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Walkability. High density. Nature preservation. Agriculture. Energy efficiency and green buildings. These aspects of urban living don’t come to mind when you think of the sprawling city of Atlanta, Georgia. But, situated just 30 minutes from from the city’s International Airport is Serenbe, a 1,000 acre community that has become a national model for sustainable development in the United States.

At the height of Atlanta’s sprawl in the 1990s, development was closing in on Chattahoochee Hill Country, a rural area just southwest of Atlanta. In response, local landowners Steve & Marie Nygren brought together other residents in the area to discuss a way to avoid losing the rural character of the land, while accommodating the need for development.

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Arial image of Serenbe (photo c/o Serenbe)

"Had landowners turned a blind eye to this inevitable sprawl, Chattahoochee Hill Country would likely have the subdivision-style traditional development that has plagued every other area surrounding metro Atlanta. This would’ve resulted in the disturbance of nearly 80% of the land," said Serenbe spokesperson Kathryn Lott.

A series of public meetings led to the eventual formation of the Chattahoochee Hill Country Alliance, whose mission is to protect the land while meeting the need for development. The result was the Chattahoochee Hill Country Community Plan adopted in 2002. By purchasing land for conservation and establishing innovative development strategies such as mixed-use villages, the Community Plan has fostered environmentally friendly regional growth, and ensured that at least 70% of Chattahoochee Hill Country’s 40,000 acres will remain greenspace.

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Farming and Harvest Dinners at Serenbe (photo c/o Serenbe)

The Nygren family, partnering with Rawson Haverty, took initiative to demonstrate how this balanced growth could be accomplished. They got together and built Serenbe, the first high density village with a town centre in the Chattahoochee Hill Country. It now serves as a model for the area.

"Serenbe’s ultimate goal is to show that development can accommodate the need for housing with a minimal impact on nature,” said Lott. “When fully built out, Serenbe will have 1,200 units. And this density will be on 30% of the land while the other 70% will act as green space - including an organic farm, meadows and a 15 mile trail system.”

Serenbe’s founders, Steve & Marie Nygren and Rawson Haverty, have created an urban model of walkability and community living that includes private residential homes (currently, approximately 170 residents), commercial space, art galleries, original shops, stables, a 20-room inn, 30 acres of organic farmland (with Saturday markets), and three popular restaurants featuring local ingredients. Currently, the community is in the midst of a new phase of growth that features plans to build offices, a hotel, more education, culinary and arts features along with a third phase focus on health and wellness with medical offices, a spa and senior housing.

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Downtown Serenbe

Housing inventory is priced from $295,000 and up and plans are in place to increase affordability and access by adding apartments. While residents must rely primarily on cars to commute to and from Serenbe, train access is nearby and walkability is encouraged within the community.

"Residents benefit from the proximity to the airport to travel to other cities. Some drive to Atlanta or other neighboring cities, while others drive to Marta and take the train into Atlanta," said Lott.  "Many people also work from home as entrepreneurs or telecommute."

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Serenbe’s “Green at a Glance” (photo c/o Serenbe)

All Serenbe development is built to to meet green building standards mandated by EarthCraft Home. Serenbe provides recycling and composting, alternative fuel usage for maintenance vehicles, geo-thermal heating, and supports the farm-to-table movement with a partnership between the Serenbe Organic Farm and Serenbe’s three restaurants.

Ultimately, Serenbe sounds like a utopian paradise of sustainable community living surrounded by nature. It makes one wonder: could this model ever be applied to the suburbs of Atlanta and beyond?

"Yes, definitely," says Lott. " The concept is to create smaller neighborhood hamlets that provide a sense of place for neighbors rather than the suburban sprawl we see today. This is done by smartly developing densely with mixed-use units on only 30% of the open land."

While it is definitely an ambitious, intimidating prospect to reclaim the sprawling suburbs through nature conservation and denser living, the optimist in me hopes that there are more Serenbes in our future.

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