The Business of Building Utopia
Nestled in Chattahoochee Hills southwest of Atlanta, the Serenbe community is designed to deliver everybody's favorite buzzword: wellness. You can't argue with the gourmet wine dinners, leafy walking trails, and goat yoga, but be aware that Paradise doesn't come cheap.
I’ve heard many strange things from Uber drivers. But this was a new one.
“Are you sure?” she asked, questioning my destination as I hopped into her car at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport one night last fall. “I’ve been driving Uber to and from the airport for five years now, and I’ve only taken someone south twice.” North is the city proper and Atlanta’s endless suburban expanse. South is deep country. The crickets get louder and the sidewalks vanish.
Tucked into Georgia’s remote Chattahoochee Hills, a mere 30 miles from one of America’s biggest urban centers, is Serenbe (pronounced “saren-be”), a 750-resident, 1,400-acre “agrihood” founded in the early 2000s. Billed as a premium-living paradise—in its own literature and in Architectural Digest and O, the Oprah Magazine, among others—it allows residents to connect with nature while surrounded by award-winning architecture. When I arrived, an employee handed me the keys to my lodging and an electric golf cart to use for the duration of my five-day stay. But after a pause she reconsidered. “Maybe I should drive you,” she said, skeptical of my ability to navigate to my temporary home in the dark. We drove by a rustic-chic farmhouse restaurant and down a winding country road, past a stylized rusted-metal signpost displaying the quote “All beauty is an outward expression of inward good.” I found the language pretentious, self-satisfied, and utterly irresistible. Still, I felt a vague sense of panic rising within as we drove through the darkened woods: Where was the award-winning architecture?
Just as my concerns began to peak, we reached Serenbe’s residential area, a fully formed, cleverly constructed community like something out of a Narnian fantasy. Currently divided into three large “hamlets,” the development is a whimsical hodgepodge of more than 300 minimalist-modern homes, townhouses, cottages, and farmhouses. We passed a general store, a florist, a high-end bike-repair shop, a school, and a playhouse before reaching my two-bedroom townhome in the hamlet of Grange. The 1,500-square-foot lodging was nearly three times the size of my New York apartment and had the ambiance of a premium Airbnb, with elegant decor, a library of self-help books, and Serenbe-branded glass water bottles. I stepped out onto the back deck overlooking a wooded expanse and was met with silence; even Serenbe’s dense neighborhoods are free from the sounds of traffic and commerce. Many residents have electric vehicles, and Serenbe rents out golf carts like mine to visitors in an effort to reduce noise pollution. Even during the busy day and evening hours, you can hear a pin drop.
I came to Serenbe to observe the transcendentalist antidote it offers to the modern ills that plague many Americans. In the last several years, I had tried numerous tactics to neutralize the exhausting effects of my fast-paced, exhausting, digital urban life—meditation apps, yoga retreats, limited screen time, knitting, devouring books like Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing. Unplugging had begun to feel like another full-time job.
But at Serenbe, you don’t have to try so hard. A balanced life can be your full-time reality. You can drive 40 minutes to work in the city and return to the community’s idyllic confines in the evening. You can replenish yourself with hyper-local vegetables and woodsy hikes without sacrificing your livelihood or access to cosmopolitan life. In theory it’s heaven. So why was my stay so unsettling?
The following morning, I tried, like other journalists before me, to get my bearings with a tour led by Serenbe’s founder, Steve Nygren. A 74-year-old former restaurateur, Nygren is spry and trim, with a thicket of white hair and a light southern drawl. As Serenbe’s chief spokesman and mascot, he can often be found walking the property with a smile on his face, waving to residents while carrying one of his young grandchildren. Today, Nygren was doing what he often does: explaining this little community to a group—mine consisted primarily of baby boomers who worked in financial services—trying to understand what exactly Serenbe is.
Serenbe is not a gated enclave sealed off from the rest of Georgia. There is no formal application process to live there, only a willingness to sign a lease or hand over a down payment. It’s not a resort, nor is it a cult, a retirement community, or a crunchy commune ruled by dogma. It’s not a smallholding, either, although it does have a 25-acre organic farm and offers a community-supported agriculture program to residents.
Nygren stumbled upon the lush landscape that would eventually become Serenbe in the early 1990s. At the time, he was living in Atlanta with his wife and three daughters, experiencing the numbing bustle of running a constellation of 36 successful restaurants. One weekend, the family took a day trip to the rural farms south of the city, resulting in the impulse purchase of a country home on 60 acres. The open space made Nygren realize that he was ready to get off “the treadmill of life,” as he likes to say. In 1994, he sold his business and moved the family out of Atlanta.
By the late nineties, Nygren decided to create a bed-and-breakfast on the property, bestowing it with the name his wife had coined for their rural escape, Serenbe—a mash of serenity and being. When, in 2000, development threatened to encroach on Serenbe’s surrounding areas, Nygren bought up 600 neighboring acres. He worked with the local government to craft zoning laws to encourage conservation-minded, village-like developments rather than a sea of McMansions.
Unplugging had begun to feel like another full-time job. But at Serenbe, you don’t have to try so hard. A balanced life can be your full-time reality.
“Everybody thought I was this crazy liberal,” Nygren announced to the tour group, reminiscing about Serenbe’s early days in the 2000s, when suburban developments were growing and sustainability was less mainstream. “Now I’ve become a visionary.” He led us deeper into the wooded property, with the sound of roosters echoing in the distance.
Today, Serenbe is a hub of innovation with local, national, and global influence. It currently houses around 750 residents, but the community’s final plans can accommodate roughly 3,500 Serenbe-ites. Now that its first two hamlets, Grange and Selborne, are built and populated, it’s developing Mado, the third of its planned five residential and commercial zones. Serenbe’s population includes intellectuals, workaholics, Hollywood heavyweights, hippies, and politicos on both sides of the aisle. Even with this heterogeneous populace, it strives to facilitate thoughtful conversation, in part by avoiding political messaging in its marketing. When residents meet, they’re more likely to gripe about the recent armadillo invasion than their neighbors.
All this growth has made Nygren a leader in the wellness-community trend. Every year, Serenbe hosts a “placemaking” conference, where developers and urban planners convene for inspiration. Today there are wellness-oriented communities outside Seattle, London, multiple Florida cities, and Tulum, Mexico.
Twenty minutes into the tour, Nygren led our group past the farmhouse that was his original home at Serenbe. The conversation fell on the weather. It was an unusually hot September, even by Georgia standards, which would typically bring out swarms of mosquitoes. But not here, Nygren explained to the group. At Serenbe, where workers don’t use harsh chemicals for landscaping, natural predators keep bugs in check. (I was skeptical, but then again I didn’t see a single mosquito during my stay.)
Serenbe is most frequently described using the phrase new urbanism, a movement to resist suburban sprawl and develop walkable, citylike neighborhoods. But Nygren doesn’t agree with this label, since he claims Serenbe has a stronger environmental focus than new urbanists generally do. The term Nygren likes to use to characterize Serenbe is biophilic, an idea popularized in the eighties by the biologist Edward O. Wilson, who believes that humans have an innate tendency to connect with the natural world. While this thesis seems obvious, tech-addled urban and suburban life has all but suffocated the average American’s connection to nature, causing us to lose out on its benefits. Research suggests that exposure to greener urban spaces can improve mental health, reduce cardiovascular disease and diabetes, boost immunity, and even possibly help patients recover from surgery.
Nature as therapy is the founding principle of biophilic design and, by extension, Serenbe. By developing the Mado hamlet, Serenbe is signaling its focus on health. Perhaps more than anything previously built, it speaks to the bedrock of Serenbe’s promise: wellness. One of its buildings, which houses the gym, the spa, and a suite of offices that will eventually be filled with doctors, nutritionists, and New Age practitioners, displays the slogan that underlies everything Nygren has believed in since he conceived of Serenbe: “Be here, be well.”
As we walked by carefully maintained rows of produce near the farmhouse, Nygren addressed the tour group. “That’s the vegetable garden, designed by Ryan Gainey.”
A developer from North Carolina turned to me. “Do you know who Ryan Gainey is?”
“He was this really eccentric, flamboyant guy who charged to think about your garden—$5,000 just to think about your garden.”
We passed an area described as the animal village, consisting mostly of goats. Nygren pointed in the distance. “They’re doing goat yoga up there. Do you see that? The goats are trained, and the people are trained, and then they put the goat on your back. They walk on your back, and so… It’s a rage. She sells out every class. People come from all over.”
Walking away from the animal village, Nygren talked about a Serenbe employee who had recently become an expert in forest bathing, originally a Japanese practice that involves mindfully engaging with nature. Met with some quizzical looks, he summarized the concept: “Basically, it’s spending quiet time in nature.”
One participant raised his eyebrows and turned to his friend. “So when you were a little kid and you walked around in the woods, you never knew you were forest bathing.”
In the Selborne hamlet, Nygren pointed out the lack of visible garbage cans—all residential waste at Serenbe is disposed of in underground vessels just outside each front door. The main directive to the community’s builders, who must go through a detailed design-review process, is restraint. Large swaths of manicured grass are nowhere to be found, and most cottages must have a front porch that’s at least seven feet wide. “We try to put buildings in a garden, versus gardens around buildings,” Nygren told the group. Occasionally, an Amazon Prime truck would pass by, jolting us back to reality.
To end the excursion, Nygren led the group into Serenbe’s real estate office to distribute paperwork and answer any questions. Like a museum tour that culminates at a gift shop, it was a reminder: utopia is also a business. Nygren continued to reel off Serenbe’s perks. He mentioned that as part of the Mado neighborhood’s wellness efforts, the community has three on-site death doulas to help the elderly. One man from the tour group smiled and turned to Nygren. “When you figure that they’re going to live forever at Serenbe,” he said, “you’ll have to plan for that.”
As a temporary Serenbe resident, I wanted to fully immerse myself in its way of life. I saw a playhouse production (The Sleepy Hollow Experience), did goat yoga (which lived up to my Instagram expectations), took long walks (through a wildflower meadow and a stone labyrinth), and ate plenty of farm-to-table salads (my favorite was the Nordic salmon on mixed greens and haricots verts). On my third day, I signed up for a horseback ride around the property, where our young guide, Emma, highlighted some notable vegetation and explained the temperament of the horses, some of which had not been getting along. I was hoping that fellow riders would be able to share some of the unvarnished realities about living at Serenbe. But, as was true of many of my experiences there, all my cohorts were interlopers from out of town.
I asked Emma how often Serenbe’s residents go on her trail rides. She paused for a moment. “You know,” she said, “I don’t think that I’ve ever given one to a resident. Most of our customers are visitors.” This was the case at goat yoga as well, an activity advertised prominently on Serenbe’s social media. (A portion of the class is dedicated to taking selfies with the goats.) And although Nygren talks profusely about Serenbe’s giant stone labyrinth, I never saw anybody walk through it. The whole place reminded me of New York, where permanent residents rarely willingly visit Times Square or the Statue of Liberty. And like New York, Serenbe relies on the substantial revenue that outsiders provide. Because many people have tried to use the property for photo shoots, there are signs along the trails reminding visitors that shooting commercial photos and video footage are allowed only with a permit. For most, the Serenbe way of life is still only a photo op, a temporary respite.
Living this fantasy full-time can come at a steep cost. Serenbe’s 800-square-foot one-bedroom lofts start at around $275,000, and four-bedroom houses can go for up to $1.8 million, exceeding local home prices many times over. Although some employees rent apartments at Serenbe, its high prices make living there out of reach for others. Atlanta is one of the most diverse cities in the country, but Serenbe feels like a liberal-arts college in New England, touting diversity as an ideal rather than a practice. One major challenge is the lack of well-funded, quality public schools in the area. (Serenbe residents helped launch the Chattahoochee Hills Charter School in 2014, but it’s not large enough to guarantee Serenbe residents spots. There’s currently a long waiting list to attend.)
Still, what can appear as upper-class elitism is rooted in real concerns, at least about our well-being. After years of upward climb, the life expectancy of Americans experienced a troubling dip between 2015 and 2017, influenced in part by rising drug overdoses and suicide, while obesity has skyrocketed. Currently we’re witnessing the emergence of a $4.5 trillion global wellness industry, spurred by lifestyle-obsessed Americans who want to biohack and self-quantify themselves into well-oiled longevity machines.
Serenbe—and its new wellness neighborhood, Mado, in particular—is an outgrowth of these trends. What it offers is more about prevention than remedies, facilitating a wholesome lifestyle aimed at rendering modern health issues irrelevant. “I walk to the CSA and walk back, and I eat vegetables all week long that have never been in a car and were grown by somebody I know,” says Garnie Nygren, Steve Nygren’s daughter and Serenbe’s chief operating officer. Then she told me the story of Cathy Gailey, a middle-aged woman who moved to Serenbe with her husband. When they first arrived, Gailey was told there was a waterfall on the property, but the people she met encouraged her to find it on her own, without guidance, as a means of exploration. Months of walking—and the fresh produce—led her to drop 30 pounds. (When I spoke to Gailey after my visit, she told me that she later gained some of it back when a knee surgery prevented her from taking daily walks.)
Given the financial advantages of its residents, you could argue that Serenbe is likely appealing to the converted, creating a kind of bubble. One tagline used frequently in the wellness industry is “health is wealth,” but the inverse is more true—as a 2017 study in The Lancet puts it, “Low socioeconomic status is one of the strongest predictors of morbidity and premature mortality worldwide.”
I ask Garnie Nygren about my bubble concern. “We’re building a thousand homes, not ten thousand or a million,” she says. “We can’t change everything in the world.” She notes that Serenbe is surrounded by affordable housing in Chattahoochee Hills, with access to all of Serenbe’s stores and nature paths. (And Serenbe’s tax base continues to greatly support various municipal services, including medical facilities and the fire department.) Garnie likens Serenbe’s high-cost premium lifestyle to a Tesla—a luxury product that has helped influence an entire marketplace. “Someone who’s selling houses at a lower price point will look to what we’re doing and say, If I just change this and this, people will buy them,” she says. “They’re aspiring to live in a Serenbe-like community. Like it or not, no one changes the conversation by providing products at a lower price point. That’s just market forces.”
If you spend enough time reading about Serenbe or walking around its properties, you start to believe that it really is a singular, pioneering kind of paradise. But former Chattahoochee Hills councilman Ricky Stephens put it in perspective for me a few months after I visited. Beyond Serenbe’s confines, the region still abides by the agricultural and conservationist principles that Serenbe is known for, just without all of the headline-grabbing quirks and designer elements. “We want to protect the rural life that so many people outside Serenbe have lived their whole life,” he told me. “The area was rural and agricultural before Serenbe ever got here.”
I enjoyed most of my stay at Serenbe. And yet, as I prepared to leave, something seemed off. I couldn’t shake the spooky feeling that it was too pristine, too isolated, and too good to be true. A new Serenbe homeowner named Jessica Jacobson summed up the sensation for me when I spoke to her during my stay: “When we first came out here, I was like, Am I on a set right now? What is happening?”
It was a lazy Sunday afternoon, and Jessica and her husband, Jon, were loafing around a friend’s house, getting ready to watch football. They’d just signed the paperwork on a home in the Mado neighborhood, but Jon could vividly recall the slight skepticism he felt when he first visited a friend who lived there five years earlier. After repeated trips, the skepticism began to fade away. Eventually, the couple didn’t just acclimate to the pace and way of life, they started to crave the much needed respite from their lives and jobs in New York City. “We were returning a wedding gift at Macy’s, and everything was 45 minutes out of the way,” Jon said, recalling one of his frustrations with the city. “How hard is it to return something at Macy’s?”
I constantly experience frustration like this in my own life, which is filled with habits that feel verboten at Serenbe. I order delivery filled with preservatives, I rarely seek out nature, I often drift down the sidewalk in an iPhone haze. I stand on crowded subway platforms awaiting trains that never come and pick through rotting vegetables at the convenience store. I hardly know anything about most of my neighbors, some of whom I share walls with. Yet I still feel connected to the world in a way that might be impossible at Serenbe. I’m in constant, unavoidable dialogue with its grossness and weirdness. After a few days at Serenbe, I realized that, despite its insistence that it’s not a gated community, it felt like one. Maybe I’d feel differently if I spent months or even years there. But right now, the small gestures I make in the name of tranquility in New York City, be it shopping at the farmers’ market, choosing plant-based meals over red meat, or incorporating meditation into my daily routine, bring me greater satisfaction than an all-inclusive ticket to purity.
For their part, Jessica and Jon are not planning to move to Serenbe full-time. Like other homeowners in the community, they’ll visit their new residence on vacations but rent it out most of the year. Right now a permanent shift feels too dramatic. When they told me this, I felt relieved, as if my own life choices were being validated.
This part-time Serenbe existence preserves the tantalizing appeal of escape. “I come back from these weekends so energized,” Jessica explained. “My colleagues are like, What? We want to go.”