Season 1



Catalyst To Create Serenbe

Monica Olsen and Steve Nygren go into detail about the pivotal moment in Steve and Serenbe’s beginning.

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Monica Olsen and Steve Nygren go into detail about the pivotal moment in Steve and Serenbe’s beginning. Steve and his daughter, Garnie, came upon a bulldozer taking out trees while they were running trails on their 300 acres. Steve worried about urban sprawl in their paradise and immediately made calls to land owners in Chattahoochee Hills, asking them to call if they ever decided to sell. The three largest parcels that touched the Nygren farmhouse had to sell for different reasons, and in 5 weeks, Steve had another 600 acres under contract.

He’d seen rural land turn to suburban neighborhoods when growing up in Boulder, Colorado, where generations of his family had farmed land. Steve knew he couldn’t keep showing up at real estate closings to keep the same thing from happening to his home, and that there had to be a balance between land preservation and economic return. His close friend Ray C. Anderson connected him with thought leaders and institutions to assemble a charrette on the state of Chattahoochee Hills in 2000. They discussed how global issues could be relevant locally, but realized there was no one in the development world who could come in to figure out how to do what they’d imagined. Environmentalism had not even been a part of the development discussion yet.

There was a need for housing after World War II, which spawned the current development model that is not sustainable. He saw examples at Prairie Crossing near Chicago, then quickly realized it was still a magnet for development. There was no countryside outside the community, and no commercial within the community. They had expected everyone around them to develop in the same way, but it didn’t happen that way because people like to put housing next to open fields rather than creating their own open fields. This has created suburban neighborhoods where people have everything inside their homes, which keeps them from each other and from nature, causing all sorts of problems with food systems and health.

Steve realized he wasn’t thinking large enough; that he’d have to affect legislation. He then brought 500 Chattahoochee Hill Country landowners together to change the zoning, thus changing how this area would be developed.

Questions Answered

What is the pivotal moment that changed Steve Nygren’s trajectory?

How many acres did Steve have before he saw the bulldozer?

Why did seeing a bulldozer make make you think of a housing development and urban sprawl?

How did opening a restaurant in Roswell influence your decision to buy additional land?

When you were purchasing land in Chattahoochee Hills, did you know what you were going to do with it the whole time?

Are people’s preconceived notions about how to development part of the problem?

Why do you think people weren’t developing in an environmentally-friendly way (like Serenbe)?

What are some of the global policies developers weren’t thinking about?

People + Organizations Mentioned

Peachtree Road Race

Prairie Crossing

President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Robert Davis


TIME Magazine

Urban Land Institute

Victoria Ranney

The White House Council on the Environment

Amory Lovins

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention

Environmental Protection Division

Garnie Nygren

George Ranney, Jr.

Georgia Institute of Technology

Jim Durrett

Main Street America

O’Hare International Airport

Paul Hawken

Episode Transcript

Monica Olsen (1s): Hey guys, it's Monica here. I wanted to tell you about a new podcast that I've started with my very good friend, Jennifer Walsh called Biophilic Solutions. Our last season of Serenbe Stories, Building a Biophilic Movement, was so popular that we decided to dedicate an entire podcast to it. Every other week Jennifer and I will sit down with leaders in the growing field of biophilia. We'll talk about local and global solutions to help nurture their living social and economic systems that we all need to sustain future generations. More often than not, nature has the answers. You can find Biophilic Solutions on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Subscribe and follow us today so you don't miss an episode.

Monica Olsen (41s): All right, now let's get back to Serenbe stories. Serenbe is a place where people live, work, learn, and play in celebration of life's beauty. And we're here to share the stories that connect residents and guests to each other and to nature. This is Serenbe Stories.

Intro Music (1m 18s): <Intro Music>

Monica Olsen (1m 24s): Welcome back to Serenbe Stories. Hi, Steve, how are you?

Steve Nygren (1m 28s): It's fun to think about reminiscing to some of the years past.

Monica Olsen (1m 32s): I know. And in the last episode we talked about what it was like in the early nineties, when you bought the original farmhouse, sold your company and moved the family, full-time down to the farm. So now I want to talk today. It's about, I dunno, 10 years later, and there's an iconic story that I know about, but I've heard you tell a bunch of times that I would love you to share right now, because it really sounds like that was one of the pivotal moments that sort of changed everything. And it was about a bulldozer.

Steve Nygren (2m 1s): That's right. So this is, this is 10 years after the initial purchase. It's in my seventh year of retirement life seemed pretty perfect. We we're traveling, had the organic garden. We were totally delighted with the retired lifestyle. We had the bed and breakfast, which was kind of a hobby on the weekends, but nothing's too serious. And then one morning my daughter and I Garnie were out on a morning jog. And as we came over the crest of the hill, the forest next to us was being bulldozed and this just sent chills.

Steve Nygren (2m 47s): And I ran out to stop the bulldozer, just see what was going on. And his response was, "we've simply been hired to clear the land. I guess they're putting houses here. That's what always happens." And I, in panic, ran back to the house to call the retired doctor who owned this. He lived in Fayette county, a couple of counties away, and I couldn't get an answer. And I kept calling and for the next couple of days, no answer, which felt strange. And so I started calling other landowners that I was aware of that had larger properties that a developer might've talked to.

Steve Nygren (3m 28s): And as I called, no one knew anything about what was happening. And of course I ended every conversation. Well, if you ever decide to sell, call me and it's interesting, what happens or I'm not even sure what I think about the synchronicity, if it was just coincidence, but the three largest parcels that touched us had to sell for different reasons. One parcel had been in a family for three generations. And when I talked to the elderly woman who owned it after a two hour conversation in her living room, which was covered with white sheets, I found out that her nieces had just had her removed as the executor because she had not paid taxes in five years.

Steve Nygren (4m 23s): And the family had to sell the property. Another man, I call said he had inherited it from his father, but he was in a divorce. And the property was the only thing outside the divorce that he could liquidate. And he wanted to sell. And the third family shared that they had raised, bought the farm to raise their family 30 years previously. And their kids were grown and they had just returned from Ellijay where their grandchildren now were. And they decided that morning to sell the farm and they were getting ready to call a realtor. So here are three distinct stories each from a different for generation who were the original purchasers that came a time within that time I called that needed to sell.

Monica Olsen (5m 12s): Right. And you had about 300 acres at this point before the bulldozer?

Steve Nygren (5m 16s): That's right. So that, that morning jog, I had put the original farm back together.

Monica Olsen (5m 21s): Oh, very cool.

Steve Nygren (5m 21s): And that was right at 300 acres. And I was just totally satisfied, not interested in buying anything else. And then over the next five weeks, I had another 600 acres under contract. The retired doctor returned from his vacation in Europe. And I found out that he had sold it to someone down Hutcheson Ferry road who wanted to put a pasture airstrip in for his little prop plane. So the immediate threat of development was gone. But I look at it as my wake up call that morning that somehow I'd forgotten that this land was as close to Atlanta and was really in the future path of development.

Steve Nygren (6m 8s): And so I see that morning as my wake-up call.

Monica Olsen (6m 11s): You're right. It is so wild to think how close we are to the city, a major metropolitan city like Atlanta, because out here you really feel like you're in the middle of the woods. I mean, we are in the middle of the woods, but it's such a wonderful discovery to find the city in the woods yet know that you're so close to everything. So I know that you guys ran, I think Garnie ran cross country, but was that something that you guys did a lot together, running?

Steve Nygren (6m 42s): The morning we were out running, that was just a normal thing. I have been a runner for years. In fact, I ran and every Peachtree Road race for years. In fact, when the girls were babies, Marie would bring them up because we only lived two blocks from Peachtree street when we were in Ansley Park. And so I was used to waving to them. So they grew up watching me run the road race. And so in about middle school, Garnie decided she wanted to start running. And so naturally I would go out running with her.

Monica Olsen (7m 14s): That's great.

Steve Nygren (7m 15s): And it was great because we just, we were great runners. And so in eighth grade she ran. And so as freshmen in high school, she tried out for the cross country team and to her amazement as a freshman, she was on the varsity and ran varsity all four years because of our running in the woods because we had the Hills and it was a great training area.

Monica Olsen (7m 37s): That's fantastic. So when scenario you've bought up 600 acres, did you just expect that they were going to build houses on there? Is that a typical reaction? I don't know if that's what I would've thought when I saw a bulldozer.

Steve Nygren (7m 53s): You know, after the bulldozer incident, my first reaction was to protect my backyard and it was like, most people do you try to buy it, whatever you're wanting to protect you buy it. And that was my first reaction. Let me just buy that. So this doesn't happen, but at 900 acres, I realized I couldn't keep showing up for these closings and that 900 acres really didn't protect you in the path of urban sprawl. And so I was in a unique position that I was concerned about our lifestyle and this wonderful rural countryside, right on the edge of a, of a major city.

Steve Nygren (8m 41s): But also I had a lot of economic resources tied up in 900 acres. And so how do we find that balance between preservation and economic return? And I think this is something that used to be common for anyone to be in that sort of dual responsibility position. And today, when I look at the development community, it's fairly severed and we have the preservationists and the developers on different sides. So I stepped into this with a foot in each camp with that challenge of understanding, how do we, how do we address both the economics and the preservation.

Monica Olsen (9m 30s): Right, right. And you had seen the sprawl in Metro Atlanta. You'd been here quite some time, but I know you've told me a story about opening a restaurant Roswell. Can you just give me a little bit, cause I think that may have informed your decision as well.

Steve Nygren (9m 46s): When I look back, I realized that morning of panic, it was a lot of things from my past that were triggering. And why am I not have been thinking about it, it was why I reacted so powerfully. And I go back to my childhood. My family was some of the early settlers outside Boulder, Colorado since the 1860s, the fields and ditch banks that I grew up on and the rural school that I went to was the same school that my mother went to, that my grandmother grandfather went to and that my great-grandfather helped build.

Steve Nygren (10m 31s): And so for generations, we were on the same land and we knew the families that were next door to us. And back then, as in Metro Atlanta, Metro Denver, most of the people that own that land didn't want anything to change. Sure. But then life changes. People die, money comes. And when the developers come calling, something happens. And so in my childhood, rural landscape is now suburban Denver. And I saw that happen over the course of two decades. And then when I moved here, I got to know the families. And many of these families have been here six, seven, nine generations even.

Steve Nygren (11m 14s): And it reminded me so much of where I came from from Colorado, although Colorado, these were Westerners who would within the last century, settled it by covered wagon, as my family did. And the southerners, we were very different in lifestyle. There was the same stories and that same sense of love of the land. And so I realized how quickly it could disappear. When I opened my third restaurant in Roswell, they, there was at least four miles of rural land that I drove through. It's what, two miles from 400 then to where you got over to 41.

Steve Nygren (11m 59s): And there was only a church in one house on that two mile stretch, 400 was so quiet that there was not much traffic and today. Yeah. And so I saw Roswell change over the course of a couple of decades to where now you do not know necessarily where Atlanta and Sandy Springs and Roswell begin and end. It's just all melded together as one strip of asphalt. And so all of those experiences from my childhood, from opening restaurants in Atlanta, I know, played out into the urgency I felt that morning when I saw the bulldozer.

Monica Olsen (12m 45s): Did you have any sense at that point, what you would do with the land?

Steve Nygren (12m 51s): Oh, at that point I had no clue. When I started buying the land, it was, it was purely just to protect our backyard. And then I started thinking about what we could do. It was how, how could we preserve and protect the value. And it was a dinner one night with a dear friend, Ray Anderson, who is of course today, a well-known environmentalist re as a friend for years. In fact, his step sons, Godfather to Quinn are now 30, almost 31 year old. So it's, it's a longstanding friendship.

Steve Nygren (13m 32s): Ray had used our bed and breakfast to entertain many of the environmental people, such as Paul Hawkins and Emory Levinson from the Rocky Mountain Institute and all sorts of the big names, you know, of today in the environmental movement. And Ray just realized we were doing a lot of environmental things with our bed and breakfast in a very simple, responsible way, whether it was how we were recycling or that we were growing our own food in our garden. And so at dinner one night, a purely social dinner. I shared with Ray, the bulldozer incident and that I now own 900 acres. And I asked him and who some of the smart people were that he knew that might come down and help us figure out how to save this greater area.

Monica Olsen (14m 13s): Okay.

Steve Nygren (14m 14s): He had just come off of being the first chair of the white house council on the environment. So he knew really national and global leaders in the environmental movement now to put things in perspective, this is, you know, a year or so before the first LEED certified building program had come out. Nobody knew this, this, this was way in the early stages of the environmental conversation. There were a few voices in the world screaming about the need, but really it wasn't the front of conversation. And so that led to Ray asking the Rocky Mountain Institute to facilitate thought leaders.

Steve Nygren (14m 53s): And so in September of 2000, 23 thought leaders came for a two day conversation on the environment issues. It was, it was tremendous. We had leaders in, in, in energy and water and agriculture, all assembled here, and Georgia Tech was very impressed with this roster of folks and so they came and documented the two days, right.

Monica Olsen (15m 14s): Can you tell us what the Rocky mountain Institute is? Just for people who don't know.

Steve Nygren (15m 22s): The Rocky Mountain Institute it's, it's really one of the thought leaderships around a lot of the environmental movements. And they, you know, they happened to be located in, in rural Colorado or in the mountains. And so it's, it's known as the Rocky mountain Institute, but it's, it's, it's globally recognized. Emory, who heads it was named one of time's 20 thought leaders for the last century in 2000. So these were, you know, they, they assembled a real thought leadership group.

Monica Olsen (15m 57s): So tell us a little bit about, I think you guys called it a charrette, and that's another sort of word that maybe we don't hear a lot about. What is that subgroup of people getting together?

Steve Nygren (16m 6s): Charrette is it's actually a French term, but used by the planning industry. And it it's when you come together as a group and the idea that thoughts are different when you have them in a group. And so it's a group exercise to plan and discuss, and, and that something different comes out from the collective than just in more a management style.

Monica Olsen (16m 32s): So what happened over those couple of days?

Steve Nygren (16m 34s): So, so it was really great, do great fun that all these, these, during that charrette and 2000, it was, it was great fun to associate with all these thought leaders to hear the issues that they were presenting. But as it concluded, I realized that no one had shared how we were going to save this area. It really was more of a discussion of all these various global issues. And while we talked about how some of them might apply here for their various industries, such as what was important for water, what was important for energy and land use, there was no one who was in the development world that was going to come in or figure out how we were going to do this.

Monica Olsen (17m 32s): You had a room full of maybe environmentalists, but nobody on what we would call the development side. And maybe that's because traditionally they're not talking to each other or what?

Steve Nygren (17m 45s): Well primarily, they were environmentalists. However, we did have a representative from the Urban Land Institute, interestingly, that was Jim Durat, who's now a resident here. Is people change. And so we had the voice at the table, but not an active developer voice necessarily that was going to capture the need or the imagination of how to address this. In fact, one thing I learned is there was hardly anyone addressing environmental issues as it related to the built environment.

Monica Olsen (18m 31s): Right? And again, you're saying that LEED hadn't started, which was created by the Green Building Association. And LEED is basically certification for primarily commercial buildings, a whole rating system of how you can build in a sustainable and more environmental way, so that hadn't been created. So that would have been interesting to have somebody from the green building there, but it didn't exist. So, you've got all these problems presented to you at your doorstep. And did anybody have any models they could point to at least, and sort of send you out to take a look at or bring in after the charette?

Steve Nygren (19m 10s): So in my discussions with Ray, after that, you know, it was like, okay, but, and so Ray suggested I visit George and Vicki Rainey who were doing developing Prairie Crossing on the outskirts of Chicago. Okay. And while they were a little further from Chicago than we are Atlanta, it was exact match. They had 2,300 acres and they were concerned about the development sprawl of Chicago. And they were just in the early stages, but it had began. And they did have a, a very simple webpage that was available then.

Steve Nygren (19m 54s): And as I looked at it, they were really dealing with, with the balance of preserved land, to develop land. And that is where I got my 30/70 percent ratio that I knew that could work. They had a wonderful model on storm water, and they had, they were introducing agriculture. And so I thought, oh, thank you. This, you know, I'll just go and they can come help me. Or I'll I'll hire all their consultants. And we've gotten, you know, what, we need this, this will do it. And so through the introductions we called and, and of course they were very gracious and invited us to stay with them in their home.

Steve Nygren (20m 38s): And we flew to O'Hara and rented the car. And as I'm driving out, I have expectations to see the countryside.

Monica Olsen (20m 50s): Between Chicago and Prairie Crossing?

Steve Nygren (20m 52s): That's correct. And I kept waiting for the open countryside. And while we saw some of it, I saw all this development going on of traditional subdivisions and some strip malls. And then we arrived at the Rainey's land and Prairie crossing, and it was, it was beautiful. And you felt it while you were there. And then during our stay, and I loved what they were doing with all these things. So their storm water remained some of the cutting edge stormwater. They had really clustered all the housing development. They were doing a charter school because it was the Prairie's, they, they instituted burns every winter.

Steve Nygren (21m 32s): And so they burned the Prairie and they were in the residential. So, so fantastic things that I really loved. Being from an agriculture background, I saw that the farms were just off in a corner in its own fenced areas. So they weren't part of the community. So that was one thing that I, that seemed odd to me about that. And, and they really had no commercial. So it was basically a bedroom community done in this wonderful way. So we saw a lot of things we loved, and, and, but they shared with, with us then what a disappointment they had, because they felt they were going to do a model to show that there was a different way to do it.

Steve Nygren (22m 14s): And they expected all the land around them to then be developed in a similar way. But what happened is they accelerated the development right next to them because people love to put housing next to their open fields of course, rather than doing it themselves. And so that was my biggest eye-opener and I came back. And at that point, I realized, I wasn't thinking large enough. That models rarely work, that you really have to have legislation, especially when you're in the front end of a concept when people do not understand the advantages.

Steve Nygren (22m 58s): And so I spent the next two years bringing 500 landowners together to create a common vision so that we could change the land use and the zoning for the greater area. So that if we did decide to do something special on our land, as a model, we would not accelerate that destruction of the area, but we would actually be a model that could be used for the entire area.

Monica Olsen (23m 26s): Wow. So instead of becoming a magnet, which Prairie Crossing is wonderful concept, it sounds like that everything just sort of came right up to their land, is that it? And so they just became an island rather than a larger concept.

Steve Nygren (23m 46s): That's right. And you see that at Seaside, it happened the same thing. Robert Davis had a great concept in urbanism, and when it was created, it was a, this little village with the sand dunes on each side. And now it's just one development in a strip of developments, and you have to look carefully at the landscaping to see which development you're in.

Monica Olsen (24m 13s): Interesting. People have preconceived notions of how a development works and the traditional construct for a community development. Is that sort of, part of the problem that we've always, we don't know any better?

Steve Nygren (24m 33s): I believe some of the research is coming out as we look back and someone said, this is in the course of civilization and how we build cities that the past 50, 60 years is going to be an incredible experience that didn't work. And, and you can see where we got to this after the war, there was a tremendous need for housing. And so you just scraped the fields and built houses as fast as you could. About the same time we put in our interstate highway system that allowed people to travel large distances. And, and, and that was president Eisenhower so that he could move troops across the country.

Steve Nygren (25m 15s): So it, it was a response to world war two that we developed in a different manner. And as the decades have gone on, it's become the model of, of what we think of as suburban community development. And it's to take these large swaths, see how many houses you can get in without very much idea of walkability, of stormwater, of connecting to nature, or even connecting to one another. Because at this same time in, in the great American success, the yardstick for success seemed to be the bigger piece of property you could have.

Steve Nygren (26m 6s): It's this is idea of having your own estate. And so the larger pieces of property became further and further from the center city that people could buy. And then the idea of having your own swimming pool, having your own tennis court, having your own cappuccino machine, having your own movie theater, right? All became measurements of supposed success. And suddenly, if you were in an area where all of your neighbors had the same thing, you weren't going to walk to your neighbors for anything. So we stopped putting sidewalks in many of these places.

Steve Nygren (26m 47s): Then everyone started becoming concerned about all the toys they'd put together, and somebody might steal them. So we put armor fences around the compounds. And if you look at it from a far now, we've created our own prisons of luxury. And today we question why, antidepressants are increasing four-fold each decade for the last decades, we've removed ourselves from each other. And through our fences through nature, our connection to nature. And research is now coming out, that those are two of the greatest ingredients for mental health and mental health affects our physical health.

Steve Nygren (27m 30s): So we, I think the development community was in a tradition of community development and it actually turned into a rut. And it's no one's thinking about doing it any way differently. And the financial community is partly to blame largely to blame because they always want feasibility studies. And the only way you can create a feasibility study is to look in the rear view mirror. Right? And so anytime there's new thought, such as we had a, it's impossible to create a feasibility study, right? And so this is community development or any new products. You really have to be willing to get out there a front and find the financial resources to carry you forward without the traditional systems.

Monica Olsen (28m 19s): Right. And then it makes me think that you had mentioned depression, but the, you know, obesity epidemic, you know, we've taken away the sidewalks and there's nowhere to go because you're gonna get hit by a car or there's, and there's no, and there's nowhere to go in some of those developments. So I guess there's no need for a sidewalk. Cause basically you're going to have to get in your car and drive somewhere to go.

Steve Nygren (28m 41s): The poor health epidemic that's in front of us today is two key things. I believe we have removed ourselves from the source of our food. And so generally we are not consuming fresh food. And for the first time in civilization, we have obesity and malnutrition in the same body. Now there's something seriously wrong with that. When our food industry is pushing empty calories and calling it food, right? And so removing ourselves from the, from, from the food production, we have lost the thought of what foods really is.

Steve Nygren (29m 22s): And so if we're putting chemicalized food in our bodies for shelf life, we're not going to burn it. So even if we're walking a lot, if you're having a lot of preservatives in your food, it's going to preserve the fat layers around your stomach, just as well as it does the food that went in, where if you, the richest of creams, right, your sugar, you're going to burn that if you walk right, but then you have to have a place to walk to,

Monica Olsen (29m 50s): And you have to have sidewalk or something, or somewhere to walk on.

Steve Nygren (29m 53s): It's kind of the crazy society that we're in, where people get in their car and drive to the gym. That's on the third floor and they take the escalator to the third floor so they can work out for an hour. That's that, that's kind of the, I doubt the world we're living in, in so many ways that we've, we are disconnected for the reasons and the purposes we do things or how we do it. It's just not an authentic life. It's a very manufactured life.

Monica Olsen (30m 19s): So now that you sort of are a developer, right, you've sort of backed into that role.

Steve Nygren (30m 27s): I'm a developer by default

Monica Olsen (30m 29s): Developer by default. Can you, can you look back at this besides saying, you know, we can see historically that it wasn't great or it hasn't been the best, maybe some of the best models, you know, why weren't people developing this way. Can you, do you have a little bit of perspective or,

Steve Nygren (30m 49s): Well, absolutely. You know, as, as, as I think back to that, that role from a hospitality to a retired gentleman, I guess you could say who, yeah, I, you know, I, I danced around the environmental issues I guess, because it was just the right way to live. I didn't think of myself as an environmentalist, but it was just, you know, fresh food enjoying the, the landscape, you know, walks in nature. It was just part of our lifestyle. And so I didn't think of myself as an environmentalist or any of those issues. And as I was pushed through that threshold to do something about it, Ray Anderson really kind of pushed me there.

Steve Nygren (31m 30s): And I, and I can't quite remember the day or the instance, but from not wanting to be a developer, but to simply want to find someone to, to help me save my backyard. Suddenly I realized that I had to develop to show that there was another alternative. And I can't remember when that day of passion happened, but at some point, no matter how many roadblocks I ran into it, it, it empowered me that I had to do it rather than it was too much. But I was in a unique position. That number one, I had been very involved in the civic and political structure of Metro Atlanta and Georgia.

Steve Nygren (32m 16s): And so I knew who to call when I ran into roadblocks and I realized not everyone knows how to do that. The other thing is I was a big believer in Midtown Atlanta in the seventies when that was sort of just full of bars and drug dealers. And no one was thinking about it. There were weeds literally on Peachtree street. And, but I could afford that property. That's where I put my first restaurant and then my corporate headquarters and I bought property there in the seventies. And so between being very successful with the restaurants in my sale and, and my Midtown properties, I had no debt. So as I had bought this land and was moving forward with development, I didn't have to answer to the clock ticking on an interest on a loan.

Steve Nygren (33m 3s): And that's a position most developers are in. So because I had access to a decision-makers and because I had my own resources, I was in that unique position where I could really look at the issues and fight the issues. And to my surprise, I had tremendous excitement that, that number one, the passion was there. And when I realized that we were going to develop, and then when we were able to bring 500 landowners together for the largest land use change in recent history in Metro Atlanta, I thought, man, we're going to do something so incredible.

Steve Nygren (33m 43s): And now I can break ground on Serenbe, and really show people how this can be done and how easy and not overly expensive. And this just gonna be such a great model. And I, well, I did not want to fund it myself. I felt, and, and to tie all my resources up, I thought it was such a good idea that I knew there'd be investors lining up to do this. And so that's when we made these great boxes that you see that color, our early brochures. So these were wonderful boxes to show the uniqueness of what we were going to do to both develop and protect the land.

Steve Nygren (34m 25s): Well, no one wanted to invest. And now this many years later, several of the people that I had invited down, tell me how hard they laughed on their way back to Atlanta about this idea that I was doing and how out of touch I was in my seventh year of retirement. And so then I realized that really the smart thing to do is leverage and borrow money. And most of the traditional banks turned me down. Main street was headquartered in Madison, Georgia. And they had brought a team here to look at land preservation, some of the things going on east of Atlanta and the president and owner of the bank was part of that.

Steve Nygren (35m 7s): And I said, by the way, I, I need, I want to actually show Serenbe as an example, and we need to borrow money to make this happen. Well, they were gracious in saying it up, but I had to leverage my Midtown property about $4 to a dollar. So even though friendly forces, no one really believed this was going to be financially successful. And so, because I did have the resources I could move forward in the right way. And I realized that's unique and why most people aren't able to, even developers that want to do the right thing, had trouble doing that.

Steve Nygren (35m 47s): Now, you know, fast forward 20 years, that's all changed. Right?

Monica Olsen (35m 53s): I think many of the developers are just sitting on a ticking interest clock and that's part of the problem, right? They're going to be as efficient and quick to get things out of the ground as they can. And so that's maybe part of the problems that we see is that everything has been sort of templatized or made, I guess, more efficient, right? Clear, cut all the trees. We, you know, there's these specific ways that we do it because that's faster, quicker, and cheaper. And sometimes that's not always the best answer.

Steve Nygren (36m 25s): That's right. We, you know, if you look back at the last five decades of development, it's become very efficient. What we're just beginning to look at is the cost of that efficiency to our human life, right? And if, while the development community has been efficient and cost effective to produce shelter, we have also increased our costs for health. CDC has the reports. At 1950, we were spending 3% of our GDP on health. It was projected to hit 17% by 2020, but to statistics out in 2016, it was 17.7 already, and is projected to be 50% by 2035.

Steve Nygren (37m 19s): So while we've been efficient in creating shelter, we have not looked at the costs on our human health and our lifestyle and depression and all those other things.

Monica Olsen (37m 31s): And that's interesting that you say that. So right. Efficient for producing shelter. So we're, I'll call it a silo. That's one thing it's not thinking about the system as a whole. And I know that you kind of mentioned sort of when you went to Prairie Crossing, you saw some good things that were happening. You've talked about policy silos in the past. And I think that I don't, if you would call it producing shelter, a policy silo, but it is a, it is a niche or a vertical on its own. Tell me a little bit about how you in the research and learning what was going on on a global scale. What were some of the policy things that you saw that developers weren't thinking about in a system that they were just looking at it as one?

Steve Nygren (38m 22s): Because I was not a developer, I was able to look at the issues with new eyes and because of the leadership through the Rocky Mountain Institute, we were able to look at cross disciplines as it, the development community, because none of it was coming from the development community per se. And in doing this, I was enthused about all of these answers. And at that point I started understanding the silo, thinking in both regulation development, utility industry, everyone was in siloed situations.

Steve Nygren (39m 3s): And I found out that, of all the things we wanted to do, at least 50% was not allowed.

Monica Olsen (39m 11s): Not allowed?

Steve Nygren (39m 12s): Not allowed or against the law. And so over the course of the next year is I had to get exceptions. Of course, we totally changed the zoning for this area. So that helped a lot. But there were, you know, federal state and local regulations have prevented us from doing what I perceived was the right thing to do for the environment and for human health. And that just amazed me. And I, you know, I think for instance, you'll see most development, they scraped the land. So it's a very basically flat landscape, no matter what it looked like prior to development.

Steve Nygren (39m 57s): Well, there's, there's several things forcing that it more than the efficiency that they see, the environmental protection division will, will only allow streets for safety and other reasons to be a minimum grade. So it can't be very hilly. Now,

Monica Olsen (40m 17s): What if there's hills?

Steve Nygren (40m 19s): That means we're cutting more hills down. Uh, to me, it's taking away the charm, but, but regardless of that, they're cutting the hills down. Now that division is not looking at the division worried about our clean waters, because when you cut the hill, you're creating problems for the stream below that hill.

Steve Nygren (40m 42s): But those Duke departments, aren't talking about a solution to where you don't have to cut the hills to do that.

Monica Olsen (40m 49s): But because my grade can only be a certain grade, then

Steve Nygren (40m 52s): You have to cut the hill.

Monica Olsen (40m 54s): And if I cut the hill then the water goes down.

Steve Nygren (40m 58s): And, and then you're required to spend a lot of money in stormwater issues, but yet you're not required to test the water. Now I've often said all this money you go to to create whatever the book says you should do. It has no relationship to how that might really affect your physical spot. So I think we would save a lot of money and have clearer streams if we, anyone developing had to test or the local agencies could test the stream below the development site.

Steve Nygren (41m 35s): And then the developer is charged with keeping it within a certain range of that cleanliness during development. Well, then you could understand how to do that on your own property in the most efficient way. But today, if you, as long as you do what they say, you've checked the boxes. And if you end up polluting the stream, it's not, it's not your fault.

Monica Olsen (41m 55s): It's not about the end result. It's about following the rules.

Steve Nygren (41m 58s): Follow the rules. It, regardless of what the end result is. And, and that's just one example of where I saw this as happening over and over and over. And then even when I passed those hurdles in various ways, the power company was not going to run power unless I cleared at least 15 feet on each side of the road. So do that you'd have to cut the hill and take all the trees down.

Monica Olsen (42m 23s): And this is the road into the community?

Steve Nygren (42m 26s): In the community and next to all the roads in the community. So this is why you see these stripped areas, because these are two of the biggest barriers you run into in development that are very necessary. So your utilities and your, your, your rules within the environmental protection division on, on how you should be responsibly developing. So they're all well-intended rules maybe, but they're so not looking at the application in today in specific sites that they're causing more problems than they're solving. And that's just two examples of many that I ran into.

Monica Olsen (43m 4s): I feel like I'm at the end of your charrette, listening to all the problems. So tell me, you know, I know that having gone through the charrette and talking to Ray, you kind of felt more knowledgeable, but then more responsible about what you could do. But you've already at this point sort of retreated to the country, if you will. And now Ray really has pushed you think that his famous quote, right, is he says to you, if not,

Steve Nygren (43m 39s): Yes. So two things about Ray that really pushed me when, when I was really frustrated and, and, and realizing that there was no one giving me the answer, that as much as I like Prairie crossing, that was, you know, they had consultants I could hire, but it was just a piece of the issue. And that was when Ray said, "if not you who, if not now, when", and of course Ray's other big thing, is that what we're doing today is for tomorrow's unknown child and how personal that is. Because when I did this, I never imagined my daughter is all coming back here. And those unknown children of 2000 or my grandchildren of today on the streets of Serenbe.

Monica Olsen (44m 24s): I know. I love that. Well, this has been great. And I really, really appreciate it. So we're going to say goodbye to our next episode, but next time, we're going to talk about more of these roadblocks. So thank you so much, Steve. I appreciate it.

Steve Nygren (44m 40s): Thank you.

Monica Olsen (44m 45s): Thank you for listening to Serenbe Stories, new episodes are available on Mondays. You can subscribe anywhere you listen to podcasts. For more details, visit our website,

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Steve’s early career was in hospitality and in 1972, he opened the Pleasant Peasant, which became a restaurant corporation that grew to 34 restaurants in eight states by the time he departed in 1994. Steve and his wife, Marie, retired to a farm just outside Atlanta with their three daughters and six years later, he became concerned about urban sprawl invading their adopted country paradise.


The Serenbe Stories podcast provides an exclusive inside look at the thriving biophilic community, from its history and development to first-hand interviews with the residents. Listen to Serenbe Stories today on any platform where podcasts are available.