Serenbe: A Delightfully Disruptive Alternative
What would it be like to live in a town where sustainability is a true way of life? Where “walkability” leads to easy community connections (meeting neighbors!) and a reduction or elimination of auto traffic? Where art is a part of life? Where a nature connection is as easy as stepping outside your front door? Where a 25-acre organic farm serves as the local grocery store and community hub?
Stop imagining and enjoy the reality! In just over ten years, the town of
Serenbe, a vision of Steven and Marie Nygren located in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia, has flourished and grown into a vibrant community of over 400 residents. It now serves as an internationally lauded example of what sustainable urban development can achieve.
The 1,000-acre development was designed with what Steve and Marie call a biophilic approach to planning: in particular, the principles of sacred geometry minimize land disturbance, and over 70 percent of the natural landscape remains untouched. Serenbe’s design brings people together and unites them with the natural world. We think that Serenbe is one of the first modern examples of a true “wellness community”—a delightfully disruptive alternative to our lives of isolation.
We met Serenbe’s founders at the Global Wellness Summit in Mexico City last weekend and learned more about their lives, Serenbe, and the ideals that led to its creation.
The word “wellness” means different things to different people. What does it mean to you?
Steve: Wellness is when you and systems around you feel vitally alive. In order to really thrive in a well community, the plant world also needs to be well and thriving, the animal world has to be alive and thriving, plus all the various energy forces. It’s not just about the individual—the entire ecosystem needs to be well to...feed you.
Marie: It’s also about balance. To reconnect we have to disconnect. We live in a technological world, yet we have to turn it off to sleep, to rest, to listen to our inner voices. For me, being in nature is such a powerful way to do this. Wellness is about finding that balance...we live in a pretty crazy world but we need to come back to the essentials: quiet time, nature, eating well, and being with friends. We need to make time for that.
Community is such a big part of Serenbe. How does community help you flourish?
S: I believe one of the reasons we have so much depression and illness today is due to our built environments, where we cannot connect with one another. It’s essential that we actually...experience human interaction. You can see this necessity even in our mobile world. People are going to Starbucks to do the work that they could do elsewhere. It’s not necessarily that they need coffee. They are buying coffee to connect. It’s why, when TV came out, everyone predicted that it was the end of the movie theater, but that did not happen. It is in our basic nature to connect with one another. Sometimes it isn’t a conversation and it isn’t even touching, but rather it’s that spiritual connection of energy with each other that feeds us.
M: We’re seeing it with the proliferation of places like the spa chain, Massage Envy. People just want to be touched. We’ve gotten so deep into technology that we’ve forgotten about the necessity of human interaction. We also need people who really know us…
We need our friends who will hold us accountable when we say that we are “fine,” but we really aren’t. People who can look at us and say, “I want the truth.” Because a community will hold you accountable, and get you out of that mindset of pretending that everything is okay, when it actually isn’t. There is a lot of struggle in all of our lives, and to be healthy we need to be able to release that.”
S: That’s why at Serenbe we physically designed it for those ‘accidental collisions.’ For example, the mailboxes are always placed next to a place where people will naturally gather...next to the coffee house or the playground. It’s those accidental collisions that put us in a position where we can’t help but build a community.
A weekend resident once told me that they know the people at Serenbe so much better than their neighbors of 30 years in their weekday home. During the week, they pull into their garage, the mail is delivered to their front door, and when they need something they’ll get into their car and drive to get it. At Serenbe, within two or three hours of being here, they’ve already bumped into two or three people and caught up. It is just natural to get to know people here. Someone recently visited us prospecting for a house. At the end of her weekend she asked me “is this place real?” ...Serenbe shouldn’t really be so unusual, but it is.”
What do you believe are the biggest impediments to world wellness?
S: An addiction to consumerism.
M: Yes! The mindset that this next purchase is going to make me well or happy. That’s not true. Maybe the next thing that will make you well is a walk in the woods or listening to a beautiful piece of music instead of going to the mall and buying an item you don’t really need, or eating unhealthy and addictive food.
What are the greatest advancements in world wellness?
M: Wellness consciousness is changing what it means to be healthy and happy.
People are beginning to see that wellness is not about money or material objects...wellness is really about wholeness, and wholeness is available to us at any time. The concept of being fully connected, vibrant, and vital is built into our DNA and we can tap into that at any time. As a culture, while we are starting to wake up to these ideas, we are not quite there yet, but we are on the right path and that is hopeful.”
S: The Internet is a huge advancement. Interface, the carpet company, recently did an international survey and [found that] the most Googled word for last year was mindfulness. Connectivity has allowed us to explore our curiosities about how to live a more full life—to ask questions and find guidance. Now...we are all in ruts. But, at least we are getting the information. And that information is there in a way that we can always revisit. So, we can continue to slip off our path, or forget, but we can always come back to it. Repetition is such a vital part of learning.
How can we ensure that everyone in our country has access to wellness opportunities, and uses that access to the benefit of their health?
S: We need more awareness that we are all responsible for our own selves. We’ve gotten into this idea that there is someone else who can fix it, and I feel that this is getting worse and worse. But maybe there has been a little bit of a turn around. The more information out there that brings it back to the individual, the more we’ll start taking our health and wellness into our own hands.
M: As [conference speaker] Agapi Stassinopoulus reminded us earlier today: it starts with you. We need to continue to spread the word, letting everyone know that you have to love yourself, or have compassion for yourself. You’re going to mess up. You can just say to yourself, “Darling, I messed up.” Tomorrow is another day. I think that another big piece of this is starting with our children and instilling these values in their everyday life.
S: School is such an important place to start changing our culture. Think about how recycling was integrated into our daily lives: the message was driven in schools and then the children took it back to their parents. Look at Alice Waters and the Edible Schoolyard Project. One of the big solutions is going back to the topic of food and reimagining our food system—growing it and preparing it—to bring self-awareness about wellbeing. It seems like such a basic thing [to integrate] into our education system.
For you both personally, how are environment and wellness linked?
S: That’s like asking how are food and health connected.
The natural world is the essential piece, and that’s why we have not reached global wellness. A lot of people are living in built environments that are disconnected. Most of our zoning and planning is based on what is on the computer, so the planners never really see the site, feel the site, or have the opportunity to understand it. We are imposing our built environment in a hostile way rather than integrating it with nature in a thoughtful partnership.”
You can actually feel that when you are living in a community like Serenbe. The truth is that we cannot fully remove ourselves from the natural world, but unfortunately, we are living in a time where we are doing a pretty good job of creating that separation.
M: For me, it’s also about the toxic world. We have to look at toxicity...chemicals and carbon dioxide and all of the choices that we make in our daily lives. We also have to look at our own toxicity towards one another, which starts with yourself. If you find that compassion for yourself, then you can find compassion for others. The built environment is vitally important to our wellness, but you have to look at the other side of our emotional and heart-filled connections. Where is the heart in the way that we live? Where is the sacredness?
PHOTOS: Courtesy of Serenbe.com