Serenbe: An Innovative Community

Fulton County, Georgia is best known as the home of Atlanta, the 9th most populous U.S. metropolian area and Hartfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the most traveled U.S. airport. North of downtown Atlanta is continuous suburbs, countless dead-ends and endless strip malls. At the south end of Fulton County, no more than a 30-minute drive from downtown is Chatahoochee Hills an incorporated city with less than one percent of the County’s population and about 10% of the County’s land area. Chatahoochee Hills is predominately rural with rolling hills, pastures, and woods. Just over ten years ago, this city protected itself from the bane of traditional suburban real estate patterns by incorporating 32,000 acres of rural lands into a municipal city and developed a plan to house just as many people as north county, but not in the same way.

Incorporation was accomplished by following a rigorous land use planning process with community meetings and political will that challenged land use patterns of classic American suburban sprawl. One leader of this land use decision process was Steve Nygren, who had moved with his family into south county in the early 1990’s and purchased 1,000 acres. Steve, a former restaurant owner turned developer knew that south Fulton County did not have to be destined to grow into classic American slurb. Now in the heart of Chatahooche Hills, Serenbe a New Urbanism development is the brainchild of Steve’s.

Walking Paths & Constructed Swales

Walking Paths & Constructed Swales

Visiting Serenbe in April 2014 on a tour organized by the American Planning Association, I was energized seeing a community that was forward thinking rather than just the norm. As a professional civil engineer, I have designed subdivisions and reviewed development projects on behalf of jurisdictions for much of my career. At Serenbe, traditional land use planning and public works infrastructure standards have been challenged and eliminated, creating a master planned development community that works with the natural environment bringing comfort and joy to the residents rather than the incessant drone of the suburbia.

There are currently three hamlets or town centers at Serenbe with a fourth proposed, each having a different community focus. Selbourne Hamlet focuses on the arts, Grange Hamlet is a farm and craft community, and Mado Hamlet centers on health and well-being and is also the location of the adult active development. A fourth hamlet is proposed with emphasis on education. On our visit we toured Selbourne and Grange Hamlets.

Let me give just two examples of why Serenbe was attractive and excited me. One from my perspective as a civil engineer and the other from my passion on integrating food production into residential developments.

Challenging Public Works Standards

Typical Fenced Stormwater Pond in Seattle

Fenced Retention Pond in Seattle Suburbs

Typical subdivision roads are designed to accommodate parking, a five-foot sidewalk, and two-way traffic flow and of course, the largest fire truck the district owns. These requirements demand a minimum 48-foot pavement width. If the neighborhood is lucky, there could be two five-foot sidewalks on each side of the road, requiring a 60-foot wide publically-owned right-of-way. In typical engineering design, the road section from curb to curb is always crowned with a high point in the middle so stormwater can flow to the street sides to be piped away to a detention facility. This facility is designed to store excess stormwater during large storms and then slowly release the water back into the natural creek or wetland system, thereby reducing the chances of unwanted flooding or scouring. Sometimes the system is designed as a retention system with a small permanent pond at the bottom, but too often, it is a large empty hole in the ground surrounded by a fence.

Typical Subdivision Grading

Typical Subdivision Grading

House lots are typically graded such that the homes face each other, are not offset, and are at the same elevation across the street from each other. It is a very regular, predictable pattern. Because most developable land is no longer flat, mass earth movement and tree removal is necessary to create flat housing lots with retaining walls between the side or backyards to accommodate any grade differentiation. Houses step down as a subdivision road descends, hence engineering a fit rather than designing with the natural environment.

For more than 20 years mass grading and fenced in storm ponds have been standard engineering practice to managing stormwater and designing house lots. Designers at Serenbe turned this typical engineering subdivision model on its head. Steve spoke with passion about fighting against the standards with the Public Works Department to create a community that works with the natural site topography and for the people.

Serenbe Community Map

Serenbe Community Map

The roads are designed with hairpin curves, typical for mountain passes and not housing developments, that slow down traffic and cater to people walking rather than just cars driving. (An hairpin curve is circled in blue on the map.) This innovative road design creates wooded backyards for lots on the inside of the curve and at the same time a place to direct stormwater for biofiltration. Walking on the forest paths between the homes my engineering eye could see where the water flows. At the same time my childhood memories recreated stories of “playing house” in the woods, scraping forest floor leaves into long piles for pretend walls. Mixing mushrooms, berries, and leaves together to create a “scrumptious lunch,” eaten in the “dining room” built from downed logs. Every Serenbe kid has the chance to create their own fantasy house in their backyard!

Back at the street, the lots are designed to work with the topography, with some houses actually lower than the road, creating the feel that the community has been around for a long time. Pavement widths are no more than 40-foot curb to curb when parking is provided and shrink to 24-feet wide when only a two-direction traveled way is needed. Pavement edges are defined by granite curbing, which was no longer permitted by the road standards, but establishes a quality of a bygone era. Sidewalks are found close to the center of each hamlet and forest paths connect the community in the backyards.

Selbourne Hamlet is built for people–children, adults, and the elderly–not just for cars, creating peace and calm.

A Farm at Serenbe

Homes in Grange Hamlet

Homes in Grange Hamlet

Serenbe Farms is located in Grange Hamlet, integrating food growing with residential living. In most of America, food just shows up, whether in a grocery store or restaurant. As Americans, we take food for granted and forget that it actually grows in real dirt, by an actual person that plants, tends, and harvests it. Someone then cleans, packages, and transports it to a place where we purchase a farmer’s hard work. For most, this connection to food growing is forgotten. At Serenbe the link between food growing and eating is made real.

In Grange Hamlet, 25-acres are dedicated to organic agriculture and is the backyard for a street of homes. (The farm is outlined in red on the Serenbe map.) Serenbe Farms is a teaching or incubator farm, where interns learn the food growing trade and eventually move on to their own land to practice their profession. Only eight acres are currently cultivated producing 60,000 pounds of food annually that support a thriving Community Supported Agriculture program, the Serenbe neighborhood farmers market and chefs both at Serenbe and in metropolitan Atlanta. This connection to food and its cultivation reunites us with the basic necessities of life–EATING!

At Serenbe, I was infused with serenity of place and at the same time energized by innovation in community building.

Steve Nygren is creating a multi-generational community for families with children, retirees, and anyone else that wants to be connected to the essentials of living. Eating good food, playing in nature, walking in the woods, and enjoying the arts are all found at Serenbe. Alas, the price point for purchasing a home serves only an affluent clientele. Even so, the subdivision design elements and integrating the community with nature and food production are important to consider in future development projects. Rather than designing for the automobile, Serenbe is a stellar example of a community for people.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, fundraising, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on the Urban Land Institute–Northwest District Council’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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Malting in the Skagit

Malting! As a kid, it meant malted milkshakes and Whoppers–malted milk covered in chocolate. Ugh! Whoppers were the rage in my Trick or Treat bag, but they tasted awful.

Now I savor a malted drink–Hefeweizen–the German malted wheat beer of my heritage. I like Lagers, IPA’s, and whiskey–all malted. I even add a quarter cup of Nestlé Malted Milk powder to my pancake mix. Yum! But, what is malting?

Malting is…

Wheat Varieties at the Munich Botanical Garden

Wheat varieties at the Munich Botanical Garden

Malting is an age-old process, fostered first in ancient Egypt about 6,000 years ago where kernels of barley, wheat, rice or other cereal grains are germinated in water. When the shoot reaches about 3/8 of an inch, germination is abruptly stopped and the sprouted kernels are oven-dried. Depending on the timing and the oven temperature, the dried grain develops differing flavors. The sprouting and drying process allows the grains’ starches to develop sugars, which the palate desires. Up until last century, the malting process was labor intensive. Damp, sprouted grains were spread out on cavernous floors, heated from below, and the grains were turned manually with large rakes until dry. With the advent of mechanization, malting grains were commoditized and standardized.

All superior beers are crafted with malted grains–most often barley or wheat–and then water, yeast and hops are added to the mix. Budweiser is produced from unmalted grains–either corn or rice. (No wonder when my German cousins visited when I was a kid and couldn’t stomach American beer!) Beer aficionados probably already know that mainstream beers are unmalted, but my being only a casual drinker of a good, well-crafted, specialty beer on a hot summer eve, I now know why I like crafted beers! It’s the brewed combination of malted grains, tangy hops, fermented yeast, and cold spring water.

A New Malting Dawn

Now, a new malting dawn is rising an hour north of Seattle in Skagit County, home to Skagit Valley Malting, Dr. Stephen Jones of Washington State University, and a multitude of folks all working to ensure that the region reigns as a preeminent, world class agricultural powerhouse, with products that create flavor, value, and terroir–a sense of place.

Grains ready for malting

Grains ready for malting

Imagine my amazement when Wayne Carpenter of Skagit Valley Malting said, “there are 15,000 varieties of barley and 20,000 strains of wheat that can be malted!” Just in barley varieties, there are black, purple, red, and many shades of gold. Astonishingly today, in American beer brewing, including the craft brewers, only 10 barley strains are malted according to the American Malting Barley Association. Further, over the past 30 years, barley acreage has dropped 77%. This leaves a multitude of grains to test in the Skagit soils, to create the finest flavor, foster the hardiest plant, find the biggest producers, create the preeminent malts and build the agricultural economy. Dr. Stephen Jones is the Director of WSU Research in Mt. Vernon, the heart of Skagit County in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences with his research concentrating on improving wheat and grain varieties and to support the growing Skagit grain economy.

Skagit County is home to the annual April Tulip Festival

Skagit County is home to the annual April Tulip Festival

Historically, prior to the United State’s commoditization and consolidation of agriculture following World War II, the Skagit agricultural lands had record wheat yields, two times those found on the Palouse Hills of eastern Washington and three times those found in Kansas, which hails as the Wheat State, since it grows more wheat than any state in the Union. Despite the fact that Skagit County lost their wheat and barley markets, the farmers have to grow grains because it is a necessary rotational crop in a healthy agricultural ecosystem. By including grain in a field planting sequence, disease and pest cycles are broken.

Skagit specialty red potato fields

Skagit specialty red potato fields

For example, if potatoes are grown in a field in year one, that same acreage cannot be planted with potatoes until year four. Other crops, such as tulips, grasses, cabbages, cucumbers, and grains can be rotated in. By not planting a field with potatoes again, harmful insects or diseases never get to call that acreage “home” and move in and multiply. No matter what though, by year three, a grain planting cycle is a necessary rotation to maintain soil health, because it returns organic matter to the soil, and the deep root system (about the same height as the steam and wheat spike) breaks up clay soils, allowing natural soil aeration. However, grain rotations are not as profitable for the farmer with gross earnings between $500 to $1,000 per acre ($0.01 to $0.02/square foot). When compared to peonies ($52K/acre or $1.19/SF), tulips ($15K/acre or $0.34/SF) or the specialty crop Skagit Red Potatoes ($12K-$15K/acre or $0.34/SF to $0.28/SF), grains have been downright a money loser.

Now Skagit Valley Malting is selling their malted grains to breweries in Washington, DC, where premium beers are sold at $21 per pint. Pike Brewery in Seattle sells specially crafted beers brewed with Skagit malts. Malting is not only for beer, but for bread, too, such as the loaves at the Breadfarm in Bow, Washington, Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, and Manhattan’s Blue Hill restaurant–all featuring malts from Skagit Valley Maltingt!

Opportunity in malting!

Skagit farmers, entrepreneurs, agricultural researchers, and others see opportunity! Beer drinkers rejoice! The Skagit region is charging ahead as an economic agricultural powerhouse in the changing edible landscape. Eaters and drinkers everywhere are looking for new, wholesome, and vibrant taste experiences. Growing grains is getting exciting and is expected to be a money maker!

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and a member of the American Planning Association’s Food Interest Group. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world. 

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Cultivating a Thriving Agricultural Economy: Skagit Valley

Bucolic fields of tulips wave in the breeze. Tilled fields are ready for spring planting. Raspberry brambles are tamed, trimmed, and prepped for summer production. Netting is checked, secured, and standing by to be stretched over blueberry acreage.  Strawberries are poised for blooming and fertilization when bees buzz by. Potato barns are emptying getting ready for the upcoming season. This is the thrum of spring in the Skagit agricultural lands.

Roozengarde's Prize Tulips in the Skagit Valley

Roozengarde’s Prize Tulips in the Skagit Valley

Sixty miles north from Seattle, Interstate 5 drops 300 feet to just above sea level to the idyllic Skagit valley floor encompassing almost 100,000 acres and stretching out to the distant Chuckanut Mountains about 25 miles away. The valley is bounded by the Salish Sea to the west, the Cascade foothills and the City of Mt. Vernon to the east, rolling hills to the south, and the steeper Chuckanut Mountains to the north.  The Skagit River tumbles from the depths of the Cascade Range, trisects the valley after flowing by Mt. Vernon, before heading to the sea. Prior to the early settlers arriving, this same land was the Skagit River’s delta which teemed with life for salmon, shellfish, crustaceans and birds and an integral part of the culture for the Native Americans. Now conversely with protection by levees, dikes, and tide gates, this same ground ranks among the top 2% of the soils in the world to grow food, fiber, and flowers, predominately in land-based farming.

Protect Skagit Farmland SignDespite its pastoral appearance, as in any community, there continues to be pressure for change. A developer in 1989 proposed a 280 acres amusement park at a key highway intersection on prime farmland igniting the fight for the farm economy. Farm advocates organized, fundraised, and built electoral support to sustain the identity and purpose of this fertile farmland by creating a non-profit organization Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, with its mission its title. Early on this required farm advocates sitting opposite developers, environmentalists, and government staff in hearings, courtrooms, and county offices advocating, cajoling, and fighting for the rights to farm and protect farmland. Skagitonian founders knew that for an agricultural economy to succeed, it takes a critical mass of farmland, irrigation water, labor, farm roads, machinery, equipment and fertilizer suppliers, large animal veterinarians, purchasers, and of course, a farmer. To thrive farming must be a robust, economic driver and sustained by the community. These bonds to farming now run deep not only in the agricultural community, but among all residents.

Then 20 years ago the Skagit County Commissioners established the Farmland Legacy Program funded with a Conservation Futures (property) Tax to create a fund that could match state and federal grant monies to purchase development rights from threatened prime farmland. This program has protected more than 9,000 acres of prime farmland.

Even with this buy in, now 25 years later since Skagitonians started, the conflicts are less forceful, but still intense and important. Now, agricultural, environmental, economic, not-for-profits, Port of Skagit, and government (city, County, State, schools, etc.) people meet, to discuss their differences and reach solutions while maintaining and nurturing the Skagit identity, which is a thriving economy balanced with the natural world. After 25 years, all sectors sit at the table to support a community that embraces farming as a way of life.

Salmonids: An Issue

Even with more than 100 years of farming history, some desire and have the power of the law to return parts of the valley to its original estuarine habitat. Three Skagit River salmonid species are listed as threatened under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act, requiring local governments to use measures to protect salmon by 1) ensuring cool, clean water, 2) removing barriers that impede fish passage, and 3) restoring fish habitat. Often it is easiest to implement these salmonid protections on farmland, since it is flat, open and undeveloped. Vegetated streams buffers, upsizing and replacing drainage culverts, and purchasing farm ground to remove dikes and create new fish habitat are all used to protect salmon. Even though all of these are tough conversations to have between farming and fish advocates, what is significant is that the conversations happen and compromises are being made!

Agricultural Economy

Grains Growing on Protected Farmland in Skagit County

Grains Growing on Protected Farmland in Skagit County

Economic development is a buzzword across the United States and finding projects that create jobs, add wealth, and grow placemaking are sought by many communities. One Skagit agricultural product in its infancy is growing grains, specifically barley and wheat for artisanal products. The boutique booze boom is crafting multiple varieties of specialty whiskeys produced from grains grown in the agricultural rotation sequence necessary to maintain soil friability and health. Mainstream and boutique beer brewers across the United States use only about one dozen barleys with different malt processes to create a myriad of beers. Skagit farmers are growing multiple test plots of some of the more than 20,000 different types of barleys to make craft brews. Skagit Valley Malting is partnering with beer brewers such as Pike Place Brewery to concoct new beer frontiers with the different barley samples. I sampled only four different barley kernels destined for Skagit Valley Malting’s production cycle and was astounded at the flavor nuances. I can only begin to imagine the upcoming beer possibilities!

The Breadfarm, a artisanal baker is using locally grown wheats similarly creating specialty baked goods that capture the flavor of the terroir–or specifically the Skagit sense of place.

The support of multiple governments and the legal structure of the State’s Growth Management Act, have created a framework and standard to protect resource lands thus allowing creativity in food and beverage production that rivals European artisans.

The Beauty

Raspberry Plants Tamed and Ready for the Season

Raspberry Plants Tamed and Ready for the Season

Entering the valley after an hours drive north from Seattle, all cares slip away and the eye gaze over the pastoral beauty. Spring is a favorite time for visitors to step into the Skagit ethos. Daffodil and tulip fields are sprinkled in the heart of farm country drawing the young and old to savor the splendor. The deep alluvial soils are turned awaiting their crop. The pulse of the country feeds our soul. Our bodies are awaiting the upcoming season to savor the delicacies of the earth.

Note: Land use planners from around the country attending the national American Planning Association conference in Seattle can visit the Skagit Valley and learn what it takes to Cultivate a Thriving Agricultural Economy. Check out the American Planning Association’s mobile tours for Tuesday, April 21, 2015.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world. 

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