Tag Archives: suburbia



it has taken me a surprisingly long time to get down to Serenbe. V too, the two of us kept saying let’s go! and never going, goodness knows why, it’s barely 40 minutes from our houses! So on Saturday, just days before she moves to the Netherlands, her, J, me and N went to visit this little dream community in the country.

the MAP

A New York Time article in 2009 touted Serenbe as “the new south” really, a sort of new new new south, but in essence it seems pretty true. new development with a little green, or a lot of green consciousness thrown in, southern home-cookin’, organic farming, farm animals and woods—and all this with your shirt tucked in. By living here you are doing good!

Serenbe was begun as an idealistic and hopefully realistic answer to the ever increasing suburbanization of the huge metro Atlanta area. From a 2004 article in USA Today:

As the nation’s metro areas expand ever outward, the forests and farmlands at their edges are rapidly disappearing. From 1982 to 2001, the amount of developed land in the USA increased by 45% to 106 million acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Brookings Institution, a research organization in Washington. and About 70% of residential and commercial construction is still occurring in woodlands and rural areas instead of areas that are being redeveloped.

At the same time, homebuyers increasingly are expressing a desire to live in a way that protects the natural landscape, and developers are responding. One of the fastest-growing segments of the housing industry is conservation subdivisions, which usually have compact lots clustered together and open space that is shared by all homeowners. These developments are designed to accommodate the maximum number of homes while protecting much of the adjacent farmland and natural resources.

Steve and Marie Nygren saw this happening and took it to heart. They did some really revolutionary work in their community, getting neighbors together to discuss what they wanted for their community in the future. Something done less in rural than in urban areas, but definitely needed in both.

Serenbe’s beginnings in the 1990s were, if not humble, at least somewhat organic: wealthy Atlantans bought land which became their home, then a B&B just in time for the ’96 Olympics, (she being the daughter of Mary Mac’s co-owner presumably meant good food was in the equation at an early date), more guest houses were added and eventually, in the early 2000s, this experiment in suburban planning.

If there is all this good, why was my first impression that, pleasant a place as it was, it felt all wrong??

Serenbe_residencesSerenbe feels manufactured, like a movie set, everything, EVERYTHING feels fake. Even at the farmhouse (which has some historicity buried in the walls that haven’t been removed)—I had a vague feeling of walking into a set, were we all participants in a play? Later on I would feel that the shop proprietors must receive a paycheck from “Serenbe, Inc.” like working a store at Disneyland, probably managers, not business owners (note: I don’t actually know for sure how this works but I’ve seen that the details of most establishments are in the plans long before they exist).

We didn’t take any pictures until we were about to leave, and I realized we needed to document. The manufactured-picturesque landscape had not been inspiring, CREATED to be photogenic, like Miss America on stage, it didn’t need me to capture it’s beauty. In the end I took a picture of the map, which saysit all, because ultimately Serenbe is just one big plan, a stage, and we’re not talking Shakespeare here.

There are other communities like this in history, Sunnyside Gardens, Radburn, and Atlanta’s own East Lake Commons. I’ve been trying to figure out what they have that’s different, accessibility, interaction with their surroundings, even if shops are part of the community its commercial space that’s not dictated by the creator but by an entrepreneur. Idealism is tough, and perfection comes in many forms.

Maybe it simply hasn’t grown into itself. The economy downturn occurred shortly after liftoff which may account for the lack of residents? maybe they were just all inside their fab [environmentally friendly] climate controlled houses on this rainy day, maybe they were… I have doubts, this community has nothing for the average homebuyer, and the more I think of it the more it frustrates me, with all the talk of affordable housing in the community the only thing one woman who works in the village was able to afford was a 900 sq. ft loft space WITHOUT A KITCHEN, without a KITCHEN?? I used to live in a 600 sq. ft brooklyn apt WITH a kitchen and that was roomy.

But still, all the businesses cater to tourists, there was nothing real about them. I mean, what town actually needs 5 boutique shops with local or handmade-by-African-women-and-children-in-need scarves, coasters, vases and jewelry? and that’s about it for general retail. You can also go to the Bosch showroom which may be the most useful commercial space, or MAYBE the General Store where you’d run for one or 2 ingredients if you lived/stayed at Serenbe but impractical for actual grocery shopping, plus, you’d deplete their supplies in one go. I assume residents grocery shop at Whole Foods in Atlanta, because goodness knows they wouldn’t be caught at Bradley’s Big Buy or DJ Grocers in Palmetto.

But that brings us around to the inherent anti-environmentality of a secluded subdivision that is not supporting itself (despite dreams). At least you only use a little gas to get around in the village, maybe none if you use your golf cart. On fun days you might pull out a bike, but we didn’t see any of those in action.

It was weird, I mean REALLY WEIRD. I’m hoping a second trip on a sunnier day will yield better results, and a chance to visit the farm (which I suspect is cool no matter what), some real people, and a chance to really enjoy my favorite part: the in-ground trampoline in the park!!

Now I better go see how N’s cookie-making is going (they’re for V, but maybe we’ll get some?).

lessons on Urban Sprawl

This book really got my gut, maybe that was the point. I can’t stand fear tactics (although this stuff does actually keep me up at night) but I also can’t stand the attitude that we have had rampant consumption so far and the world hasn’t ended so let’s keep going! I tried to shorten my paper for your enjoyment but I’m afraid it’s still long, so skip to the end if you must:

A REPORT ON: Sprawl: a compact quashing of the anti-sprawl debate (damn affluent hippies)

I nearly threw Robert Bruegmann’s Sprawl: a Compact History on the tracks of the subway about fifty times. My fellow passengers probably thought I was a bit nuts making scoffing “ha!” sounds and scrawling in the margins every thirty seconds, but I plugged on, thinking maybe I better hear out this “rational account.” For I agreed with a quote on the back cover, that we do indeed need a realistic look at our growth patterns and ideas on “better ways to manage sprawl” rather than the infinite ‘solutions’ to sprawl. Population growth and thus urban growth is inevitable, and because we are who we are and because we can what we can sprawl may be inevitable too. However, I do not agree with an infinite number of Bruegmann’s counter arguments to the anti-sprawl debate which strike me as infinitely unreasonable even though they are oft-heard arguments in America today.

To begin at the beginning though, Bruegmann does offer a fine brief history of the growth patterns of American cities. Briefing his readers on the expansion of the urban environment from a sharp delineation of rural and urban (think of the walled city) to the earliest moves out of the city, a softening of that boundary as an “exurban” area is created and how this was made possible through developments in transportation and communication. Transportation developments in particular brought a new way of living to the city, commuting and escape from the density of the urban core were possible at first for those who could afford the transportation and development occurred along transportation corridors (look at NYC’s commuter lines and streetcar suburbs elsewhere). This would change with the automobile, which rather quickly became widely available to all classes, and so has been considered “the great equalizer.” A large part of Bruegmann’s opposition to anti-sprawl is that he sees anti-sprawlers as a bunch of affluent elitists, trying to keep down the lower and middle classes and force their own ideas of civilization onto them to ultimately to serve their own ends (he says anti-sprawlers promote public transportation just to free up the roads for their own use… um, no? I don’t want to drive my car, i want public transportation to work for ME).

When in doubt, Bruegmann can always pull out a card to destabilize his opponents, but this is merely the mark of a good debater, and that tactic works both ways.

After a few short chapters his “brief history” has broken down. Chapter four disputes traditional ideas about suburban sprawl in the 1950s and chapter five covers the 1970s onward in which he points out that earlier subdivisions are already being gentrified, and old buildings are being replaced with newer, bigger ones. Then he suggests that this should please anti-sprawlers—though why they would be pleased with a ranch house holding 4 people replaced with a McMansion holding 4 people is a bit confusing but there is no time for questions for by this point he is so worked up that he uses that brilliant point to suggest that anti-sprawlers are just scared of change! Ouch.

In the course of Part II after reducing the amount of sprawl post-WWII to peanuts, “suburban development of the postwar decades actually occupied very little of the total land mass of America,” he manages to sneer at the concept of ‘sustainability,’ imply that an endless supply of land and resources exist for us to use, and vindicate the automobile from its role as a polluter and perpetuator of sprawl among other things. It was these points which almost landed his words, ironically, on the tracks of a public transit line in the sprawling metropolis of Atlanta, Georgia.

Bruegmann has lost me and I am analyzing his writing for tactics now, unable to put much faith in his figures. For instance, he uses statistics as appalling as his opponents’ are (he says), to galvanize their arguments and in doing so he also galvanizes his own by successfully demonstrating the ability to use any statistic to your own advantage:

…automobile manufacturers have been so successful in boosting fuel efficiency [they have?] and reducing emissions, and public transportation in the United States today carries such light loads, that even with only 1.5 occupants per vehicle in cars, most new automobiles generate little or no more pollution per person per passenger vehicle mile than the average bus.

Despite my many quarrels with this statement (Priuses vs “average” buses or fuel efficient CNG buses?), what I ultimately find most interesting is that Bruegmann obviously views this as a reason to just go ahead and drive your own car, rather than a reason to get more people on the buses so as to tilt the equation the other way. Proof that, in the end, despite all the reasoning we can do, most of us who are strongly situated one way or another will be able to support our own separate arguments from the same data and sound equally convincing. As he so rightly says later on: “the ‘solution’ to any given problem depends on the vantage point of the person doing the proposing.”

For all the quotations on the back cover about Sprawl being a “sound and reasoned history of this pattern of living,” Bruegmann has let his light shine and comes across time and again as an idiot who is as much against change as his opponents. While anti-sprawlers may be afraid of change to the built and natural environment (for many reasons and rightly so), Bruegmann speaks for himself and a multitude of patriotic Americans, in that they are even more afraid of any change to their lifestyle, particularly if that change might perceptively “cramp” their lifestyle.

Here is the take-home from my soapbox:
For my part, I don’t care if you dream of a house made of ticky tacky and 1.5 hour commutes alone in your car but why would it ever be a bad idea to conserve? God made this world right? We should treat it with the respect and care it deserves, use what we need but only what we need and preserve its beauty. But even so, whether you believe God has provided an infinite supply of fresh water, clean air, and amber waves of grain or if it is at least just going to last to the end of your life, why would it be a bad idea to go ahead conserve those resources anyway? Just because there IS a whole tray of cupcakes in the fridge does that mean you should eat them all before the kids come home? Just wondering.

“…after the suburbs”

a direct repost from the class blog

The title of this exhibit, “…After the Suburbs” really asks us to contemplate what will come, well, after. While many works are statements on suburbia itself—Travis Shaffer’s windowless facades and Shiela Pree Bright’s photo with blossoming bradford pears on a suburban street—it seems the core of the show’s question is answered by James Griffioen’s Feral Houses and Pandra Williams’ moss chair. Both Pandra and Karen Tauches (curator) explained this re-naturalization as a way nature is taking back over in some corners of our urban environment. In fact, Pandra contends that the world we’ve built is very high maintenance, and if we don’t watch it, if we don’t keep our chairs in climate controlled living rooms, nature will start to grow on them, actually bringing life to these inanimate man-made objects. I suppose it is just nature’s way.

moss chair ferns urban decay

It just takes a little lawn-mowing negligence to see the risk your property has succumbing to the wildness of invasive plants, which brings us to the urban decay pictured in parts of Detroit by James Griffioen. I love that he calls the houses “feral,” for they are, they’re wild things now and belong in the wild. Poison ivy waits to tickle your knees and snakes haunt the dark corners near the house. Inside, if there still is even an “inside,” squirrels and rats are storing nuts and raccoons are making nests.

So what does this say about where the suburban age is going and what it might look like in the future? In some instances we have people who are actually encouraging the re-naturalization of their suburban property—Karen mentioned a fellow in California, but right here in Atlanta, Duane Marcus and his wife have upset suburbia by farming on their property: Funny Farm. While I don’t think the suburbs and their bradford pears are going anywhere soon, i do think the movement to bring more nature into the urban environment is making significant inroads. Whether it’s folks tilling in their front lawns, organizations like Trees Atlanta making sure we have things growing along our sidewalks, or projects like NYC’s Highline (pictured) which creates a highly orchestrated meeting of nature, urban decay, and the city. Still, isn’t even this recreation just another attempt to control?