Season 1



Placemaking In The Woods

Steve believes his restaurants were one of the first to turn retail centers to places to be because of the hospitality and food.

also available on

Steve believes his restaurants were one of the first to turn retail centers to places to be because of the hospitality and food. His first Atlanta restaurant was on Peachtree Street, which in the mid-70's had been nearly abandoned, and his second was in Phipps Plaza, which was emptying of retail. Within 6 months of the restaurant opening, every retail space was leased. They were creating places through hospitality, and Steve knew when building Serenbe that they needed to have a place for people to gather around food. That first place was the Blue Eyed Daisy Bakeshop.

Next was the architecture and design. Steve knew those two things could affect the attitude of visitors and potential residents, so he wanted Serenbe's design to reflect the message of what this place represents. We think of charm in architecture as being old buildings, but Steve realized it's really the scale, massing and how they fit together on the street, which could be replicated. He also realized developers had been building neighborhoods thinking of it just as a development, while he was more inspired by small towns. Because of this, Steve wanted Serenbe to have the variety that you would see in a town instead of a cookie-cutter neighborhood.

After civil engineers have staked and graded each street, Steve and Phill Tabb walk through with a lot map and determined how far each house will sit from the curb and how tall the house will need to be for the rooflines to flow together. They then organize each transect so the movement from urban to rural atmosphere in Serenbe feels gradual. There are 5 within the first half mile in Serenbe. First you come from natural nature, 20-feet of undisturbed nature, into a place where houses are back in the woods. Then they introduce curbs, crosswalks and streetlights, and the houses start to form an urban wall with those on one side a step down from the hill and the other side a step up from the stream bed. Next you'll see homes with front porches all the same distance from the curb so it makes a more organized line. After that you'll see three-story live works that gradually go to four-stories that have retail, restaurants and residents all mixed together. In fact, the corner of Selborne Lane and Flynn Ridge has a single-family home, attached homes and retail spaces all in one intersection, which even in the most progressive cities is still not allowed because of zoning laws.

Steve also wanted to plan the community around foot paths he'd seen in small English villages. Rather than designing to accommodate cars, he wanted it to be more efficient to walk between Serenbe neighborhoods using the trail system. This is why each neighborhood is shaped like an omega, allowing every front door to open to your neighbors and community (with front porches pulled close to the street for ease of communication) and every back door to give you access to nature.

Most important, Steve wanted Serenbe to exude the beauty of nature. There are so many small things that people don't think about in their daily lives that add visual and noise pollution, and Steve wanted to remove those. You won't see trash cans and mail boxes along the streets in front of homes. You won't see large front lawns. He was inspired by Ryan Gainey to put houses within a garden of nature rather than design homes around landscaping and lawns.

Questions Answered

What is placemaking?

How does scale and massing in architecture contribute to the authentic feel of a place?

What is a condition sheet?

What is a thornbird transect?

How does Serenbe differ from typical New Urbanism?

Why did Steve Nygren design the streets after omegas?

Why does traditional Southern architecture incorporate porches?

How do porches in Serenbe encourage community engagement?

How can a mail house add to a sense of place?

Where are all the trash cans and mail boxes in Serenbe?

Why don't you see front lawns in Serenbe?

Where can you eat in Serenbe (besides the restaurants)?

What are Serenbe's home design guidelines?

People + Organizations Mentioned

Phipps Plaza

Proper Hair

Serenbe Planning & Design

Texas A&M University

The Well-Placed Weed

The Farmhouse Restaurant

Lord & Taylor

Inn at Serenbe

Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects

Merrill Lynch


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 the 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.

Monica Olsen (1m 24s): Steve, thanks for coming back today.

Steve Nygren (1m 26s): Thanks, Monica. Always fun to reminisce and even remember some of these things.

Monica Olsen (1m 31s): Sure. We are going to talk about place-making. This is sort of the next phase of neighborhood building architecture and thoughtful design. I never really knew the term until I started working here, but I think it's been in the lexicon for a number of years in sort of the industry. So I want to sort of kick it off to you and say welcome. And let's talk about placemaking

Steve Nygren (1m 52s): Gosh, as you were asking about placemaking I was thinking well, when did, when did I think about what we were doing was actually placemaking and I'm not sure the year that we actually started terming that as I think back I'm sort of a naturally born Placemaker maybe in the fact that our restaurants were some of the first to really turn geographic areas or retail centers into places to be because of the hospitality and food. My first restaurant was on Peachtree street in an area that had basically been abandoned in, in, you know, it went through, it was the great neighborhood in 1900.

Steve Nygren (2m 37s): Then taken over by the hippies, then abandoned during the white flight period of the sixties and seventies, but it was affordable. And so that's where I started. And of course it was the chic place to come into sort of the, not the greatest part of town. But my second restaurant was in the very Tony Phipps Plaza with Tiffany's and Lord and Taylor. And they'd come to Atlanta five years before and opened this great mall, but it had not been successful. And the second level had a restaurant out in New York that had since closed and the whole second level was sitting empty except for the hair salon and Merrill Lynch brokerage house.

Monica Olsen (3m 17s): That's incredible to think of today.

Steve Nygren (3m 17s): And so they made me an incredible deal for our second restaurant in the second level of a mall that was closed five nights a week in those days. And we opened it within six months, everything was leased. And so this was really the first time we were branded as, I don't believe we were branded as Placemakers back in the seventies, but we were clearly creating places through hospitality. And we did this time and time again, as I build out the restaurant company. So as we were looking at building Serenbe, I realized one of the first things we had to have was a place where people gathered around food and while the financial communities and the real estate communities were looking at me as crazy.

Steve Nygren (4m 8s): And they had so reinforced that, that I really thought that I maybe was, but I had gone through that place of passion. And so I realized the first thing we had to do was build that place, right? And of course that place is the Blue Eyed Daisy. And we planned that immediately, when I thought there was just going to be four structures, my townhouse, my sister-in-law's and friend's. And of course it's was what was considered in the middle of the woods.

Monica Olsen (4m 39s): It was in the middle of the woods.

Steve Nygren (4m 40s): It was the middle of the woods. And of course that reinforced the idea that I had absolutely lost my mind, because if I was really going to do this crazy thing, at least put it on the main road where somebody could see it or find it. But, but as I look back, I understood that we could not create a place, a destination if it were just on a main road. We were putting it in the center of what we were building to create a place. Maybe the words were a little different. I wasn't thinking about it as place making, but that's clearly the thought process that we were doing. And you have to have that place where people gather and of course are gathering around food is a key.

Steve Nygren (5m 23s):And so I think that's the core of any time you're doing placemaking you have to look at the hospitality piece of it, which is key. And I think you look at any of the great places that you think of. There's always a food component that gathering place, where we meet over refreshments, food, coffee, whatever it is.

Monica Olsen (5m 46s): That's true. So you had a very clear vision, and I know that Phil Tabb, who we've talked about had done the land plan kind of based on English model village model and what happens next? How do you, do you, did you know, architects? Did you have a vision? Did Phil help you? How does the street come to be like, what's that next step?

Steve Nygren (6m 11s): Well, several things really contributed. No, I don't think of myself as having an architectural background, although I did start in the University of Colorado in architecture soon realized it took far too much energy in years and had went into the hospitality industry instead, but I was always keenly aware of architecture. And of course, building out a restaurant company, we, you know, I was hiring architects and designers and, and was very aware of, of how design affects people's attitudes and, and affects being able to create places that people want to come.

Steve Nygren (6m 51s): So I, I had spent 30 years hiring designers and architects and directing what we wanted. So it wasn't a foreign thing to me. And we travel a lot. And especially in my seven years of retirement, you know, we would go to Europe for periods of time and a dear friend in England that we returned to every year. And I realized, you know, how beautiful and natural and in the countryside, a lot of the English villages are. And so that was really our initial guide that we wanted to, to bring that character. And you look at America and, you know, the new England villages are a lot of the same kind of character.

Steve Nygren (7m 34s): And we think of that charm as being old buildings, because I really looked at it, it was the scale and the massing and how they fit together on the street. And, and that could be replicated, or we could do things that were inspired from that. And so that was really my, my first desire is to have that. Now, while Phil was moving to be head of the architecture department at Texas A&M and was our fabulous land planner, Phil, as many people in architecture, academia deal with contemporary design, much more than historic.

Steve Nygren (8m 15s): So Phil and I were always at odds on, on what the buildings were going to look like, but Phil has been a master in placement and massing. And I really realized how key that was as the first year before there was a single building here. Phil had Serenbe as a project for one of his semester classes. And a group of students looked at the land and the land plan for the 12 live work units, which we now refer to as the, the Daisy courtyard. And so I went down at midterm and then for the finals to, to review this, this project.

Steve Nygren (8m 59s): And it was just a, it was a great project. I absolutely loved it. Of course it was all contemporary designs. And I already knew that we wanted to, to begin with the Southern architectural vernacular that's been here. So we really did a study of what had been built over the last hundred years. And what was that style? So I knew we wanted to start with that. And, and so this was a complete different exercise. I understood that this was students learning architecture, and it was really fun. Phil was finding out the placement, but as I stood back through those classes in the assessment, I was really able to study their model and their individual models.

Steve Nygren (9m 40s): And I realized they had captured the massing, even though it was contemporary architecture, the way the buildings fit together on a flowed and, and, and the, the, the roof lines and the tallest building was at the hill. And, and the way it flowed was just a rhythm to it. That was beautiful. And so I talked with Phil about how we could capture that, but bringing about more traditional architecture. And so I ended up hiring two of the students to actually capture the massing study, and they did a massing study on the buildings.

Steve Nygren (10m 20s): And so then as we hired the different architects for these more traditional buildings, they had to use the massing study and fit within those foot prints.

Monica Olsen (10m 32s): That's interesting, is that typical that somebody would give them that parameter, or I

Steve Nygren (10m 37s): It's really, I mean, it's what we do with all of our architects today. That's become standard at Serenbe. But that was my first really, realization that we could fit this within. But I also as, I had looked at all the developments and we have some fabulous developments that have happened seventies, eighties, and nineties. And we visited many of those as I was thinking about becoming a developer, you know, what were the lessons learned who were doing things I loved and, and, and what were some of the things that I might do differently on our own land. And I realized that all of these were thought of as developments and their design guidelines were fairly specific and many times locked into a period of time or a period of architecture and they were clearly developments.

Steve Nygren (11m 31s): And yet everything that was inspiring me were towns, towns. Many of them that had been built over centuries as I looked at Europe and even America. And so I really started focusing on what's the difference. And it was the variety of architecture was one of the biggest things, because, you know, in towns, buildings are changed. They might burn down they're changed through time, but the really good places, really adhere to the same massing and placement. A good example for me, we lived in Ansley Park before coming here, right. And it's a beautiful old neighborhood with winding streets and all sized houses,  and built basically in the early 19 hundreds.

Steve Nygren (12m 19s): So it's all architecture that was from that period of time that was popular while it varied in style. It was all from that period of time. And then in later years, some of those buildings were taken down and some very contemporary buildings were placed. And I noticed in the, when that first started, they basically built on the same foundation and they filled the same massings and they worked as nice punctuations. And as the years went by bigger houses were desired. And as I noticed it today, they've gotten away from the massing and the placement.

Steve Nygren (12m 59s): And no matter what, the style of architecture, it looks out of place because it's just different. So we really, really focused on placement and massing through that first study and then on down. And so coming back to that Blue Eyed Daisy courtyard, we had a buyer that saw the model and thought it was just fabulous.

Monica Olsen (13m 24s): The modern model.

Steve Nygren (13m 25s): He saw one, one unit in the modern model.

Monica Olsen (13m 28s): I know which one that is yeah.

Steve Nygren (13m 30s): And said, let's build it. And I said, great, because we wanted one. This was really what I wanted to do. And so we hired a Georgia architect and flew the student here to work with the certified architect to actually then take those plans into construction documents that we could price out or get permits for and build.

Monica Olsen (13m 54s): And that's loft 13?

Steve Nygren (13m 55s): 13, where the hair salon is. And it's very, it's a wonderful punctuation along a contemporary street

Monica  Olsen (14m 2s): But it fits, yeah.

Steve Nygren (14m 4s): And it fits because of the massing and the placement and the perfect. So that's a wonderful story that sort of set what you see throughout Serenbe. So when our civil engineers stake, we insist that they stake the rows, of course. And then I walk it with them to get the grades and make sure the view sheds and the hills and all that. And then Phil and I walk it and we, with a map that identifies every lot, and we decide where that house sits from the curb and how tall that house is.

Steve Nygren (14m 41s): So that's placement and massing of every house that's designed at Serenbe. And then working with our civil engineers, we have what you call a condition sheet and that tells you where all of your utilities are stubbed to your site. And it tells you how tall your house has to be, not could be. And it says how far it sits from the curb. Those are requirements. Now, when you design your house, you can always come to the design review board and asked for a barrier, instead if it makes sense. We've given those, but that gives a specific plan for each lot. It isn't that this street, or this is the average, this is what happens on this lot.

Steve Nygren (15m 27s): And so we really focus on how the streetscape fits together to give this flow. And so this is, this is part of this, the what, now we term as place-making. So if you're coming from The Inn for instance, which is one of my favorite arrivals, if you've never been here, and you arrive at the old 1905 farm grounds, which are still, you know, this is the, the farmhouse restaurant now where I raised the children and the buildings are in the old barns that have been built in 1900s and thirties and forties.

Steve Nygren (16m 7s): And then you come a dirt road through the cow pasture and cows and horses, and you see the pigs and the sheep, you might see any of the farm animals that are out and about, and you're sure that you've taken the wrong turn and you come through, and then you come through this wonderful wildflower meadow, which is of course the area that was woods that started this whole thing. And then we begin what Phil taught me about the Thornburg transect. And this is where you move from a rural area into an urban area. And it's how you gradually do that through transects.

Steve Nygren (16m 49s): And so we have developed our transects in each of the communities. So that architecture varies from transect to transect as does the landscape. Now, this is five transects within a half mile. So this isn't a, this is a, a very specific movement. And so you'll come from natural nature into the first area where we have placed the buildings within the woods. And so there's 20 feet of undisturbed, buffer, not fabulous trees necessarily, but just it's undisturbed.

Steve Nygren (17m 30s): It's like the natural area had been, and then their houses you see in the woods. And then you come to the next transect and we introduce curves and crosswalks and street lights. And for instance, in Selborne the first on one side, the houses,  are stepping up from the stream bed to the street, right? And the first is below grade actually before, right? And on the other side, the houses are stepping down from the hill. And so they're stepping to the street to start creating an urban wall. In the next transect, the front porches of each house are the same distance from the curb.

Steve Nygren (18m 13s): And so it starts making a more organized line. And then that takes you to the next transect where we introduce live works, and they begin at three story and then graduate around to four stories. And so in this half mile, you move from total rural atmosphere to a very urban four story area with, with shops and, and residents and all mixed together.

Monica Olsen (18m 40s): Well, and it's interesting cause because in that first, when you drive through and you'd be coming to the community, the rooflines speak to each other to your point. So once you do hit the commercial area of Selborne, there's this one corner that you point out almost on all of your tours, it's right by the Blue Eyed Daisy, will you tell us a little bit about why that that's an important part?

Steve Nygren (19m 4s): Well, it's, I love to give tours, especially to planners or people from cities that, that are being progressive. Generally into the tour comes here, they're already progressive and they feel they're very progressive. And, and generally into, in, into the tour, we, we walked through these places. I've, I've just pointed out the flow of those. You know, the, the rooftops flow is in nature is in hills in nature, but more interestingly, it doesn't necessarily follow the topography of the street. Sometimes we accentuate the hill with even a taller building or vice versa. We might fill out a valley with taller buildings, and it just depends on what we're specifically trying to do to get that flow.

Steve Nygren (19m 50s): But they do flow. They flow is in a canopy of trees flows and, and, and, and it's within the canopy of trees. And that's a very different experience because many communities you go to and it's kind of like jagged teeth because people do it wherever height you want. And so it's just think about that, that, you know, the difference between a nice

Monica Olsen (20m 15s): Dissonance, a visual dissonance,

Steve Nygren (20m 17s): And you never think about it. And we don't know why we're a little uneasy when we walk down or drive down some streets, we're here, almost everyone calm. And it's about the calming feeling as you approach. And so the intersection you ask about, because at that point, you've come through the estate houses and the cottages, and you're at the point where you have live works and townhouses, and the Blue Eyed Daisy, you can see in that one intersection. And even today with progressive thought, we have some of the most progressive things, I comment that this intersection is still probably not allowed in most places. And everyone says, no, no. And so I started going through, well, how many of you allow single family housing next to attached?

Steve Nygren (21m 1s): I know you allow them, but aren't they in different sections. And if you allow live works, is it across from your single family housing and very, you know, the hands start going down as to who allowed there's fewer and fewer hands. And then the final question, okay, well, how many of you allow commercial across from residential? Well, no one, and yet all those conditions exist in any community built in the 1930s or earlier, but we have so sanitized our zoning codes over the last few decades, that in my opinion, we've taken the vitality out of where we live.

Steve Nygren (21m 43s): And that intersection where the Blue Eyed Daisy is, is a perfect example of that. And it has great vitality and exciting, and I have no complaints with people living in those town houses and cottages that all this activities across the street,

Monica Olsen (21m 59s): No, they love it. People want to be there. So one of the things that I really like, and you, you mentioned the curbs and the, and the porches pulled close to the street and there's sidewalks. So there are sidewalks throughout the community. And I think we've probably touched on in a previous episode that there's a trail system that also is part of that. Can you just talk a little bit about the trails and the sidewalks and the sort of vision for that?

Steve Nygren (22m 23s): Absolutely. One of the great things that I became enamored with in England was the footpath and the footpath connects through public lands through the villages, and you can get very easily by foot through all these places. And so that was certainly in my mind. And we wanted to have that here. Then, as we developed our, our, our plan, we were putting an environmental plan, not worried about the automobile, but first is how could we work with nature? And that it's true, that we came up with the omegas that really allowed you to have every backdoor opening to nature and every front door to the village street.

Steve Nygren (23m 14s): And so with the omega, we could do that. And it was a great way to bring those roads along the creeks, and then across the Creek and over. And so that's how these omegas form, but we wanted really to have those paths. So we put the grid of paths in, and of course in the, in the early days, people were associating us with new urbanism because of the density we were putting in. But the biggest difference is new urbanisms still has a grid for automobiles, although it is for pedestrians too, but it's a, it's a vehicular grid. Here we are purely a pedestrian grid because our streets wander and wind.

Steve Nygren (23m 58s): And so that's different than what most people see in developments today. You, you see more vehicular grids that, that exists. And the other thing with our past system is our streetlights are located at all those paths. And so they're beacons that there's a public path that connects you by foot to every other place in the community.

Monica Olsen (24m 21s): I love that. Talk about the porches, because it's interesting that you have a certain you've set a certain distance from the curb for the porch, but more importantly, every home, you know, relatively is required to have some form of porch.

Steve Nygren (24m 36s): As we looked at the Southern vernacular, all of the houses built a hundred years ago or more, they all had front porches, cause they didn't have air conditioning.

Monica Olsen (24m 46s): Oh, okay. I didn't know that. Of course.

Steve Nygren (24m 49s): You lived there on your porch a lot of the time and your houses weren't as grand and big. And so the porches were an important part. And, and you look at pictures of many of the streets or talk to people. The, the porch to the street was an incredible communication place. So if they are large enough that they do become rooms, so that's why we require them to be seven feet wide and they're to cover 70% of the first floor. And we pull them close to the, to the sidewalk to create that intimacy between the porch and the public realm of the sidewalk.

Steve Nygren (25m 33s): And that's where connections spontaneously can happen. Maybe it's the person sitting on the front porch commenting on someone's dog, or is that a new baby? As I walk my, my, or carry my, my new grandchildren, I'm stopped many times by the people on the porch that want to greet the new arrival. And it's that interaction. I would never necessarily be invited into their home because that's a 15, 20 minute stop. But if that house were sit back a ways you wouldn't have that interaction, it would have to be an invitation. So those encounters are lost by the way we've built our houses generally today.

Steve Nygren (26m 18s): And by having the porches close to the street, you, you have this natural interaction. Now, I, I think this is important because we have, we have people who moved here now what, 15 years ago. And some of them are aging, and we have a few that are not able to drive. They're not as mobile as they used to be. And for them to be able to sit on their porch and it can be just a hello. It's, it's this wonderful connection. So for both children and elders, the porch is a huge piece of everyday life. That's disappeared from the places we're building today.

Monica Olsen (27m 1s): Yeah, well, and that connection to people, right? We need that connection to people to know our neighbors.

Steve Nygren (27m 6s): There's enough- We intuitively understood that connection to nature and connection to one another, where some of the principle connections and what we call placemaking. Those were the two things that were essential to quality life. And now it's, it's really rewarding to see the actual studies, whether it's medical or social studies coming out, that's actually proving this. This is a major piece too, to depression and illness is removal from either nature or, each other.

Monica Olsen (27m 43s): Yeah, it's incredible. You know, as somebody who lives here, you know, sometimes to go get your mail, which is not at your house. And we, I want to hear about that from you, that there's centralized mail houses. When I go get my mail, it can take me sometimes two hours to the chagrin of my husband, because I'm ended up talking to so many people on the way, as well as at the mailbox. The mailbox itself is this funny placemaking tool. If you want to call it that. So tell me about that and where that idea came from.

Steve Nygren (28m 13s): I mean, you look at some of your old towns, they, they, they, you know, went down to the central post office and it, you know, we just realized that that was, that was an important piece. And of course I'm a visual snob. So I believe my first level of decision of, I didn't want a mailbox along the street in front of every house. And so you, you put them in, in, in, in central area. So that was, that was my first line of thinking. And then as we thought about, well, then we want to place them in places where people are going to gather, you know, if, if you see, you know, a lonely

Steve Nygren (28m 51s): bank of mailboxes, you know, along a street or a green place, like you see in so many communities, and that didn't seem very interesting or appealing that. So I wanted them near where people were going to gather for another reason, by a park, by a cafe, where were you going to bump into a neighbors? Where was there already activity happening? So it was just part of an activity center of a gathering center, rather than some place you went to get mail. And I think even today, you'll see some of the millennials who don't really go to the mailbox very often now make the journey because it's a social, it's a social journey.

Monica Olsen (29m 30s): It's a reason to go see people.

Steve Nygren (29m 31s): That's right. And you're either going to, you know, find people having a coffee at the Blue Eyed Daisy, or you're going to be in Grange green and the kids are on the trampoline and everybody, and that's why it takes two hours, many times to go get it. I, I, I think an interesting note on that we have a couple who have adult children and, and they have lived here several, some of the first people. So they moved in, in, in, in 2005 and their daughter who lived out of the country was being married. Second marriage. Wasn't a big wedding, but the daughter visited a couple of times a year. And so, you know, knew a lot of people and had grown up in a big house in the city. And this house, her parents still lived in, this was their second home.

Steve Nygren (30m 13s): They were just here on weekends. And so she said, you know, even though it's a small wedding, I would really like for some people to know my future husband. So let's have a, let's have a reception or party. And so as we arrived. The, the mother of the bride was sharing with me. She said, you know, "it just dawned on me that our entire guest list is almost all from Serenbe." And she said, "I know everybody in our neighborhood where we've lived for 30, 40 years," she said "my daughter grew up there, but hardly any of them were invited. And I hadn't thought about it." And she says, I realize that when the daughter comes home, they're here on the weekends.

Steve Nygren (30m 57s): She says "in the city, when she's with me," when she says "we have a garage, we park in the garage, we go to the front porch to get our mail. And when we need something, we get in the car and go to it." So she says, "I only see the neighbors when I am invited to a party once a year, or we just don't see them." She said, "but Serenbe, I arrive Thursday or Friday. I park the car and never get it again. Within two hours of arriving, I have walked down to see what's at the mail. I run into neighbors. I get caught up on everything that's happened in the four or five days since we left." And the same thing happened with the daughter. So she knew everybody in a way that she wanted them to meet her husband.

Steve Nygren (31m 39s): So that's, we're, placemaking this, it's the kind of places we're building that can connect people to one another. And, and it's huge. And, and I think the built environment of where we're building for places for people to live and, and, and work really traces back to a lot of our depression and illness issues we have today because we have been building places that remove them from one another and from nature.

Monica Olsen (32m 9s): And they isolate us.

Steve Nygren (32m 11s): And they feel isolated. You look at all the research coming out, people in the, in busy centers are feeling isolated.

Monica Olsen (32m 17s): Well look how popular coworking is. Well, I don't want to be in their house. They want to go out and engage with other people.

Steve Nygren (32m 24s): Even if you aren't talking to them, you just want to have that energy force. That's, that's near you. And so it's, it's huge, you know? So, so many of these things we just stepped into. And it all creates place, but you know, placemaking is also about beauty. You know, I talk about being a visual snob. But, but that's been a key place. And so while the mailbox is maybe began there and it led to a lot of the other social issues, if we build beautiful places, it's also places that people want to gather.

Monica Olsen (32m 57s): Definitely. One of the things that you do to create beauty, which people wouldn't think about very much is you hide the trash cans, just like you wanted to get rid of the mailboxes, which I can envision. And you know, the conventional, suburban sprawl is a huge lawn, no sidewalks. You've got your mailbox. And then your trash cans are pulled out to the street every day or every week. So, but you don't see them here, where are they?

Steve Nygren (33m 20s): Well, I was thinking about pollution. It's, it's, it's visual pollution. It's, it's, we've talked about the noise pollution. And I realized the way we handle our trash or even recycling really is a problem for both noise and visual pollution. And so, gosh, how do we deal with that? Because we don't have back allies in a lot of places because people are parking on the streets because we wanted nature to be at the backyard rather than an alley with all those kinds of things. And we were looking at some of the old ways that they used to handle this. And, and it's a buried trash container sitting right in the front yard.

Monica Olsen (34m 3s): So this is something that they used to do?

Steve Nygren (34m 5s): Yeah. You look back there's places that have that have done that. And, and yeah. So that's, most of these concepts we have aren't new. This is when we cared more about some of these things, I think we paid attention to it. And then in addition to the visual pollution that I was concerned about, about having those little Herbie Kirby sitting out was the noise, because generally there's the big trucks that are beeping because they want to warn everybody they're there, but you know, you're sleeping and sleeping in and all of a sudden you have these noisy, big trucks coming down the street, and then the, the noise of picking up those and dumping all your trash.

Steve Nygren (34m 45s): And so we have, we have the buried trash cans. If it's in a clear bag it goes to recycling. If it's in a solid black, it goes to trash and a compost bag goes to compost. And we have a concierge that, that drive golf carts with carts and they pick them up twice a week.

Monica Olsen (35m 4s): Yeah. Well, and we know all those guys, like we're waving to them and we're talking to them too. Cause they're not in this huge honking truck. They're actually kind of on street level with us. And it's like part of the community. The other thing that we sort of touched on goes back to cars a little bit is there's limited garages. And, and I don't want to say that they're, you're forced to have a limited garage, but there are two sides of the street. And one side of the street doesn't have driveways, which I was probably like unheard of in typical developments, right. It doesn't have one side doesn't have driveways, which means they don't have a garage. You park a car on the street. The other side typically might have, you know, a gravel drive in the back and you might have a garage or not like we don't, but we're deeded for garage.

Monica Olsen (35m 45s): But basically our cars just sit on gravel in the back of our house. It's fine. So tell, I mean, that's a whole, that's a kind of a radical concept.

Steve Nygren (35m 52s): Well, number one is, is from the beginning I realized I did not want to build a community for cars. I wanted to build it for people. And so cars were the second line of concern and visual experience was the first. And then because of the omega, I didn't want a alley in, in separating people from nature on the inside where it was very intimate in each one's a little bit different, but it's an intimate experience with nature. And of course the real estate community said I would never sell houses when they had to park on the streets. But of course I lived in Midtown Atlanta and the only way you could park was on the street and, you know, so a hundred years ago that was very common thing.

Steve Nygren (36m 34s): And there were still people coming back to the center city and doing that. So I didn't see that as a big deal, but, and then on the outside, we do have the back alleys. And so you can put a garage there. And of course our first group of builders or our first builder. They just automatically designed and started building garages because that's what they always did. And we realized that that people were not attached to protecting their cars. So, so we made sure that moving forward garages were optional. You had a building, if you had, if you're on the outside of the omega, you have a parking pad for two cars on your lot and you have the option to build a garage.

Steve Nygren (37m 25s): And it has to be architecturally beautiful and the same as the house and all that. Well, as you know, there are very few garages. Most people prefer to have that open view of nature rather than having a garage. And so that's, that's a big thing against what people think the trends are. And what's important is very different than what we're seeing when you have the option.

Monica Olsen (37m 46s): Yeah. One of the last two things I want to touch on is landscaping, I think is really interesting. I know that you were very good friends with Ryan Gainey, for those people who are from Atlanta listening, you would recognize that name. He was one of the top landscape designers, and he wrote a book that I know sort of inspired you called The Well-Placed Weed. But tell me a little bit about the philosophy for the, for the landscape throughout the community.

Steve Nygren (38m 10s): Absolutely. Well Ryan was a real character and had designed our gardens in the city and then followed us out here and was an inspiration. And, and even people outside of Atlanta may know of him because when PBS did a national series now maybe 40 years ago, narrated by Audrey Hepburn on the eight gardeners of the world, Ryan was one of those gardeners. So he's, he, he was an important figure in the, of, of gardens through those several decades. And, and, and Ryan understood the very formal gardens, but he had a real appreciation for, for nature and in real biophilic design, although I don't think he used that word in that if a weed came up, that we call a weed, it might bloom beautifully.

Steve Nygren (39m 3s): And in other parts of the world, they may be cultivated into gardens. And so he had a, an eye to have a very balanced, but wild, a natural look to his, to his gardens. And so definitely influenced by Ryan. And then as I looked at the environmental movement, I realized how much of a problem lawns are because to have a pretty lawn you have to have chemicals to keep the weeds down and to get it green and all of that. And the problems that chemicalized fertilizers were, I felt causing of the proofs coming out now. So the combination between not wanting lawns and Ryan's influence has brought the very natural kind of landscape that you see.

Steve Nygren (39m 46s): And, and we really think about keeping a natural garden effect on our streets and placing houses within the garden versus landscaping around structures. And that's a very different approach. And so here again, you get that continuity as you drive down the street and it feels more like one continuous garden versus all these individual places that are saying, look at me, look at how special I am. And, and, and so that's a real change.

Monica Olsen (40m 17s): Also, I believe it's, it's trying to really stick with Southern plants like plants that actually do well here. Another environmental factor. In our neighborhood has edible landscaping. And so I can't remember if we've touched on this in the past, but again, that's one of my favorites.

Steve Nygren (40m 35s): Well, it, it looks with, with all of your landscaping, what's practical. So number one, we're not gonna do lawns. Number two, you're going to do things that are, that are native or understand our climate. We're not purists in the fact that it has to be something that's been grown here for 200 years. Because you look through history, various things are brought in and, and, and become part of that landscape and that, that culture. And then as I'm not sure if we've talked yet about how each community has a commercial focus, and we try to bring that forward in everything where there's the street lights and, and, you know, the, the buildings that are there, but we want to do that with our landscaping too.

Steve Nygren (41m 19s): And so while Selborne is, you'll see the public art in lots of places and in the landscapes and the sculptures down avenues. And then in, in Grange, it's edible. So it's, it's not just having the farm there and with the houses up to the farm, but we brought edible plants into the streetscape. So at every crosswalk you have the blueberry bushes and, you know, it begins with the service berries. Then you have the banks of figs and, and then move to the apples and the peaches and the plums, and then eventually to the nuts. And some of the nut trees are just now maturing to where we're actually going to

Monica Olsen (41m 56s): Well and there's herbs all over the...

Steve Nygren (41m 59s): Herbs everywhere. And so it's, you can, you, you can graze, as your way you're, you're leaving your house and walking everywhere. And so, as we did our third Community on health and wellness, there, we are dealing with all medicinals. Now about half of them are edible, but we have an entire garden that's all a medicinal food forest. And we're going to do classes on how to harvest your front yard for some of these very simple things that we've become accustomed to run into the pharmacy for, a while you could actually clip and make a tea or eat, or make a cream or all sorts of things that we just, we just stepped away from.

Monica Olsen (42m 36s): The architecture also sort of follows along in that model. It is varied. There is no six types of homes and choose your, you know, ABCD. And there's not seven colors. Like it's very specific. There's a design review board. And it's obviously very thought out, we've talked a lot about that, but tell me, you know, how architects come in and how you found them. And, and I know that, you know, we have Serenbe Planning and Design which is our own design firm here. But tell me about working with different architects. Cause that seems to be a very unusual choice as well, most quote, unquote developers or developments, they look kind of the same or to your point,

Monica Olsen (43m 16s): They, they, they speak to a time and place and these homes could have been here eighty years ago. So tell me about that.

Steve Nygren (43m 25s): Well, we realized here's I was studying towns versus developments that many of the developments actually had a town architect. And many times they did it all, or they were, they were directing and it was, it was there. And I realized that that to do a town, we had to have varied architectural styles. And I had to be careful not to impose my preferences specifically, that it needed to be varied. It needed to be good architecture, but it could be all sorts of architecture. And so, as I said, in the beginning, it was a for Selborne, it was a Southern vernacular or for cottages. In, in Grange it was more of a earlier, southern vernacular that we look to.

Steve Nygren (44m 10s): And then in Mado, we've gotten to the Scandinavian, really the influence, but you could see the same cottage possibly in all three, because we're not absolute and we have that buried. In the commercial areas of each, which isn't really in the center of the omega, we really try to reinforce that attitude of the, the commercial focus. So, in Selborne, where we're focusing towards the arts, the key commercial areas are from the 1930s when the art movement was really moving through America from Europe. And so this is why the hill restaurant, many of the restaurants look like a collection of buildings from the thirties, but the art building that is yet to be built is designed by Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam, which are some of your leading contemporary architects.

Steve Nygren (45m 0s): And that's all white steel and aluminum and glass and just this incredible piece that will sit on the edge of the forest, but in this 1930s commercial district. So in the crossroads, that comes from the 18 hundreds where people put their houses in the rural south at intersections for security and socialization and pigment to paint was expensive in those days. And so houses tended to be all white. So in that area, everything's white picket fences, and it's just this charming, you really feel like you've stepped down in time. And the street lamps, there are gas lanterns. And then in Grange, the commercial is a lot of, one story is though from 1890 1900, when the agrarian movement was really taking hold in the south.

Steve Nygren (45m 52s): And of course you do see our, our, our one, five story building is actually at that intersection, but that looks like some of your old cotton buildings, either for storage or developing the threads and the yarns and that kind of thing. So that was the inspiration for there. So we've held fairly true to that and that's, that's the fewest. And so as we were developing with health and wellness, we realized that a lot of our programming that we were looking to for inspiration was coming out of Scandinavia. In fact, I just saw a report just out today, what they monitor every year, the happiest people and continually it's the Scandinavian countries. And so you deal with health and wellness. It is you really have to look there. And so we've brought a lot of those things in our programming. So I said, well, why not the architecture as well?

Steve Nygren (46m 33s): So I went to Stockholm through the countryside and to Malmo and over to Copenhagen and brought those both historic and contemporary images back to work with the architecture. We've now worked with maybe 10 architects there. And, and through this now, as you mentioned, we brought some of the architects actually in in-house, so that we have our own Serenbe design firm to, to help really bring this about right.

Monica Olsen (46m 59s): Well, and I think it's interesting, the materials and the restraint, and, and that's another thing that I think is interesting that, you know, in the United States, we, we can do anything, right. We can build anything we want, and we build a new house and we take tear down an old one and we overbuild lots. You can kind of talk about that if it doesn't fit anymore. And then I put 17 different stones on it because I can't decide, or I've got a turret and a flat roof and you know this. So that's another thing that I don't think we think about, but that's something that you were very concerned with. So tell me what sort of the guidelines are there?

Steve Nygren (47m 34s): Well, number one, the first guideline is good architecture. And only one style of architecture per house. Now, when we stated that in our design guidelines, that seemed like, but of course, right, it's probably been our most challenging thing to enforce because we have become used to, or it's become popular to really mix. And I find some of the architects really aren't clear on styles. They have to go back to maybe their early architectural thoughts. And maybe it's because of the popularity of cell phones and people traveling all over and they just take pictures and they share, we like this, we like this.

Steve Nygren (48m 15s): And we like this, not realizing that many times these are in visual opposition to one another. You know, if you look at them individually, oh yeah, that's great. I love that door. I love these windows. I love this roofline but they maybe don't go together. And so we, we number, make sure that it is an architectural style that we understand, and it makes sense. And then restraint is one of those big things so that we use, I think, how have we gotten to the point where the more we can put on a house, the greater somehow we think it is, and it gets so busy in my mind, but I realized, I think, I think is part of our, our, our psychological striving to live in a village that we don't have anymore.

Steve Nygren (48m 57s): You know, we have as is after world war II, the big success was the bigger piece of land you could have. And of course it was more reasonable to build in the open land, outside the city. So, so we had this urban sprawl and then the highways allowed you to get there. And so we, people were striving to have bigger houses, more removed, and then the measure of success became how many toys you could have on your own property. So, oh my goodness. If you could have a, your own pool, you had really made it. And then if you could have your own tennis court and, and then gradually, you know, your own movie theater and then your own cappuccino machine, and then you had so many toys, you had to put a fence around it, and then all your neighbors had the same toy.

Steve Nygren (49m 40s): So you didn't need sidewalks because you didn't need to go to their house because everybody had their own. And suddenly we're totally removed from one another, but I think there's innate desire to live in villages. And so we keep putting more and more rich caps on our houses to make it look more like a village. So each house is trying to look like its own little village sitting there in the woods with the same family living there in their own TV screens. And, and I mean, the statistics on depression shows that the way we've been building isn't working. And I think it's a huge piece of it.

Monica Olsen (50m 17s): No, I agree. I agree. I mean, obviously I'm not objective because I live here, but I do think that the thoughtfulness that you've placed into where the houses are, where the land is, you know, kind of hiding the garages, the trash cans has been really, really wonderful and it, and people do feel it when they come, there's a sort of a sense of calm. And I think there's a visual calm that maybe we don't even realize that we need. And that's part of what they're reacting to as well as the connection to nature. So thank you so much, Steve. This has been great. The next episode I want to talk to you about, once you kind of decided to do it, how'd you get anybody here?

Steve Nygren (50m 56s): Good. I wonder that myself sometimes.

Monica Olsen (51m 1s): That'll be our next conversation. Thank you so much. 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,

No items found.

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.