The Creepy (and Pretentious?) Sustainable Community of Serenbe

As noted in my last post, HGTV’s 2012 Green Home is located in the bucolic and “sustainable” community of Serenbe, Georgia.  I find the idea of building a “sustainable community” from scratch to be quite intriguing, so I read a bit about Serenbe on HGTV’s site and on the community’s own web page.

An Overview: The 900-acre community is located in one of the “last undeveloped stretches of land in the Atlanta area” and emphasizes “balanced growth, a mix of architectural styles, sustainability and land preservation.”  For stormwater, they use vegetated strips instead of concrete spillways.  They re-use graywater for irrigation.  They have a big community vegetable garden.

Sweet!  Go Serenbe!  It’s all very positive and utopian, right?

So why does the place creep me out so much?  Take a look at these photos from HGTV and see what I mean:

Problems with Serenbe:

1. There appear to be no human occupants.  (Okay, okay I’m sure there are people living there.  I just think it’s funny that the community bills itself as pedestrian-centric, but the only signs of humans in the HGTV pictures are their cars.)

2. The name “Serenbe” comes from a fusion of the words “serenity” and “be”.  Gag me.

3. It looks like the fantasy community of say, Ed Begley, Jr., instead of a real community.  It looks like Disney’s version of sustainability.  It kinda looks like the Hollywood set for “Little House on the Prairie.” Phony, ersatz, precious. 

4. Serenbe’s master plan is based on “English hamlets and villages.”  Since when does being “sustainable” mean being completely hokey?  I am an American!  I refuse to live in a hamlet!  (Though the look they really seem to have achieved is some sorta midwestern frontier town.)

Anyway, it gets weirder.  One part of Serenbe called “The Grange” will soon feature: a “blacksmith’s shop, a glass-blowing studio, weaving center, feed store, tack store, and farm grocer.”

I guess if you’ve always wanted to work as an actor in Colonial Williamsburg, this community is for you.  But what sort of bizarre economy is this place going to have?   Will there be an Arby’s?  A 7-11?

5. It looks too perfect and homogenous.  Okay, I know I’m just being mean to this poor little town that’s just trying to do the right thing.  But seeing these photos made me realize that — just as with people — part of the charm of a community comes from its flaws.  Just like I don’t want to be married to a Stepford-type spouse, I don’t want my town to be too perfect and predictable.  A bit of litter here and there, some dodgy businesses, the odd loiterer on the street corner, it all contributes to a community’s character.

 6. Too many rules (probably).

It’s cool that Serenbe builds smaller houses on smaller lots and has no lawns.

But I’m guessing (because I couldn’t find out for sure) that the restrictions on what you can do with your property in Serenbe are pretty fierce.  What if I did want to plant a bit of lawn?  What if I wanted to park my giant boat on the street and cover it with a blue tarp?  I’m guessing Serenbe would have a big problem with me if I did either one.  I prefer to live in a community where those things are totally allowed and neighbors’ only recourse is to bitch incessantly about it and shoot dirty looks rather than call the HOA. 

7. Who’s being helped by these efforts?  My final thought about Serenbe involves the rather difficult issue of environmental justice.  In its intro to Serenbe, HGTV’s site tells the story of a family that moved from a wealthy neighborhood in Atlanta out to a 60-acre farm in the countryside.  This family, who now runs the farm as a B&B, was instrumental in creating the community of Serenbe.  Apparently, they were alarmed when the area around their farm was threatened by “encroaching development” so they joined with some partners, bought up land, and established an area of 40,000 acres (in which Serenbe resides), 70% of which is protected from development.

Okay, so moving from the city to a huge farmstead sounds great, I’m all for it.  And I know the idea of Serenbe was to create this agrarian-type community that wasn’t just another big splotch of urban sprawl. 

But it just seems inappropriate to wave the sustainability flag with too much enthusiasm when there are so many people living next to sewage plants, so many toxic dumps sited in minority neighborhoods, so many kids who don’t have safe parks to play in…..and you’re boasting about buying up all this land so you don’t have to look at an unsightly strip mall? 

Am I being too hard on Serenbe?  Has anybody actually been there?

Comments

  1. I have been there and the photos here don’t show the lushness of many of the gardens. It really is much better in person.

    • Thank you, Erica. Since you are the only one who’s actually been there, you definitely have a better idea of the atmosphere of the place than the rest of us. I’m happy to hear that it’s more “lush” than the photos indicate.

    • You are an idiot. This is all about Agenda 21. It is pure evil. All about total control of everything, everyone, and no private property, no freedom what so ever!! look up Agenda 21. Go to Democratsagainstagenda21.com and find out for yourself. While you are at it, missy, check out The temple of Understanding, and The Rio Summit garbage 20 years ago. If you want a return of pure hell, Stalin style, just buy into this evil crap. Get a clue

    • I wonder why this guy really hates this community that has went to all the trouble to write this negative stuff about this community ? There is a deeper issue when someone goes to his extent just about a community! who cares! If you dont like it you don’t like it. I am sure alot of people don’t like the way he lives but, why use your energy so so stupidly? I can guarantee there is a reason behind his anger. Learn to use your energies in a positive way who ever you are.

  2. It’s central planning from people who know what’s right for you. It’s what happens when you take spontaneity out of life. It’s the kind of place where they go through your garbage to make sure your recycling. If they see something out of the ordinary you can be sure you’ll be called before the “tribunal” and told to shape up or else…

    • You tell ‘em, Trey. I do think (hope) that there’s something in the American character that will resist these highly controlled communities. Although so many of us already live in cookie-cutter suburbs, maybe I’m wrong about that.

  3. I think you got it right when you said it felt like a movie set. The picture of the storefronts looks like the Universal Studios lot. Cue people.

  4. Glad that you piped up about the lush gardens, Erica, because my initial reaction is Gardens? What gardens? In the first several shots the only plants visible besides the minimal number of left behind trees and a couple of fruit trees stuck in looked more like mis-placed foundation plant evergreens and leftover weed-shrubs – the infamous Lonicera mackii perhaps? – and the last two, although showing front yards (?) with some plantings didn’t do a lot towards changing my initial impression. And what’s the deal with celebrating so much mulch vs any lawn space? While I’m not a big supporter of huge monoculture lawn areas, I do prefer a bit of green over just lots of shredded trees or tires. Maybe I’m just not seeing the big picture here.

  5. Hee, my first reaction upon seeing the pictures was “Where are all the people? Has the zombie apocalypse finally arrived?”

    • I know…I really think they made a mistake showing the community without any people in it. It’s really people that bring a “space” to life. I remember several years ago my husband and I visited the newly revamped waterfront in Wilmington, DE. On the surface, it looked a bit like a mini-Inner Harbor — it had been fixed up to be a lively pedestrian area — but there were no people! It was totally dead. It was a really depressing experience.

  6. A worthy conversation! Too many of the places we live in are dictacted by developers, and there’s little to no dialogue in our country about the spaces we live in.

    I don’t think you’re being too hard on it. I think you’re general critique is one I have for all New Urbanist projects: in embracing traditional forms of architecture, they re-create mini-fantasies. Rem Koolhaas has this great essay, “Whatever Happened to Urbanism,” in which he robustly criticizes New Urbanism. He calls it, “the belated rediscovery of the virtues of the classical city at the moment of their definitive impossibility . . . (they are) making sand castles. Now we swim in the sea that swept them away.” It’s a really great essay that may have launched what is now the major challenge to new urbanism: landscape urbanism. Charles Waldheim at Harvard and James Corner at UPenn are leading advocates of infrastructure-based urbanism. Accept the chaos, they say, control the infrastructure. There are some great online debates between Andres Duany (new urbanism founder) and Charles Waldheim (landscape urbanism champion) online.

    New Urbanism has some great principles: connectivity, density, human-scale architecture, pedestrian focus. The problem is that their forms have been perverted by developers who market these silly nostalgic communities that are creepy, as you say. Plus, they end up not really being connected to larger parts of our cities, but isolated (and sometimes gated) subdivisions off in the exurbs.

    I see the limits of New Urbanism, but I think the critique you made could probably be applied to most suburban areas in our country. Almost any housing that is massed developed by a single company produces banal and sterile places. Maybe brick-fronted, vinyl-sided, garage-in-the-front subdivisions are not pretentious, but that’s because no one even cared to try. I live in a ranch house in Arlington. While my street does not look homogenous now (after 60 years of patina and different owners who have changed the look of the houses), it probably looked pretty much like Levittown in 1951.

    A great post. I’m glad your tackled this one!

    • Here is a link to the short Koolhaas essay on New Urbanism

      http://www.princeclausfund.nl/urbanheroes/abert/texto4.htm

      • Whoah, that is quite a piece. Back in college, I took a course called Urban Geography, which was fascinating. From what I remember, we mostly studied patterns of settlement and development in urban areas…there wasn’t really any critiquing involved, it was pretty much just descriptive. I’m glad I’m not an architect or urban planner, trying to make judgements and attempting to shape the future of cities….what a quagmire.

    • Thank you for this thoughtful and informative response, Thomas. I was only vaguely aware of what “New Urbanism” really was, and had no idea about this other approach called Landscape Urbanism. “Accept the chaos, control the infrastructure”…I am going to have to wrap my head around that one and look up those guys you mention. It sounds like a fascinating debate. Thank you!

  7. This is another intelligent and insightful discussion, Mary G! I haven’t been there, but it reminds me of that Disney planned community, Celebration (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celebration,_Florida), It has the same vibe as The Truman Show, parts of which were filmed in Celebration. I went on the website for Serenbe and could feel my mind being controlled. “There are not the droids we’re looking for…”

    • Yes! Just like Seahaven in The Truman Show! It also reminds me of one of those episodes of the Twilight Zone where there is a nice little town but no people. Oooooooooo….

  8. Felicity Davis says:

    I have been there several times, and have met the developers, etc. Yes, there is a legit case to be made about “rich people going into the country to create an ideal community”, BUT it does show that sustainable development is economically viable and desireable. In an area where there are a lot of naysayers. Also, having that kind of new urbanist example has helped us in neighboring Carroll County in trying to preserve the rural character and agricultural economy. We can tell our county commissioners “We want Serenbe, not Paulding County.”

    • Thanks for your input, Felicity. I’m not familiar with Paulding County, but I’m guessing it is a sea of sprawl like my county, Fairfax. And Fairfax, too, has a neighboring county that has the same mantra as you — Loudoun County, which has until recently been quite rural, is always saying “we don’t want to be another Fairfax” I can certainly understand wanting to preserve the character of your community.

  9. If they really wanted to promote sustainability, urbanism, and eco-friendliness…then how about leaving those last undeveloped 900 acres alone and, by golly, undeveloped! How about revamping a run-down part of town instead? Bulldozing a forest and paving it over, no matter how many “sustainable” practices they employ, is never “green” living.

    • I know what you mean, Julie. My problem is not so much with the fact that they developed the area but more about the “sustainability” hubris that comes along with it.

  10. Stephen Ray says:

    I chuckled after reading the Rem Koolhaas article…would have made just about as much sense if left in the original Dutch. Thomas, if you can succinctly put into a sentence of 25 words or less where he’s coming down on Urbanism vs New Urbanism vs architecture vs let’s-put-our-hands-up-and-walk- into-the-Matrix-because-we’re-all-doomed, I would very much appreciate it. Really Rem, “…a pretext for Nietzschean frivolity,” wow, I’d like a double scoop of that. Just hold all those toppings of pretentiousness. And if he’s arguing against architects creating set-pieces, then just what the heck was his Seattle Public Library?
    I’ve not been to Serenbe, but did spend a long weekend at Seaside, back when Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. was still getting a lot of architectural press over it. Pleasant as a vacation spot or maybe a time-share/second home opportunity, but just a little too much, too cute. Same goes for the Watercolor community next door–felt sort of like that Village from “The Prisoner” only in a tropical setting…”I’m not a number, I’m a free man.” Nevertheless HGTV got me to entry to win their house…could really use the $100K they’re tossing into the prize package.

    • I’m glad you said that about the article, Stephen…I was afraid I was just being dense, so it’s nice to hear that someone actually in the profession thought Mr. Koolhaas was being a tad verbose as well. His critique of “New Urbanism” seemed sound, though, from what I could piece together :o)

  11. You know, one of my favorite television shows as a youngster was about a place just like this. Clean, efficient, with friendly people without a mean bone in their bodies. The opening credits always ended with Patrick McGoohan yelling “I am not a number! I am a free man!”

  12. You never fail to say exactly what I would think if I had blogged about said topic first (only you’re about 500 times better at saying it in ways that don’t come off as arrogant and abrasive). I don’t think I could handle living in a place like this…the north shore of Chicago is sterile enough, this is just absurd!

    • My neighborhood is pretty bland, too, Tom, at least aesthetically. There is one woman who has a big tacky vegetable garden in her front yard, and another that always has about six dumpy cars in the drive, and I actually enjoy walking by their houses because at least there’s something to look at.

  13. Desert Dweller says:

    Interesting. I can see good and bad in the place, and I’ve seen worse. But that said, it is a bit programmed, cheesy, etc. I would like to see not only economically viable “green development”, but for the average joes like me, not just “the other half”…I.E. middle class to lower income class.

    A creepy, made-for-TV movie called The Colony comes to mind…it was based on a real gated community in Orange County CA, complete with monitoring of conversations. I also see shades of the Truman Show, partly filmed at Seaside near Destin FL, though that subdivision and Watercolor nearby are actually well-done, not too over-done. But Verrado outside Phoenix really creeped out some of our group on a tour, since it was not a movie, but right there to see…uber-programmed to a fault.

    Like you, I hope the American spirit comes out there, but as some would say, we have the right to live elsewhere, too. A right I’ll exercise, even if I had the $$!

    • David, I actually find it difficult to believe that so many Americans are willing to live in places with strict HOA’s…seems so counter to our individualism. I guess they’re sort of hard to avoid, but my husband and I chose our current house partly because the neighborhood has no HOA.

      • Us, too: husband and I bought our little Cape Cod in Falls Church in a community built in 1948, no HOAs, but a few remaining widows who moved in with their spouses when the houses were first built. I think part of the problem is that people have been convinced that they should get “as much house as they can get” for the money, which generally means McMansions in newer developments, which generally means HOAs. When did it become so important to own so many large rooms??

  14. Creepy indeed. I’m always hesitant about places like this. I’ve read too many dystopian novels to ever think a pre-fabricated wonderland will ever be anything more than plastic.

    I do look forward to having time to read the Rem Koolhaas piece. When I was in college, I worked for several architects who did some work for OMA and they regarded Koolhaas very highly.

  15. I’m a little late to the table but echo the concerns here though you do really have to visit a place to be sure. So if you want to visit a “real neighborhood” with planted tree strips and wonderful front yard gardens and very few rules I invite you to visit the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul. I had the express joy of living for two years in the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis. The city was designed so that no dwelling is more than six blocks from a park. The result are many, many unique and fantastic neighborhoods each with their own culture. It is the real deal and proof that it can happen.
    Have to run. Thanks for this post. Just wanted to let all know that there are such places for real!

    • I have heard great things about the Twin Cities, Linda. I don’t think I could deal with the winters up there, but otherwise the neighborhoods you describe sound fantastic. Thanks for chiming in.

  16. I remember a customer that had moved to the “countryside” for its wide open spaces and to get away from the dictatorial atmosphere of an HOA community. She built her Martha Stewart dream home on fifty acres and contacted me to come up with a plan for the foundation landscape. On the way in I passed trailers, yards with chckens and sofas, and still smoking burn-barrels from burning the previous weeks trash (red neck fire pit). Halfway through the meeting she started to complain about the “scenery” that I had passed and I reminded her of why she had moved out to the “country”. Maybe she’s purchasing the countryside right now to create her own SERENBE. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Out to the burn barrel…..

  17. Lucie Martin says:

    While there are some aspects of this type of development that I applaud, (70% conservation land, greywater harvesting, etc) I wonder about that “reuse” part of sustainability. What about buildings that are setting vacant because they are in less than desirable areas? There is also the feeling of being “nowhere”. Where is the vernacular architecture and the sense of place?

  18. I am no landscape professional, but what happens when they get a good rain? Are they not already experiencing erosion problems?

  19. Interiors Girl says:

    For all of you who haven’t been to Serenbe, you are judging it unfairly. The community has a small town rural feel, which is what was intended. It is not supposed to have painstakingly manicured gardens, but more so the feel of natural foliage on untouched land. On the weekends the fresh market is full of residents and visitors to the community. The programs that have been installed here have prevented it from becoming just a dream. And yes Mary, you are being way too hard. Pictures don’t do it justice, so I suggest you get down to Serenbe before passing anymore judgement

    • I knew it was only a matter of time before a Serenbe defender emerged…I really wasn’t passing judgment on the gardens or anything….more just the contrived look of the place based on what I saw in the pictures. If there are lots of happy people living there and visiting, that is certainly a good thing — people are really the key to the spirit of a community after all. I actually have relatives who live in Atlanta so maybe one day I’ll drive out there and take a first hand look at the place. Thanks for your perspective.

  20. My two cents: I’d probably move there if I won.

    For the question of ‘Are there actual people living there or has the zombie apocalypse happened?’ here’s a Serenbe community site with community event pictures from 4th of July, Halloween, etc.:

    http://www.serenbecommunity.com/photos.html

    They look like pretty real people to me — even if the place they’re living sometimes rings a bit fake. Lots of kids and families, it looks like.

  21. I think if you have an issue, keep it to yourself and don’t enter. No one is forcing you to. HGTV is being great to many families who win the homes/cash prizes/vehicles. They are under no obligation to remain in the home nor does anyone force them to mail or email their entry.

    • What I am curious about is the diversity in this community. I get the impression that although they are trying to establish a natural and serene enviorment, what are the real attitudes of the people of Serenbe? I wonder if they would be accepting to a diverse population? When I was viewing the pictures, the people of serenbe seemed pretty flat. I enjoy living in a culturally diverse population. I like teaching my children there is so much to embrace in this world, and we dont live in a protective monotone bubble.We live life.

      • Thank you for saying this. I scrolled through two photo albums and my over all impression was upper and upper middle class white folk with a few “tokens” thrown in. And thank you, too, for the original article. As I read about the community and looked at the pictures, all I could think of was Stepford Wives. Since I also have friends and relatives in Atlanta, and only live about 5 hours away, I might try to visit this community. I don’t think I’d like to live there, though.

  22. denimdiamond says:

    Ive been to Serenbe community quite a few times.Let me just tell you I respect everyones opinions but you were to quick to judge. The few pics you posted were only a small percent of the life and the story you told was less than a small amount of what the serenbe community has to offer. I think you are 2 quick to judge here and if you actually visited serenbe, it is a very laid back atmosphere. There are many children in the neighborhood. Even part of the land is being donated to a charter school. Most of it’s students will be under served and minority population just living in the surrounding communities also on, reduced price lunches, serenbe donating the land is giving these kids opportunities and new way to live and learn. The drive ways here are gravel drives not paved, you may have wealthy people living there but they are continuing day after day to make every holiday an event to raise money for non-profits in the outlying community surrounding serenbe. When you visit the people are friendly, they are in there casual blue jeans, they are driving dirty cars becasuse lots of local roads are dirt roads. There kids are not glued to technology, there actually outside playing, skipping rocks on the lake and fishing in the pond across the street. They have pot belly pigs in fences and goats as you drive the main drag in Serenbe, Horse pastures and a barn with the grass very high and needs to cut in some places.Serenbe is just a subdivision or community, it’s not a city. There is no such thing as Sernebe, GA. HGTV got that wrong. Serenbe is located in and part of the city of Chattahoochee Hills, GA. The 70% of greenspace is located in the whole city. Also Yes there are parks and mills and horse riding trails in serenbe and the surronding community. It’s probably not uncommon to smell manure from the organic farming and equestrian stables in serenbe and the livestock cattle and sheep farms just minutes outside of serenbe. Also, Serenbe has parks and Chattahoochee Hills has parks. They also have Cochran Mill Nature Center with wildlife, reptiles, birds, deer, and fishing & 2 Parks owned by the city and one with in walking distance for some people.Chattahoochee Hills is a new city est. in Dec. 2007 in Fulton County the only rural space left IN Atlanta. You should visit Serenbe before passing this judgment because you are only getting a small part of the story from HGTV. There is more to it. You really must visit to appreciate it. You really have it oh so wrong.

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