It’s noon on a Thursday and Steve Nygren is holding court at the Blue Eyed Daisy, the bustling coffee shop within a town that he envisioned and carved out of the Georgia countryside. “For the past four decades, we’ve been building places for people to merely exist, not to thrive,” Nygren tells me, between bites of a BLT made with organic tomatoes grown at a farm he started a mile down the road. On his knee, he balances his placid grandson, Amos, who is also homegrown; Nygren’s three daughters all live within walking distance of their parents. All three women (and two of their husbands) work for the family business: realizing the community of Serenbe, the Nygrens’ bid to redeem suburbia.
In more than a decade of urban dwelling, I have rarely been tempted by life outside the confines of Manhattan, but after hearing about Serenbe a few months ago, I have to admit that the idea of the place lingered with me. Nygren’s vision for a new kind of community that combines the best aspects of city living with the wholesomeness of the countryside spoke to many of the frustrations I’ve felt while raising two small boys in our full-throttle urban environment. At Serenbe, I learned, you could grab a cappuccino before swinging by the local farm to see how the arugula is coming on, and jog along springy, pine-scented forest trails on your way to attend an open-air production of Macbeth—all within a mile or so of your craftsman-style, certified green home. Where had this been all my life?
Apparently, I am not alone in that sentiment. Serenbe is one of a growing number of so-called “agrihoods”—also called farm-to-table communities or conservation communities—popping up across America, their most salient common feature being a working farm integrated into a residential development. Although the category barely existed a decade ago, the Urban Land Institute, a real estate development think tank, estimates that there are now a couple dozen agrihoods up and running, with as many as 100 more in planning stages. They vary in size and opulence, but in addition to the farm component, recurring features tend to include sustainable building practices, houses with deep front porches to increase interaction between neighbors, running trails and shaded sidewalks to encourage exploration on foot, and edible landscaping, like blueberry bushes and clusters of herbs, to inspire interaction with the natural world. Some are built on historic farmland; many, like Serenbe, have their own independent schools, restaurants and shopping districts built right into the fabric of the community.
Each agrihood has its own unique offerings, as I learned after many hours on the internet. South Village in Burlington, Vermont, has devoted an acre to solar panels, which generate power for the community and farm, while Hidden Springs in Boise, Idaho, has a saltwater swimming pool. Prairie Crossing in Grayslake, Illinois, has stables for residents to keep horses within walking distance of their homes—a major plus—although it’s tough to beat the sheer size of Willowsford, a 4,000-acre agrihood in Loudon County, Virginia, where amenities include a 300-acre farm and full-time “lifestyle team” that coordinates cooking and fitness classes, mountain bike races, outdoor concerts, and movie nights. Then there is the newly announced enclave of Walden at Monterey, which enables would-be Thoreaus to live among hundred-year-old oaks with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean … if they can afford the $5 million price tag for a plot of land. A slightly more earthbound option is Agritopia in Arizona, where a farm store operates on the honor system every day for residents to buy produce from the community’s 11-acre organic farm, including honey and prized medjool dates. “Imagine a world where you know your neighbors and they know you,” reads the Agritopia website. “Imagine a barrier-free lifestyle, where low fences encourage small talk, porches welcome lounging, parks promote playtime, and shady sidewalks connect your home to schools, gardens, restaurants and shops. A slower pace. A shared life. A connected existence.” Where do I sign?
“WE’RE ABOUT to enter the community now, and you’ll see that there are no gates or barriers, and we transition gradually from nature toward the center of town.” One warm October day, a Serenbe-appointed tour guide chauffeured me by golf cart down a narrow, paved lane that seemed to connect the main highway to nothing but grassy meadows and dense pine forest. Suddenly, a few houses materialized through the trees, and then the neighborhood of Selborne came into view, like Brigadoon: a main street in the middle of nowhere, lined with immaculate cottages and shops with big gleaming, plate-glass windows.
I chose to visit Serenbe—a somewhat ungainly portmanteau of serenity and be—because it was one of the earliest examples of an agrihood, and it is also one of the most ideological. Selborne is the oldest of its three neighborhoods, all of which take inspiration in their planning from historic English hamlets—“They predate the car,” Nygren reminded me—by centering on a dense commercial and residential main street that gives way to townhouses, and then detached homes, and beyond that farmland, forests and meadows. Instead of their own grassy yards, Serenbe residents have shared playgrounds, tennis courts, dog parks and lakes, all the better to encourage connections with one another and nature. Each neighborhood has a topical focus—the arts, agriculture, health and wellness—that is represented in the amenities and institutions it houses. All are laid out in an omega shape (i.e., a horseshoe), which, according to the principles of sacred geometry, “holds energy.”
Serenbe’s origin story goes something like this: A decade after moving his family to a farmhouse outside Atlanta in the early 1990s, Steve Nygren saw some bulldozers arrive nearby and had an epiphany. Conventional development had given rise to vast, sterile housing subdivisions and strip malls, urban sprawl that obliterates not only the natural landscape but also the sense of community that results from living in proximity to your neighbors and interacting with your environment primarily on foot. So Nygren bought up 1,000 acres of untouched forest behind his farmhouse and started building a new kind of town with the potential to reconnect humans to nature—and to one another—through the power of better urban planning.
Thirteen years after he broke ground, the community has grown to encompass over 250 residences, with a thousand more planned. Local businesses now include a spa, a bicycle shop, an independent bookstore and an impeccably merchandised high-end pet supply shop. Serenbe’s 25-acre organic farm produces more than enough fruits and vegetables to fill over one hundred CSA subscriptions, and supplies Serenbe’s farmers market and its three local restaurants. There is an inn that hosts conferences and weddings, a Montessori school and a professional theater company in residence. There is also a whole lot of pristine forest, crisscrossed with running trails and dotted with benches perfect for silent reflection. Early in the planning process, Nygren appealed to local government to have Serenbe and the surrounding 40,000 acres rezoned so that 70 percent of the land would remain undeveloped in perpetuity.
During my stay, I spoke to several residents, most of whom had moved to Serenbe from Atlanta or the surrounding towns. A common feature of their stories involved a desire to leave behind something conventional—suburbs, medicine, careers, processed food—and to connect with the progressive spirit of Serenbe. Many residents work from home. Several mentioned having sold their cars—practically unheard of in suburban Georgia—in favor of golf carts to move around the property and Zipcars for emergency trips to the big grocery store 20 minutes away. The importance of community and connection came up a lot, as did the topic of raising healthy families. “My kids eat kale right out of the ground, like candy,” one resident told me, before suggesting an essential oil regimen to cure my chronic ear infections.
MASTER-PLANNED communities—a designation given to towns or neighborhoods planned and developed by a single entity, rather than grown haphazardly over time—date back to the Victorian era. One of the earliest examples is Riverside, a suburb of Chicago planned by the renowned landscape architects Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted to include winding, scenic roads and an unusually large number of parks and forested glades, lending the neighborhood bucolic character. At the turn of the 20th century, Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City Movement called for small towns surrounded by “greenbelts” that would combine the best of the city and the countryside. Then there’s Fordlandia. In 1928, Henry Ford set out to build a Utopian village alongside a proposed rubber plantation in the Amazon basin, complete with clapboard cottages, swimming pools and a movie theater, with the goal of imparting Midwestern values to Brazilians. The ill-conceived experiment in social engineering was plagued from the start by workers’ revolts and agricultural failures and was ultimately abandoned, then swallowed up by the jungle.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that master-planned communities really exploded across the American South and West with the advent of the golf community. Rising land values encouraged developers to build houses as densely as possible, and they realized that providing common amenities such as tennis courts, ponds and golf courses would allow them to charge homebuyers a substantial premium (it is the inclusion of recreational amenities like these that tends to distinguish a master-planned community from a simple housing subdivision).
Agrihoods would seem to be a reaction against these sorts of residential plans, with their cookie-cutter houses and disconnection from both nature and commerce; looked at another way, though, they might be regarded simply as an evolution of the luxury development, repackaged for changing tastes and values. Ed McMahon, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute, told me that research he conducted a decade ago showed that the vast majority of buyers in golf communities did not play golf. “They were living there for the view across the fairway,” McMahon said. “That was the aha moment. What does it cost to build and maintain a golf course? Millions. So what if you could build a golf community without a golf course?”
The agrihood, as it turns out, is more appealing to developers than it might seem. In a conservation development, McMahon explained, a developer might start out with 100 acres of land, and instead of building on 100 one-acre lots, they leave 50 acres untouched and develop 100 half-acre lots. “That reduces cost because road links are shorter, sewer links are shorter. Plus, it helps preserve rural character.” The agrihood concept can help developers persuade farmers who are torn between preserving their land and cashing in on it. With an agrihood, farmers can do both. While older conservation communities like Prairie Crossing, South Village and Serenbe were created as a way to keep development firms at bay, most of the newer iterations (including the Cannery, Rancho Mission Viejo, Willowsford and Bucking Horse Ranch) have actually been spearheaded by them.
A POTENTIAL agrihood resident—or the merely agri-curious, like me—might end up grappling with plenty of questions as these communities come into closer focus. For instance, how many well-to-do Americans truly have it in them to live up close to farming? Although the aesthetics of rural life are very much in vogue—how many weddings have you been to that involve a barn or hay bales or mason jars?—not since the Paleolithic era has a smaller percentage of the human population been involved in the actual cultivation of food, and the realities of farm life aren’t always as picture-perfect as anticipated. Serenbe’s farmer told me that one of the reasons he didn’t graze pigs on the property is that neighbors might see them as an eyesore. In a story recounted to me about Prairie Crossing, in Illinois, one of the community’s young residents asked the farmer what happened to the chickens when they stopped laying eggs. The child’s mother quickly covered her ears, not wanting the little girl to hear what was coming.
Another question is how fully agrihoods’ sought-after rustic, authentic feel can be realized in a ground-up development. Master planning has the benefit of generating thoughtful, purposeful environments, but it also creates a homogeneity that can feel unsettling. Serenbe’s planners are clearly sensitive to this. Structures there are built in a range of architectural styles carefully selected to hang together harmoniously, without producing the visual monotony associated with housing developments; landscaping makes use of native plants for a naturalistic effect. Still, though, the uniform tidiness and tastefulness of every single thing became a little oppressive as time went on. I found myself missing my New York City neighborhood, where a stylish bistro can be flanked by laundromats and bodegas, and gleaming condo buildings share the street with ramshackle townhouses. Sure, the closest thing we get to edible landscaping is takeout containers discarded as litter, but the place has spirit and authenticity in spades.
One more looming question for the progressive-minded is this: Beyond the benefits that agrihoods offer to their own residents, what is the impact to the larger region of concentrating wealth into such a closed system? Andrew Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, confronted these issues when he lived in (and subsequently wrote a book about) the master-planned community of Celebration, Florida. “These communities have a lot of resources for the people who buy in, and if they are used only to make the residents happier and more cohesive, it’s the worst kind of enclave sensibility,” he told me. “The question I always asked is How can these resources be shared?”
Sure, the farms may not reflect the unvarnished realities of agriculture in America, but they direct public attention to sustainable food production and provide local food. And while the homeowners could be said to have secluded themselves into a socioeconomic bubble, the reality is that most housing options segregate people in this way, with or without the attendant focus on conservation and healthier lifestyles. A growing body of research suggests that community engagement and connection to the natural world really do drive long-term improvements in health and happiness. Given this, maybe the best question to ask about a place like Serenbe is whether it supports these values more fully than wherever else its residents might have lived—in a lifeless subdivision, maybe, or a golf community, with its acres of water-hungry fairways. I’d take the farm any day.