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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Destination Community Diversity: Sharing Quality of Place

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Do you remember the kid who blew the grading curve in class by not making the same mediocre grades as the rest of us?  Now days everyone is blowing the curve.  No one is doing what everyone else is.  I think I would be about the average person based on my demographics.  48 year old white male coming of age in a southern college town in the mid 1980’s.   One generation off the cattle farm, I grew up watching the Beverly Hillbillies, football, and bluegrass music.  You would think I would be right in the middle of the class.

I think I am typical yet why don’t I fit into that old mass marketing mold.  Hardly anyone does anymore.  Twenty years ago you could rely on my cohort to be watching one of 2 things on TV on a Thursday night. There was just not much choice. We listening to the same 2 radio stations and read the same magazines.  You could make a couple of easy advertising investments and put your message in front of most of us.

Today I get the news I am interested in tweeted to me directly from a myriad of online print and video sources.  I don’t watch television in the traditional sense. I buy only the television shows I want and have not seen a traditional commercial since the Superbowl.  There is no channel guide or schedule in my life. I don’t have cable and gladly pay to stream my favorite radio station which is from several states away over my truck stereo. The print material I do faithfully follow; Garden and Gun, Covertside, Urban Land, and Fast Company are so niche specific only those that have an insider position dare to advertise.  There is no middle of the class. No way to get in front of the majority.

We can find our interests so specifically; we have no need to be a generalist.  Seth Godin said there is no longer an American canon of materials that we can reliably expect to be common knowledge.  We have an unlimited supply of media but can laser focus on our interests only and tune out the noise of the advertising machine.

This specificity along with the mobility of Americans means we do not have to live in a generic place and take our chances that we will find our “people.”  Today we can just go on Meet Up and find a group that shares our affinity for eclectic banjo covers of baroque composers or whatever your weird interest may be.  Generic is dead. Average is dead.  Compromising to the least offensive denominator is dead.

In creating a community, you must build the environment for the specific to thrive.  In my experience developing outdoor sporting venues, I have always found that if you create the conditions for the expert, the fanatic, the gear head to flourish, the interested amateurs will flock there.  These are the people that buy the homes, fill the restaurants and create the demand for services.  These folks build community.

It is so easy to find the real.  We can find our authentic people living our favored experiences.  Building a community for the generic average is a failing proposition.  We cannot continue creating simple monocultures but must embrace inter-related layers of complementary subcultures sharing the same natural resource.  It could be a tremendous surf break, a beautiful mountain region, or lake system.  Many subcultures can love a region for many different reasons.  If no one loves a thing, no one will care about it.  Diverse communities are resilient, listen to the investment gurus: diversify.  Embrace individuality and the diverse subcultures that share the same love for quality of place.

If you listen to the investment gurus all we hear is diversification.  Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.  Yet many communities for the last 30 years have basically put all their eggs in their golf basket.  Nothing is wrong with the golf basket unless it is your only investment.  Today people want a more holistic experience yet still based on their values of place.

What will attract people to band together in communities in the future, it could any of thousands of  interests that will tie these places together.

It starts with:

Quality of Place:  Is this place beautiful to me?  Does it have the natural resources that support my interests?  Does it have the provisions and third places I need?

Complimentary Sub-Cultures:  What different groups can share the same resources compatibly.   Is it attractive to more than a single monoculture?

Authenticity:  Is the lifestyle real or a construct.  Does it really deliver the potential for personal growth and challenge.

We will explore recreation and sporting subcultures as we continue the conversation.