Exploring Community: A Look at Serenbe

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Serenbe: Rural Based New Urbanism

I met Richard Louv in Huntington Beach, California in 2006. He was discussing his then new book, Last Child In the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.  We were in a general discussion of agriculture replacing golf as the amenity impetus for future community development and the need to connect to nature as part of your daily experience. His book resonated with me, becoming part of my canon on what should be the products of our community leadership.

With my upcoming project to reimagine Hot Springs Village in Arkansas looming, I was rereading Louv’s 2011 book The Nature Principal and was intrigued by his description of Serenbe as a “restorative” community.  At first glance this community just SW of Atlanta is a mixture of conservation community ala Randall Arendt and New Urbanism principals of the CNU. It fits in that mold as seventy percent of the open space is preserved, homes are in higher density concentrations, and the community is designed to be pedestrian oriented. As my passion is creating  places where conservation, creativity, and gentleness can thrive, I decided to spend a couple of days in Serenbe.  This was a great experience.

One of my favorite poets is the late Irish mystic John O’Donohue. Much of his poetry pertained to connection to place, landscape and how the natural environment is part of our being.  Shortly before his death in 2008, he discussed our interface with the built environment saying “an awful lot of urban planning particularly in poor areas has doubly impoverished the poor by the ugliness which surrounds them. And it’s understandable that it is so difficult to reach and sustain gentleness there.” In my earlier “Community Builder or Consumer” post, I wrote “Community must be defined as collection of human relationships rather than as a defined real estate space.”  With that being my goal, creating a space where thoughtful living flourishes must be in the forefront.  The Serenbe community is showing what that type of space can look like.

Serenbe connects you to nature and people in a gentle but intimate manner.  You can feel the intentionality to design on the scale of the individual.  This allows you attunement to the landscape you traverse. I believe that your attention subconsciously adjusts to the ambient level of opportunity for natural and interpersonal connection.  This is why people maintain a closed off protective shell to ward off the harshness of daily life in many places. Serenbe has created the environment that makes us forget that shell.  Rather than being on guard, you feel connected to those around you and are pulled into conversations.  You begin to notice detail in nature and craftsmanship.  The quality of place, both natural and built, shines through.  Ashley, my wife, continually referred to Serenbe as thoughtful.  Both in how specific values permeate the community and how it fosters attunement to nature.

Without the connection to nature we lose the rhythms and understanding necessary for thoughtful living. We take our natural environment for granted and do not see the interconnectivity of systems as basic as getting our food.  Serenbe fosters an understanding that the world around us is teaming with interconnections and relationships.  O’Donohue said “it makes a huge difference when you wake in the morning and come out of your house. Whether you believe you are walking into dead geographical location, which is used to get to a destination, or whether you are emerging out into a landscape that is just as much, if not more, alive as you but in a totally different form. And if you go towards it with an open heart and a real watchful reverence, that you will be absolutely amazed at what it will reveal to you. And I think that was one of the recognitions of the Celtic imagination: that landscape wasn’t just matter, but that it was actually alive. What amazes me about landscape, landscape recalls you into a mindful mode of stillness, solitude, and silence where you can truly receive time.”

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Fine Grain Planning Creates Spaces of Value

Ester Sternberg, Director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, in her book Healing Places: The Science of Place and Wellbeing cites several studies on the benefits of the interfacing with natural environment.  One, environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich’s Hospital Window Study, clearly showed the impact of the natural quality of place on wellbeing.  Simply put, surgery patients recovered quicker and with less pain in rooms with a view of nature than those with a view of parking lots and brick walls.  As in Louv’s description of Serenbe, the interface of the natural and built environments can be restorative.

My personal theory takes this a bit further.  If visiting a unique environment, fostered by places like Serenbe, is restorative, living there on an ongoing basis must be preventative and preparatory for ongoing wellbeing.  I feel that walking out on our farm in the morning before entering the world of screens, phones and meetings.  Where we live is one of our most important decisions.  Can I thrive here?  I want my chosen quality of place to be the primary impetus for thoughtful physical and spiritual growth. If it is not, I did not choose well.

“The human soul does not merely hunger for beauty, John O’Donohue believed; we feel most alive in the presence of what is beautiful. It returns us often in fleeting but sustaining moments, he said, to our highest selves. And a neglect of beauty, he believed, is at the heart of our deepest modern crises.” Krista Tippet, talking about John O’Donohue for “On Being.”

Visit Serenbe.  As a community leader, look at the websites, serenbecommunity.com and proudgreenhome.com and see how this can be implemented in your community.  There are many scales on which these concepts can be implemented. As Steve Nygren, founder of Serenbe, put it in an interview with MNN, they focus on “developing in relationship with nature rather than imposing what we are doing on nature.” It is a new look at a very old model of community.  From homes, wastewater treatment and storm water systems to livable design and human scale planning; Serenbe is informed by quality of place and intelligent policy.

With all my planning nerdery aside, there are rare places you can profoundly feel community, wellbeing, and connectivity to the environment.  Serenbe is one of these places.

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Community Builder or Consumer – David Twiggs

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To build an extraordinary destination community, we must realize our residents and visitors want to belong to a community rather than simply be a consumer.  We must create the seeds for citizenship.  We are often faced with a culture of community consumers not a group of contributing citizen community builders.

I spent 18 years living and working in the North Carolina High Country in the Blowing Rock, Beech Mountain and Linville triangle.  In this area, there was a proliferation of communities being built to meet the in migration, second home and rental housing demand.  Many of these were very well done creating a community personality that added to the cultural richness of the community.  While these were clearly defined areas they were relatively porous allowing exchange of communication, ideas, and commonality.   These communities were generally considered to be good engaged neighbors.

Other communities developed into isolationist monocultures that were generally considered unwelcome even after many years of existence.  These fostered the” Us vs. Them” mentality.  While they were successful real estate development projects in that they sold through and made the developer a lot of money.  They were not necessarily successful in adding to the long-term health of the larger community.

Consumers are like investors in a stock.  As long as the community is thriving, they receive their dividends in the form of quantity of amenity per dollar paid in taxes, dues, or fees and in increased property values when they decide to sell their investment.  Just like in stocks, owners change on a daily basis. If their dividends are not what they expect, they sell the investment. Since a community’s major dividend has been the lifestyle and perceived quality of life, the same dividend may leave one investor unimpressed while going beyond another’s expectations. A community cannot be all things to all people. It must enhance its unique qualities and values and seek those to whom the lifestyle resonates.  The one constant is that the people will eventually change.  With this come two schools of thought.

The American zeitgeist on what is considered of value is now shifting towards a citizenship point if view.  In response, we had better set up policies, governance and traditions that foster the unique authentic value in our community.  While enhancing and preserving, we also must celebrate individualism within that framework.

From a consumer point of view, there had better be something to attract the next purchaser for their business, home or property; the next “investor.”  While recent years has seen a decline in the investor mentality as a primary motivator for choosing real estate purchases, the change model holds true.  It is the value proposition that has changed.  People are looking for authentic lifestyle and an atmosphere that helps them become a contributing part of the community.

The mindset of a destination community being simply a marketable amenity delivery system has to change if a community is to thrive. In funding new development, the purchase and flip investor mentality made pre-construction sales to investors a reliable funding option until about 2008.  This has changed particularly if a destination wants to attract in migration in the second home and retirement markets.  We are now focused on an end user, a citizen, which is much more concerned with the authentic community values than the marketability of the real estate in the future.

Community must be defined as collection of human relationships rather than as a defined real estate space.  Many of the early pioneer destination communities were built with these more humanistic goals in mind.  In the 90’s and 00’s, many designs strayed for these values.  Creating fortified islands of monoculture did much harm to the traditional meaning of community.  The truly extraordinary places designed the governance structure to add value and enhance the region’s authentic nature.  This goes beyond the physical design of the neighborhoods.  There are many extraordinary places that have technical design issues that they continue to deal with as knowledge on neighborhood and civic space design evolves.  These places are extraordinary because the citizens are part of the positive regional dynamic rather than a separate protectionist subculture.

Now that some of our early pioneer associations are reaching 30 to 40 years old, we are starting to see some multigenerational ownership beginning.  Up until recently no current owners where born and raised in their community.  It was a created environment based on a theme that was quickly put in place rather than slowly evolving with the nature of the area.  There were no roots to speak of that would build a sense of citizenship as opposed to walking into a readymade ala carte consumer environment.  Mixed generation communities have faired much better over recent years than age restricted or retirement type communities.  Mutigenerational populations tend to vest much more quickly into the total community environment, both within and outside the association scope.  This is beginning to alleviate some of the challenges faced due to a transient consumer mindset that has been prevalent in community associations.

Boomers are not necessarily joiners.  The value of being a “member” is not nearly as prevalent as with prior generations.  There is much more value placed on being an individual engaged citizen.  This does not mean that the Boomer will not use the amenities of a community.  They may very well be more active than prior generations but the do not want any part of their “parents retirement community.”  They want to live in a community that engages their children and grandchildren as a family unit and individuals.  They want a “cool” factor.  There must be a new mental narrative about the community. They envision their grandchildren saying “let’s visit grandpa, he lives in the coolest place”. This is what the successful community of the future will be conjure in the mind.

A primary challenge is developing a real sense of citizenship.  Consumers look at the cost/benefit now and seek to extract as much product as possible for the least cost.  Citizen community builders have a longer look as they take responsibility in growing their community.  The sense of being a builder not simply a consumer is what builds community within our members.