When Steve Nygren talks about how he began Serenbe, a 15-year-old 1,000-acre planned community outside of Atlanta, he speaks about it in humble terms. “I just wanted to save my backyard.” But his backyard, behind a 1905 farmhouse, wasn’t just any backyard; it was acres of untouched forests, farmland, and meadows brimming with flora and fauna. Nygren, his wife, and his daughters often hiked in those woods, taking in the birds, streams, waterfalls, and solitude.
Then came the bulldozers.
One morning, Nygren woke up to dozens of them clearcutting land adjacent to his lot and feared that a new subdivision, filled with the same generic suburban homes seen throughout metro Atlanta, would soon break ground.
“My first impulse was to buy the land in my backyard,” says Nygren, who was a successful hospitality industry businessperson before becoming a developer. “At one point I had 900 acres, but I couldn’t keep showing up at closings. That isn’t enough to save you from urban sprawl.” He knew there was a better way to develop, one that would preserve open space and provide housing, and so he set out to build it himself.
Today, Serenbe is textbook idyllic. Picture corrals with ponies, baby goats, and chickens. Mares and foals running along hills covered in green grass. In spring, dogwoods, blush-pink azaleas, and white hydrangeas that look like perfectly round snowballs are in full bloom everywhere. There’s a 25-acre organic farm that grows vegetables for a local CSA and farmer’s market.
There are still acres of forest and streams meandering through them, but tucked alongside are houses. And lots of them—over 400. They’re far from the tract homes that would have gone up years ago, and sell for significantly more. (Today, Serenbe houses for sale start at about $360,000 and go up to $1.8 million; needless to say, it’s a very wealthy community.)
If you talk to some of Serenbe’s 700 or so residents, as I did when I visited in April for the Biophilic Leadership Summit, they’ll tell you—in the way that people who live in intentional communities often rhapsodize—that they’re happier and healthier than they were in their old homes and couldn’t imagine living elsewhere. It feels very utopian, but Nygren doesn’t see it that way.
“We don’t have places where people connect to nature and to each other,” says Nygren. “Isn’t it sad that when we see something where people are functioning, we think it’s utopia and ask, ‘Is it for real?’ I think that’s a statement for the times we’re in. And it makes me sad.”
Serenbe is an example of biophilic design, a concept rooted in building relationships between humans and nature. Though it’s been around for decades, it is receiving renewed attention as a lens through which more beautiful, healthy, and environmentally sensitive design can be achieved, and as cities look for ways to balance growth and quality of life for all residents.
What is biophilic design?
At its core, biophilic design is about the connection between humans and nature, which goes back to human evolutionary biology. Amid the 1970s environmental movement, social psychologist Erich Fromm coined the word “biophilia,” defining it as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive.” The biologist Edward O. Wilson and late Yale professor of social ecology Stephen Kellert pioneered the concept of biophilic design, arguing that humans feel most comfortable in environments that reproduce the qualities of ancestral human environments.
But biophilia isn’t about copying nature. While biomimicry seeks solutions to human challenges by emulating nature, biophilia fosters connections with nature. Scientific studies have shown links between connections to nature and improved mental health, reduced stress, and physical health, as well as to reductions in crime and violence.
Biophilic design can be applied at virtually any scale, from individual rooms to entire cities. Singapore has been a leader in biophilic urbanism, showing that dense urban environments can include natural systems. In the 1960s, it embarked on plans to transform itself into a “city in a garden.” Today, the city of 5.6 million people includes lush gardens meshed with architecture, like in the recently opened Safdie Architects–designed Changi Airport and the Khoo Teck Puhat Hospital, which uses nature to help patients heal. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater is considered biophilic, as are the Amazon Spheres. A plant shop billing itself as a “biophilic design store” recently opened in Brooklyn. In Atlanta, a “food forest” is improving access to both healthy produce and greenspace for low-income residents.
To help increase awareness about biophilic design, certification programs like the Living Building Challenge are helping designers and architects apply the philosophy to their projects. When Etsy redesigned its headquarters, it did so with biophilic design principles and the Living Building Challenge in mind, incorporating living walls, natural light, and local artwork into the office. And online communities, like the Biophilic Cities Network, are connecting cities around the world to share best practices and research.
Implementing biophilic design involves direct experiences of nature, like exposure to natural light, air, water, plants, and landscapes. Biophilic design can also be indirect, like using images of nature, natural colors, and naturalistic shapes in a space. It’s also about experience, like how much a space connects to the cultural history of place. The Te Kura Whare cultural center in New Zealand embodies this design sensibility, and its form is tied to the ancestral Maori lands upon which it’s built. When done right, biophilic design speaks to the conditions of a specific location—physically, culturally, and even when it comes to policy.
What an intentional community designed around biophilia looks like
Everything in Serenbe is designed around experiencing nature and community. The idea is to get residents outside—and talking to each other. Little design details make this possible: Centralized mailboxes give people more opportunity to run into one another; large front porches encourage residents to say hello to passersby; and there are lots of benches for sitting out in the open. Plus, it’s so beautiful that you want to be outside.
But the major gesture is walkability: There are a number of shops and restaurants residents can visit without having to get in their cars. Most people walk or use electric golf carts. That said, transit connectivity between Serenbe and greater Atlanta is virtually non-existent.
“Serenbe works because of land balance between density and nature,” says Nygren. “And it’s about walkability and having places where you don’t have to go out with your car. You really have the balance of both.”
Serenbe’s streets are meticulously designed to give the impression of villages that grew over time. Most results are picturesque, like the meandering streets, eclectic houses, and walkways lined with trees. Sometimes, though, the results are overwrought, as where fake bricked-up windows give the illusion that the homes have been around for generations.
But the one place that best sums up Serenbe is unassuming: a wood walkway over what looks like a green meadow (and a popular place for high school prom photos). It’s actually a blackwater treatment pond, which naturally filters sewage.
Throughout the community, there are dozens of moves that integrate natural and man-made systems, like swales that collect stormwater instead of routing it into underground pipes. None of these are new concepts, but in many places they’re still perceived as experimental. At Serenbe, such measures are par for the course.
Each of the three neighborhoods that comprise Serenbe are mixed-use and designed around a theme. Selborne is arts-oriented, with rustic metal street lights made by Alabama artisans, a cafe built to LEED Silver specifications, and a playhouse for theatrical performances. Grange is oriented around agriculture and includes restaurants, a bookstore, and general store. Mado, the newest, is oriented around wellness and will have medical offices and assisted-living residences. Its architecture is Scandinavian-inspired and includes steeply pitched roofs and minimal ornamentation. Most of the houses in Serenbe face a street, but have backdoors that face natural spaces, like being on the edge of a forest retreat.
Developing policy to enable biophilic design
At Serenbe, biophilic design surfaces in everything from landscape architecture to land-use planning. The driving principle is conserving as much open space as possible. To come up with new zoning rules that helped achieve this, Nygren spent two years working with over 500 local landowners—some of whom were eager to sell their property to developers and others who didn’t want to see sprawl encroach—and Fulton County leadership, which wanted more development to boost its tax base.
To Nygren, establishing legal groundwork was an essential element of his biophilic approach. “Biophilic design is building in relationships,” he says. “It’s designing and developing in a comprehensive connected way, rather than in silos. Stormwater management, land use, tax policy—they’re all silos with unintended consequences many times. Biophilic design is the connection of those living systems and that’s different for every place.”
In 2002, Serenbe adopted a new land-use plan. It preserves 70 percent of land as agriculturally zoned open space and allows development on the remaining 30 percent through a tool, which had to be authorized by Georgia’s state legislature, called “transfer development rights.” TDRs, as they’re known, separate the right to develop land from the land itself. Conventional zoning would have allowed 30,000 houses to be built on 80 percent of the 40,000 acres that were covered under the new land-use plan. The new model allows 38,000 houses to be constructed on 30 percent of the land. The denser development also means a 60 percent savings on infrastructure. So, more houses were permitted, the tax base for Fulton County has room to grow, open space was preserved, and there are lower infrastructure costs.
“Everyone asks, ‘What is the cost to build environmentally?’ My whole presentation is the savings,” says Nygren. “This makes economic sense, and sense for the environment. There is no way environmental organizations could get ahead of developers to save 70 percent of the land.”
Mainstreaming biophilic design
Serenbe is not without its downsides: It’s still a greenfield project—meaning construction on land that wasn’t previously used for development—in a remote location. Getting from Serenbe to anywhere else in Atlanta requires a car, and the community is targeted to very high-end buyers. Being an exclusive enclave is part of the appeal. By most measures, though, Serenbe is successful. “Wellness real estate,” a category to which Serenbe belongs, is a billion dollar industry. Sustainability is a selling point in high-end developments.
When Nygren embarked on Serenbe in the early 2000s, many of his ideas were highly experimental. He was met with skepticism, but refused to compromise on his core vision: connecting people with nature. Seeing that vision through meant working to change state law and local zoning, and rallying people behind a new product. It’s a lesson for other developers that want to go against the grain: Focus on the impact you can have in your immediate area, improve policy, and, instead of pointing fingers at the problem, propose a better way that will balance interests.
“What’s pushed the environmental movement forward is when corporate America understands the economics behind it,” says Nygren. “The whole purpose of Serenbe was to save the greater area. Our initial success was changing zoning, then the success was that it actually functioned. That we could sell houses. That we could be placemakers and put people on top of the forest.”
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