Can We Afford a Better Alternative to Suburbia?

I'm in my mid-30s, and I grew up no stranger to the common criticisms of American suburbia. To me and much of my generation, "sprawl" has always been a thing and has always been bad; even if you lived in a suburb or appreciated major aspects of what the suburbs offer (space, quiet, greenery) you couldn't avoid being exposed to (and probably nodding a little at) the idea that the inexorable march of McMansion subdivisions into the countryside throughout the 1990s and up to 2006 or so was horrifying at worst, discomfiting at best.

Here are just a few of the terms I’ve come to associate with the American suburb, and the thinkers that helped build those associations in my mind:

Soulless. Homogenous. Cookie-cutter. Nowhere. (James Howard Kunstler's seminal work The Geography of Nowhere, which is is almost 30 years old.)

Unhealthy. Destructive. Wasteful. Unsustainable. (Andres Duany and Jeff Speck's Suburban Nation, which sort of assembled into a neat package the many arguments against the suburban experiment and for the traditional development pattern; that book will soon turn 20.)

Financially unproductive. Insolvent. (I stumbled on this one in a little blog called—would you believe it—Strong Towns that started about 10 years ago, and added these terms to my lexicon.)

All this to say, the failings of America's grand experiment in car-centric suburbanization are many, and the arguments are familiar even to those who disagree: we have a litany of problems from unsupportable debt, to environmental destruction, to the poverty that entrenches itself in places built to decline to show for decades of this experiment.

And yet, the suburban experiment seems to still have legs. Housing construction is trending up (if nowhere near pre-Great Recession levels) including, very much, on the suburban fringe. This is driven by institutional and financial arrangements that favor a business-as-usual suburban model of development, and outsource many of the costs, such as the carbon emissions and the long-term maintenance of public infrastructure, to society at large.

The suburban experiment remains by far the predominant model of new development outside of urban cores: subdivisions built all at once, to a finished state, according to a template, by the kind of developer who refers to homes as "product" and is not at all invested in the long-term resilience of the place or the well-being of the people who will occupy it.

Thus, there remains intense interest in alternative models for places where the suburbs are still growing fast, and models that can actually scale. That can offer Americans a choice, not just of suburb versus city, but of a better kind of suburb: one that delivers community and a high quality of life but at costs—fiscal, environmental, public health and psychological—that we can afford to sustain in the long term.

A street in Serenbe (photo by Daniel Herriges)

One of the beneficiaries of this interest, as well as one of the more compelling experiments, is a little place called Serenbe in Georgia. Located 30-odd miles outside Atlanta, Serenbe is a community built around health, wellness and integration with nature. Modeled after the traditional, walkable urbanism of something approximating an English country village, Serenbe has been the subject of a decade's worth of glowing profiles of its "utopian experiment" in "small-town charm" and so forth.

The developers of Serenbe want it to be a model. Founder Steve Nygren is clear about that. The community hosts an annual placemaking conference and a Biophilic Leadership Summit, to seek to spread Serenbe's lessons and approach to other places.

I visited Serenbe for the Nygren Placemaking Conference in fall 2018, and wrote about it then, so check that article for a photo tour and some reflections on what the community is trying to achieve.

 Can We Afford to Do This Again? Can We Afford to Do it For More People?

The most common critique of Serenbe, and one that I have a hard time dismissing, is that as a place to live it's a niche, luxury product. The things that make it fascinating and often-delightful and community-centric and healthy are things that didn't, and still don't, come cheap. Critics say that therefore Serenbe is not a model for how to do things better than conventional suburbia: it's not something that matters, or that scales. It's a Disneyland for those who can afford to live in a curated fantasia of idyllic country life.

I don't buy this view completely. I certainly don't want to, because I was genuinely impressed with much about Serenbe, and I want the things that are great about it—the walkability, the proximity of compact urbanism to nature, the deeply thoughtful design, the integration with local food production—to be available to people on more modest incomes than the bulk of Serenbe residents.

My lingering questions from my visit were: Can you scale this model? Can you scale it logistically? Can you scale it financially? And can you scale it while preserving the integrity of Serenbe's holistic approach and attention to detail?

The more you explore this, the more it challenges easy assumptions about what it means to "scale." I had the opportunity to interview Steve Nygren after my first article about Serenbe, and he was keen to dispute those assumptions.

A Fuller and More Long-Term Accounting of Costs

Serenbe’s master plan. Click to view larger.

Serenbe is an expensive place to live. It's a lucrative place to build. But it is also a good-faith effort to build with an eye to a more holistic understanding of costs, including those that often get left off the balance sheet.

The one we often concern ourselves with at Strong Towns is the cost of the infrastructure: the streets, sidewalks, sewer lines, wires, and gas lines that serve new development. There are vast cost savings from the kind of clustered development that Serenbe represents—long term plans call for the same number of homes that might have one day been spread across the 65,000 acres of the Chattahoochee Hill Country to be concentrated into village-like settlements that occupy only a small fraction of that land. This means fewer, and narrower, streets, and fewer feet of pipe. By Nygren's calculations, the infrastructure for Serenbe comes in at about 40% of the cost, to both install and maintain, of conventional suburban development.

The payoffs from clustered development include things that aren't on the developer's balance sheet. There are health benefits from increased walking and psychological benefits from spontaneous social interaction with your neighbors. There are long-term cost savings from buildings and neighborhoods that might cost more to erect up-front.

As Serenbe grows, educational options within the community are increasing. “It’s a crime that kids have to go the distance they do to go to school,” says Nygren of the typical American suburban school on a large campus, cut off from the neighborhoods in which its students live. It is a decision that seems economically rational only from a narrow perspective, one in which the costs imposed on students and their families—think of the endless shuttling kids to and from in the car—aren't on the balance sheet.

By Nygren’s calculations, the infrastructure for Serenbe comes in at about 40% of the cost, to both install and maintain, of conventional suburban development.

Serenbe's homes are mostly quite expensive, and most residents' incomes are well above average for metro Atlanta. The price is partially a reflection of the scarcity in the Atlanta market of this kind of community—people are willing to pay a lot to live there. But it's also true that you couldn't build these houses on the cheap. They use high-quality materials and high-quality, thoughtful design with the landscape in mind, rather than standard architectural templates.

The homes are designed for energy efficiency, and to use alternative sources of energy including geothermal. These things cost more up front. But they bring long-term savings. “I think it’s a crime to build what we call an affordable house but then hand these people a high power bill every month," says Nygren.

When Serenbe set out to develop its "Art Farm"—500 square-foot cottages for visiting artists in residence (and sometimes other visitors such as press)—they partnered with Auburn University's Rural Studio, a project of its architecture program that aims to push the limits of good design at rock-bottom cost. The studio's 20K Initiative, an effort to design a $20,000 house that could be a replicable model for poor rural areas in Alabama, needed a place to field-test their designs. Serenbe offered the ability to do this and also monitor things such as utility costs over time, creating a sort of proof-of-concept.

Serenbe’s Art Farm cottages, produced in collaboration with the Auburn Rural Studio.

Not that Serenbe is going to start installing vast numbers of these cottages any time soon, but they reflect an interest in designing housing, at any price point, with architectural integrity. I asked Nygren what his advice to an affordable housing developer would be—someone interested in building in a way that creates many of the communal benefits of a place like Serenbe without the high price tag of the homes themselves. He named a few things that make an outsized difference, mostly without being costly to do:

  • Prioritize walkability.

  • Insist on front porches on houses.

  • Plant edible landscaping.

  • Have a common mail station—this builds walking and interaction with the community into the daily routine in a simple way that, in Serenbe at least, residents have embraced.

  • Offer community gathering spaces such as a common kitchen—especially in lower-income communities where the private realm is less luxurious.

  • Cultivate "third places" where people can meet up and have both planned and unplanned social interactions outside of either their home or their workplace.

And do things with an eye to the real, long-term costs and benefits for the community, not just the short-term costs and benefits for the buyer:

“The almighty ruler is cost per square foot. We’ve lost a culture of architectural integrity because of that obsession."

Convincing the Bankers

Nygren insists that it's wrong to judge Serenbe for failing to be all things to all people: the notion that every block or neighborhood in America should have a mix of all types of housing for all income levels "doesn't happen anywhere." In the context of metropolitan Atlanta, says Nygren, the northern suburbs have long been where the region's wealth concentrates. "You don't see anything of this quality and price on the south side," says Nygren. "We're placed where executive housing is most needed to show a balanced tax base." In a different location, Serenbe would presumably have been a different place. 

And yet if "executive housing" is primarily what Serenbe is going to be, then can it deliver on its purported aim of offering a healthier, more community-centric, more sustainable form of placemaking as a model for others to emulate?

This is a tough one, and I don't want to be overly rosy about the prospect of turning around financial and institutional arrangements that do privilege the short-term balance sheet, and that force affordable housing developers, in particular, to work within brutal constraints and reduce up-front costs at every turn.

Nygren says if places like Serenbe are successful, then the financial industry might follow in being more willing to lend money for similar projects at favorable terms, which could help drive down the cost of similar development in the future. Bankers are risk-averse and want to see a successful model, which partially explains the institutionalization of formulaic suburban subdivision design in the late 20th century: 

"Affordable housing has never gotten the attention of the bankers. The financial industry follows trends that are bringing high premiums. We’re now producing the premiums that the golf course lots of the ‘80s and ‘90s used to get."

Process, Not Blueprint

The world long before us—at least the places that have lasted—was often built very deliberately, with a lot of attention to minute details. The modern "master land use plan" may not have existed, but the idea that the English villages that are the urban-design model for Serenbe were unplanned is a myth. In prior eras, people built with attention to the frugal and thoughtful use of resources because they had to.

Spring farm party in Serenbe—a working farm is embedded in the community and offers a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program that many residents participate in.

Serenbe is being built slowly and deliberately with attention to frugality because its designers can, and because they believe that they should. This is admirable but not in itself a blueprint for systemic change in how we design our suburban communities. History shows that systemic change comes about in response to economic imperatives much more readily than in response to mere good intentions.

But the economic imperatives, one might argue, are present in the ballooning costs and looming unsustainability of the prevailing suburban approach. Short-term thinking predominates for now in new suburban development, outside of a handful of niche New Urbanist communities like Serenbe. There's a big gap between demonstrating that building a place with an eye to the long-term benefits of local food systems, walkability, spontaneous sidewalk interactions, and energy efficiency will produce long-term savings even at a higher up-front cost of real estate—and coming up with a development model that actually accounts for those long-term savings in our up-front development decisions.

But the first step is to familiarize people with different, arguably better, ways that we could live. And, in our capitalist society, it’s likely unavoidable that part of the task is to demonstrate that there's a lucrative market for it. Serenbe and similar communities have gotten us that far. To take the experiment farther, it's going to take insisting on the principles of a more holistic, resilient way to design our places—not just trying to copy the blueprint of a place that already exists.

(All photos courtesy of Serenbe unless otherwise indicated.)