Serenbe - a Nourishing Place

view of Broadway in the Cotswolds from high land

   Today’s New York Times contains an excellent article detailing the Georgia town of Serenbe. This town is the precursor to a new wave of New Urbanism based on a very old idea: if you want to be able to live sustainably in a place, then you need to be able to eat food from that place. This is the essence of the newfound principle of “food security.” Put another way, you need to be able to look out onto the fields and onto the waters from which most of your food comes... just like our forbearers did. The very first principle of the Original Green is that a sustainable place must be a nourishing place, because if you can’t eat there, you can’t live there.

   Marie and Steve Nygren set out to achieve a sustainable, nourishing place in 1991... almost a generation ago. At the time, the thought of building such a place was dismissed by almost everyone. Marie and Steve were exceptionally rare pioneers... and they persisted and built the town.

   The problem, of course, is that only a tiny fraction of the world is built by high visionaries such as Marie and Steve. The missing link is something I’ve referred to for years as the “Moral Imperative for Nourishing Places.” Put another way, “How can we tell the story in such a way that an enlightened developer will say ‘It’s in my best interest (including my financial best interest) to build a nourishing place’?” For years, we were not able to put the story together.

   There were pieces, to be sure. We have for many years understood the value of a long view... Zimmerman/Volk Associates, the pioneers of forward-looking market studies focused on the New Urbanism, have spoken eloquently, compellingly, and precisely for years about exactly how much more land is worth when you build compactly and preserve open land around the hamlets, villages, and towns. Jackie Benson of MilesBrand, among others, has backed that idea up with specific methodologies. The value of the long view is tightly embedded with the valuing of adjacency to nature, which has been understood as an attribute for centuries.

   Local food has more recently become a concern after nearly a century of neglect, pioneered by people such as Alice Waters of Chez Panisse. Today, there are many organizations that champion local food, such as LocalHarvest. Barbara Kingsolver’s account of her family’s attempt to eat locally for a year as chronicled in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle has achieved almost a cult following.

   Other factors helped, too. Land trust tax credits provided incentives for rural landowners to leave their land undeveloped in perpetuity. Similarly, the Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) mechanism provided incentives (where they were enacted) for developers to gain density in TNDs and TODs in exchange for purchasing development rights on adjacent farmland, which would forever be left undeveloped.

   Nonetheless, these tools alone were not enough to tip the balance. The Seaside Pienza Institute held a pivotal meeting in Pienza, Italia in 2003 that examined urbanism and the agricultural edge. The Institute is fond of addressing problems for which there are not yet solutions, and this was one of the most pressing ones of our age. The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment hosted the Institute a year later; once you get beyond the paparazzi, you’ll find that Prince Charles has for twenty-five years been a strong activist for more sustainable places. Still, the “Moral Imperative” question remained unanswered.

   The tipping point came less than a year ago. I was working as a consultant to DPZ on a charrette for Sean Hodgins, the highly enlightened town founder of Southlands near Vancouver. Sean brought in a number of notable consultants, including farmer and author Michael Ableman. We were finally able, due to the design team Sean and Andrés assembled, to put together the long sought Moral Imperative! Granted, Sean really wanted to do the right thing from the very beginning, but I don’t know if I’d put him in the same “true believer” category as Marie and Steve. His family’s background was in more conventional development, although Sean is clearly a “kinder, gentler” version of the breed. Yet, he was able to say at the end of the charrette that “It is clearly in my best interest to build a nourishing place.”

   News of this breakthrough spread quickly in the DPZ corner of the New Urbanist world. Two highly notable projects were quickly redesigned based on the things that we had learned, and the story we now could tell. DPZ’s Schooner Bay is now under construction. It has always been conceived as including a working harbour so that it’s a true fishing village, but it will now also include a ring of land around the village will be preserved in perpetuity for farmland that will more than feed the town.

   DPZ’s Sky in the Florida panhandle quickly revised its plan to do the same. Conceived from the beginning as a place where buildings would either be off the grid or would sell power back to the grid, the idea of being a nourishing place was a perfect fit.

   I work most closely as a consultant with DPZ, but suspect that a similar thing is happening elsewhere within the New Urbanism. Interestingly, I designed a collection of hamlets and villages known as the Waters near Montgomery, Alabama, when I was with PlaceMakers several years ago. In that case, the developer was highly respectful of the beautiful site and wanted to preserve as much of it as possible, so I was able to design it as compact hamlets with 1/4 to 1/2 mile of open land in between so that it had the feel of hamlets in the English countryside. I always conceived of those open fields being farmland someday... that could happen soon. DPZ’s Hampstead has similar aspirations, and their Mount Laurel town near Birmingham had the foresight to include an organic farm nearly a decade ago. Dover-Kohl’s Hudson, also near Montgomery, reportedly accomplishes similar things.

   And those are simply the ones I’m most familiar with by association or by proximity... the New Urbanism likely is now seething with nourishing places I don’t know about because the ideal has been so closely nourished for so long amongst the New Urbanists. Check them out…

~ Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Sunday, March 1, 2009 - 09:05 PM

Howard Kelly

   I was very encouraged to see that there was a quite large range of housing prices at The Waters, including townhomes and cottages below $200,000, all the way up to $800K and more.

   A lot us at Notre Dame have been talking about affordability more and more - it seems to us that many New Urbanist developments are still catering to the bloated 2,000+ square foot mentality.  It will always be impossible to cater to lower incomes if the houses we design are consistently larger.  Even the rowhouses at Hampstead are 1900 square feet for a two bedroom.

   Couldn't we be incorporating significantly smaller homes, perhaps as "townhouse flats" of 500-800 square feet?  Rather than placing these size apartments above a garage in the mews, couldn't we bring them out as part of the fabric?  

   Of course this is an idealistic student speaking, and the designer doesn't necessary control so much of the design, but is there any more the design can do to increase the variety of housing sizes/costs?

Sunday, March 1, 2009 - 09:19 PM

Steve Mouzon

Howard, you're EXACTLY right... we need to be looking for the widest possible range of values. Leaders of the New Urbanism have always sought for this; it's just really hard for the Town Founders when it turns into a bidding war.

   The range at the Waters is actually 10:1: $160,000 to $1,600,000. But the new king of the spread will be Schooner Bay, where the spread will be upwards of 50:1. You'll have teachers and construction workers living in the same village with extremely wealthy people, and everyone in between.

   Incidentally, check back shortly... the New Urban Guild's SmartDwelling Project proposes to redefine the American home to half its current size... by enticing people because it's cooler and better. There are a lot of major players on board who believe we have a chance of succeeding. Stay tuned...

   One more thing... the biggest cost control device in history is one that we hardly ever use anymore: the Classical/Vernacular Spectrum. And a true vernacular architecture is the most affordable of all because everyone understands how to do it.

Monday, March 2, 2009 - 05:02 AM

Victor Dover

Steve, the reports are correct-- Hudson does have a crucial local-food-production component. A site plan and various images are here.

Monday, March 2, 2009 - 11:29 AM

Steve Mouzon

Julie Sanford just reminded me that Sky was in fact not redesigned following Southlands. Rather, it had been designed from the beginning as a series of agricultural hamlets. The only change that took place at Sky after Southlands was changing the proportion of horse pasture land to garden land so that Sky could be a 100% Nourishing Place, rather than just partially so.

   So Sky is the place that Andrés Duany considers DPZ's first Nourishing Place. Southland's distinction was in being the first previously conventional developer that had put together the Moral Imperative. Julie, on the other hand, has never been a conventional developer, but rather an architect, planner, and huge sustainability advocate within the New Urbanism. She is one of those rare town founders who was always going to do the right thing. It is essential to have town founders like Julie that can propose the first model projects for a great idea, like Seaside was. But it's also essential to have town founders like Sean that are able to connect dots like he did with the Moral Imperative so that the ideas of the model projects can spread broadly.

   I hope this clarifies the chronology...

Tuesday, March 3, 2009 - 01:14 PM

Chad Emerson


   Hampstead Farms is breaking ground as we type.  We are aiming for an opening this spring in time to plant crops for a summer harvest.

   Though the soil in this area is not good (cotton stripped the land and sent much of the good soil into the Gulf of Mexico in the early 1900s time frame), the Central Alabama River Region does have a year round growing season.  

   Granted, we're not growing tomatoes in January, but the climate does allow sustenance to be grown and harvested throughout the entire year.

   That is hugely important.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009 - 05:33 PM

Steve Mouzon

Victor and Chad, that's great to hear! Please keep us updated as Hudson and Hampstead progress. I'll do the same with progress at the Waters.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009 - 09:44 PM


   Having lived in a master planded TND that includes multi-family, single-family and commercial, I would like to comment on Steve's comment regarding the Schooner Bay development:

   "You'll have teachers and construction workers living in the same village with extremely wealthy people, and everyone in between."

   As grand and noble an idea this is, when the rubber meets the road, the reality is less utopian.  WIth multiple HOA's serving each sub communities interests as it relates to shared elements (pools, parks, trails, etc), compounded by different levels of architectual and landscape requirements, a 'farmer's dilemma' is apt to occur (eg my interests vs common interests).  Friction over basic covenants such as no service vehicles parked in driveways overnight can lead to deep rifts within the community.

   TND's should tred carefully when planning mixed socioeconomic housing; the same plans, covenants, and standards that are the cornerstone of their success can also be their undoing.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009 - 10:16 AM

Steve Mouzon

Excellent points, Jack... I'll discuss them with the Schooner Bay Town Founder. Can you elaborate on the "farmer's dilemma?" I haven't heard that term before.

Thanks! ~Steve

Sunday, June 7, 2009 - 08:18 PM

Adam Sheridan

This thread is a little stale but (if anyone is still watching) I am looking for input from those who are working through the agriculture-to-improved land ratio. What is a good source of theoretical data and what has been learned from practical application?  I see number ranging from Jamie Correa's "5 acres for every 4 people" (theoretical, encompassing holistic sustainability) to Elliot Coleman's "5 acres can feed 100" (practical experience relating to purely vegetables).

Tuesday, June 9, 2009 - 11:05 PM

Steve Mouzon

Adam, I was working on DPZ's Southlands charrette last summer; one of the other consultants was Michael Ableman. In that climate (Vancouver) he was confident he could feed at least 20 people year-round per agricultural acre using bio-intensive methods, and that's from all the food groups, not just vegetables. So if the residential density is 10 units/acre x 2.5 people/unit = 25 people/acre, then each person consumes .04 acres for their neighborhood and .05 acres for their food.

   Put another way, if the industrial food system requires 1 acre to feed one person (see today's SmartDwelling I - The Kitchen Garden post)... and that's being generous, because in most parts of the country, it's more like 2 acres or more per person... then for each acre of farmland you switch from industrial methods (tractor-driver-man-hour-efficient but extremely acre-inefficient) to bio-intensive methods, you get 11 people plus all their agriculture (.04 + .05 = .09 x 11 = .99, or essentially 1) Bottom line, you can inhabit agricultural land at high density and not lose the agriculture because it gets so much more efficient.


© Stephen A. Mouzon 2018