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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An Agricultural-Residential Development Solution

Local produce heaven is now… asparagus, strawberries, cherries, snap peas; followed by string beans, cucumbers, basil, tomatoes, peaches; culminating with apples, corn, winter squash. What would make every food summer more perfect? Living in a community that grows, savors, entertains, and surrounds itself with good food. A weekly trip to a local farmers’ market or attempting to grow my favorite foods on a city lot are just not enough.

Happy Chickens at Sandhill Family Farms

Happy Chickens at Sandhill Family Farms

Our country began as an agrarian society, but with industrialization, rural towns lost population and families moved away from living adjacent to where their sustenance grew. Larger farms and companies, such as Dole, Kellogg, and Kraft now grow, store, process and supply most of the food we eat. King County residents eat $6 billion of food every year with only 2% or $120 million of agricultural products grown in county. Non-profits, governments, farmers, and consumers are working to strengthen the food system so a greater percentage of our food economy is local. Purchasing and consuming local products taste better because the food has traveled fewer miles and is therefore fresher. Keeping food production local, adds jobs. Rural landscapes stay bucolic rather than being punctuated with houses and strip malls. Much work needs to be done to re-integrate food production into people’s lives, to strengthen the local food market, and to increase market share of regionally grown products. What is another option to re-connect people with their food?

A New Community Development Solution

A new type of neighborhood is cropping up in the United States that includes food production, as a facet or even a centerpiece of a development project. There are foodies that want to live adjacent to where their sustenance is grown and are willing to pay a premium to live in these new projects. Good design is a necessity to minimize the inconveniences of odors, noises, and other activities of life adjacent to a farm. Except for Skokomish Farms with 40-acre lot sizes located 33 miles northwest of Olympia, Washington in a rural area of the state, an agricultural-residential project has not been built in Washington. The Puget Sound region is ripe to create a development that integrates farming with intergenerational living, attention to the natural environment, and green homes with good value.

Why is this type of development model needed? With a 2.8% growth rate over a one-year period ending July 1, 2013 (3), Seattle is the fastest growing big city in the nation adding 18,000 new residents and 15,000 new jobs. At the same time apartment buildings and micro-unit apartment structures, also known as apodments, have sprouted throughout the city creating dense neighborhoods and a true in-city living experience. Not only did Seattle grow, but concurrently the rest of the Puget Sound region increased by more than 44,000 new people. Combined the entire region grew by 62,000 people or the equivalent of the city of Marysville located in Snohomish County. King, Snohomish, and Thurston counties had growth rates of more than 1% during the same time. Noticeably, 30% of the new Puget Sound residents moved into Seattle, while the remainder moved elsewhere in the region. This suggests there is demand and desire to still live in less-dense communities, where housing is more affordable or perhaps to just be outside an urban environment. With surging population, undeveloped land is under pressure for conversion to its “highest and best use” in appraised value, which is development.

Lettuce Growing in November at Sandhill Family Farms at Prairie Crossing

Lettuce Growing in November at Sandhill Family Farms at Prairie Crossing

Simultaneously, the US Department of Agriculture’s 2012 quinquennial agricultural survey was released, documenting trends in the local farm economy. Surprisingly and perhaps worrisome is the shrinking average and median farm size over the last 15 years. Kitsap County’s average farm size dropped 74% from a high of 53 acres in 1997 to 14 acres by 2012, while the median farm size dropped during the same period from 11 acres to 6 acres.(4) Skagit County has made significant strides, by increasing the number of farms by 50%, but even so, average individual farm acreage dropped 24% to 99 acres and median farm size fell 53% to 20 acres in the same 15 year period.  Almost all the Puget Sound counties now have median farm acreage of 10 acres or less, except Whatcom at 16 acres and Skagit at 20 acres. During the recent recession, all of the counties analyzed saw median farm size drop. The historical decline in total farmland actually slowed in the last 5 years, but there was still a net loss in farmed acreage, too.

Nonetheless with increasing population and decreasing farm sizes, farmland is still highly threatened, so perhaps now is the time to test a new model that re-integrates food production into people’s lives and protects some farmland in perpetuity.

The agricultural-residential development is a solution for an under-utilized property, such as an old golf course, a former farm in an incorporated city, or fertile ground in an urban-growth area that is destined for development. Obviously, the governing jurisdiction would need development codes that allow farming in a residential project.

Homes, cottages, townhouses, perhaps some commercial development could be built adjacent to a farm that is protected in perpetuity. The farm needs to be large enough to be commercially viable and support a livable income. The farmer would run a business that would sell to both the residents but also outside customers. A symbiotic relationship between grower and eaters would ensue.

Unfinished Home Adjacent to Serenbe Farms, Georgia

Unfinished Home Adjacent to Serenbe Farms, Georgia

What else should this type of project include? What should be the minimum farm acreage? What protections should be incorporated into a homeowners agreements to ensure that a farmer can do his/her job without nuisance complaints from neighbors? What should the buffers be between the farm ground and residential units? Should the project include a restaurant featuring the farm’s products? Should there be any restrictions on what should be farmed? Animals? Produce? Organic vs. non-organic? What other amenities are important? What other questions need to be asked?

Across the country agricultural-residential communities are sprouting including Sandhill Family Farms at Prairie Crossing and Serenbe Farms. Each has its own characteristics and community. By living in an agricultural community, the pulse of the growing season will resonate throughout the lives of the families that call the farm home.

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.  Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world. 

Notes: 

1)1997 Population Data Used: Table CO-EST 2001-12-53-Time Series of Washington Intercensal Population Estimates by County: April 1, 1990 to April 1, 2000, Source: Population Division, U.S. Census Bureau, Release Date: April 17, 2002.

2) 2002 & 2007 Population Data Used: Table 1: Annual Estimates of the Population for Counties of Washington: April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2007 (CO-EST2007-01-53), Source: Population Division, U.S. Census Bureau, Release Date: March 20, 2008.

3) 2012 & 2013 Population Data Used: Estimates of Resident Population Change and Rankings: July 1, 2012 to July 1, 2013, Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division, Release Date: March 2014.

3) 1997, 2002, 2007, 2012 Agricultural Data: US Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture, Table 1: County Summary Highlights for 1997, 2002, 2007, & 2012 respectively.

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