"I Wanted to Build a Town, Not a Development"


What comes to mind when you close your eyes and picture the word "town" or "village"? Maybe a hamlet in the English countryside. The narrow cobblestone streets of rural Italy. Maybe the white picket fences and church steeples of New England. A wildly diverse array of places can claim that label, but they all have certain underlying patterns in common: the patterns we refer to as the traditional development pattern. They’re built at a scale that is comfortable for people on foot. And they’re granular—there’s an eclecticism to the buildings that comes from having been developed by many different people at different points in time.

That perhaps becomes clear when you picture what a town isn't. So now I want you to envision the kind of place that you would describe as "a development." Look something like this?

 

Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo

 

Traditional village in France (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A "development" to many people means standardization, homogeneity, mass production. A town, on the other hand, might house the same number of people, and even the same mix of activities—a few restaurants, a grocery store, a hardware store, an art gallery or two, and so forth—but it's a lot more organic. A town is built over time, and with an eclectic architectural mix as a result. A town engages the person walking in a sense of discovery and progression as they round a corner to see what is around the bend–knowing it won't be more of the exact same.

How many of us in modern America live in cities that are comprised almost 100% of "developments"? The residential subdivision on one side of the road, the slightly different (but internally just as uniform) residential subdivision on the other side of the road, the retail plaza anchored by a big-box store at the intersection of two main roads?

This is the landscape of America's suburban experiment. And its inexorable march into the Georgia countryside south of Atlanta is what convinced restaurant entrepreneur Steve Nygren to become, as he puts it, a "developer by default"—as a determined effort to do something different and better and, in the process, save a piece of land he and his family loved.

The Ambitious Experiment of Serenbe

I wanted to build a town, not a development. And I really studied the difference between those two. Because as I looked at it, towns—the places I loved to go to, the places I remembered, the places I took pictures of—they had a character to them. They were built over time, and there was varied architecture—and good architecture. There was a focus on view sheds, a flow to the buildings, a charm. If you look at any towns that are pre-1930, you’ll generally see these characteristics.
— Steve Nygren

Nygren is two decades into his post-career career as the "mad genius" master developer of a town-in-progress called Serenbe, Georgia. It's a community deliberately modeled after English country villages and other historic towns—the kinds of places built over 100 years ago that Nygren found he loved to take pictures of and revisit—but located in a very different context: the suburban fringe of Atlanta, Georgia.

Because of that context, Serenbe has not arisen organically, the way an actual English village would have once upon a time arisen from the needs of farmers to access shared services and bring crops to market. Rather, it is being developed over time according to a meticulous vision that not only allows for but seeks to ensure the kind of eclectic, photogenic, deeply welcoming and comforting environment found in the best small villages. Serenbe is an ambitious effort to achieve a better way of living than the conventional suburban model, and to do it by working within a financial and regulatory environment that is normally pre-wired to produce conventional suburbia.

Strong Towns president Chuck Marohn recently interviewed Nygren for an episode of the Strong Towns podcast, and you can listen to their conversation for insights into: 

  • the obsessive attention to detail involved in planning Serenbe's urban design.

  • why Serenbe accommodates eclectic architecture rather than dictating a uniform style.

  • how Nygren won over his rural neighbors—both those who were pro- and anti-development—to a comprehensive plan that would both accommodate more homes and preserve more land (70%, versus the 15-20% that is preserved in typical suburbia)

  • the importance of beauty, awe, mystery, and discovery to a great place.

  • why the most important word in Serenbe's design review process is "restraint."

Nygren is adamant that the Serenbe experiment is not a Disneyland-style gimmick, an exclusive luxury, or an irreproducible experiment that requires a "mad genius" to create.

Imagine if every city thought about combining their parks and their stormwater together. How many people know how the raindrop that falls on the roof of their house finds its way to the river?
— Steve Nygren

Serenbe's homes are expensive because the community fills an unmet and in-high-demand market niche—the kind of place that gives people a built-in sense of community and psychologically as well as physically healthy lifestyle—in a part of metro Atlanta that has few expensive homes. However, Nygren says, many of Serenbe's development principles are actually less expensive than the business-as-usual alternative. Edible landscaping is cheaper to maintain than ornamental landscaping or grass. Pedestrian-oriented streets are cheaper than automobile-oriented streets. Daylighting stormwater and creating natural corridors for it to flow through is cheaper than investing in huge networks of underground pipes.

"Just because I have expensive houses here doesn't mean that these principles we're applying here can't apply anywhere," he says. And if we applied them more broadly, the potential benefits—not just to our communities' bottom lines, but to our health and psychological well-being— are tremendous.

Previous Articles on Serenbe

I've written about Serenbe twice before for Strong Towns—this interview completes a trio of content pieces on the unique community. Here are the two prior pieces on Serenbe:

Can You Build a Resilient Place Fom the Ground Up? describes Serenbe in greater detail and offers a bit of a photo tour.

Can We Afford a Better Alternative to Suburbia? addresses the question of whether the Serenbe model is scalable to other places and contexts.

For more information, you can also visit the community's website.