makes the town center feel as if it evolved organically over time. A mural on this live-work unit adds to the friendly ambiance at Serenbe. A small bicycle shop is located just down the sidewalk next to this mixed-use building. A third town center will be created in a future phase of Serenbe.
I gotta say, I was impressed!
Serenbe is the creation of Steve Nygren, who was kind enough to show me around and point out some of the community’s green features after my presentation. It is a 1,000-acre new town development that is one of the best examples in the country today of what a green development can be.
For starters, the larger area — about 62 square miles — was incorporated by Nygren and some other developers as its own municipality, the City of Chattahoochee Hills, allowing them to establish some highly unusual zoning regulations. For example, at least 70 percent of the land in any development must remain as open space, which can include agriculture, recreation, or natural area.
Naturalized wetlands for sewage treatment
Before my presentation Saturday morning I explored some of the wild areas at Serenbe — or at least I thought they were wild. When I later talked with Nygren, he explained that part of the area I had walk through is actually an extensive constructed wetland for wastewater treatment.
Michael Ogden, of Biohabitats, headquartered in Baltimore, Maryland, whose work I have long admired, designed this system, which will be able to treat the wastewater from all 220 homes and townhouses once build-out is complete, along with two schools and significant areas of commercial development. Rather than being cordoned off with chain link fences, as one might expect with wastewater treatment, this sewage treatment area hosts a network of trails and a boardwalk for all to enjoy.
Nygren appreciates nature and wants to facilitate greater appreciation of our outdoor environments. He is creating at Serenbe an institute focused on biophilia to promote and teach about biophilic features of land use. (Biophilia, a termed coined by Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, is the innate affinity — or love — that humans have for nature.) Much of the landscaping in the development reflects this priority. I spent a while Friday afternoon photographing swallowtail butterflies on some gorgeous plantings of butterfly bush by the Inn at Serenbe and the Farmhouse Restaurant.
Many of the traffic-calming bump-outs (extensions of curbs into the streets to slow traffic and demark on-street parking) are planted with edible landscaping. Nygren told me that the blueberry bushes and fig trees are favorites for the students who attend the Montessori school next to the Bosch Experience Center. Fruit trees that have been planted there will become popular as they reach fruit-bearing age.
New Urbanist development patterns
Conventional development today is sprawling, with each home served by a driveway and usually a garage facing the street; most houses are on cul de sacs, which discourage walking. At Serenbe, the houses are located right along the streets, with on-street parking in front and, often, alley access behind. Townhouses provide greater density and more urban feel in the town centers of the community.
Saturday afternoon, as I was leaving for the airport, a “tailgate party” of Georgia Tech football fans with a live band on one of the homes’ porches, had spilled out into the street as an impromptu block party — something the community is designed to encourage.
Many of these buildings feature live-work arrangements with commercial or retail space on the street level and apartments above. I stayed in a very pleasant in-town apartment that is managed by the Inn at Serenbe. After working on my presentation in my room Friday night, I walked downstairs and down a few doors on the sidewalk to discover a musician performing at the Blue Eyed Daisy Bakery Café.
I bought a beer and joined the 20 or so others enjoying the music. It isn’t quite East Village, but I can see how this will become a more and more vibrant area as the build-out continues.
Serenbe is different from Seaside, probably America’s most famous New Urbanist town (on Florida’s panhandle). Serenbe is more spread out, with a lot more open space that separates the higher-density neighborhoods and three town centers (the construction of one of which has yet to begin). To get from one neighborhood to another some people drive (either by car — 15 mph speed limit, controlled by rather robust speed bumps — or electric golf carts, which are very popular). An extensive network of trails also connect these areas.
As more of the development is completed at Serenbe, I think it will gain more of a “critical mass” feel. Nygren pointed out places where clusters of additional homes will be built, along with several hundred thousand square feet of commercial space, including retail shops, offices, a hotel, and (notably) a brew-pub.
Farming at Serenbe
It was partly out of an interest is supporting local agriculture and farm-to-plate initiatives that Serenbe was first created. Currently eight acres of land are being actively farmed in a certified organic and Biodynamic operation, and 25 acres are set aside for farming. The farm is managed by Paige Witherington with several interns, and it supplies food to a 125-person CSA (community-supported agriculture operation), the Saturday farmers’ market in one of the town centers, two acclaimed restaurants at Serenbe, and the Blue-Eyed Daisy Bakery.
There are also horse pastures and stables, with trails extending through the undeveloped portions of the property.
Next week I’ll cover some of the energy features at Serenbe.
Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. In 2012 he founded the Resilient Design Institute. To keep up with Alex’s latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.