Serenbe: A Conscious Community? An Open Letter to Steve Nygren

Serenbe: A Conscious Community? An Open Letter to Steve Nygren

Dear Steve; 

This past spring, my wife Irina and I attended Beyond Zero: A Peer Executive Retreat on your reputed utopia, Serenbe. As we drove through the community for the first time, I have to admit I was struck by the near-perfection of the streets, the layouts, and the overall feel of the place. (It’s worth noting I’m not an easy man to impress.) 

I jokingly told Irina I felt like I was inside the show, “The Good Place”. (If you don’t know that show, let’s just say that it is a very beautiful little town where everything is just right, until you learn the true story of it).  

Serenbe, your “conscious” community, rests on the outskirts of Atlanta but seems far more isolated in the best of ways. The urban planning is striking in its originality and thoughtfulness. This translates into gorgeous walks or bike rides between villages, a sense of being in nature rather than somehow outside of it, and plenty of people who seem happy to live there. All the homes have different architectural styles, common open spaces and courtyards, and the community is spread across three hamlets, or villages. One hamlet is devoted to the visual and culinary arts and retail shops, another has an agricultural theme and a third focuses on health and healing. Only about 800 people call it home, making it more like a village than a town.

Irina and I, by contrast, live in Philadelphia, with 2 million other souls. We don’t reside in the leafy suburbs with their Victorian houses, wide streets, and generous lawns, but downtown. With our kids. As in, right in the middle of a dirty, vibrant, alive city. As my wife can attest, I am frequently horrified (and express that horror vocally) by the shortsightedness of Philadelphia real estate development. Many new buildings are done in a faux-Colonial manner, in the manner they have been building for the last 250 years. There is little innovation or intention of reinventing city life for the 21st century. Instead, new buildings and new spaces are developed driven by value engineering concerns.  

Living in Philly with three home-schooled children is a maddening experience, because the city was developed — and continues to be developed — to function well in 1823, not 2023. We need houses built with closed community spaces where children can play unattended away from traffic and strangers. Where there are lockboxes for Amazon parcels built into the front of all the houses. Where there is a garage for every new home to eliminate the need for off-street parking, more bike lanes are integrated into streets, and the architecture is freed from the traditionalist approach straightjacket. 

What made me fall in love with Serenbe was you built something completely novel — it’s nothing like anything else out there. It’s not based on a suburban neighborhood, or a small town, or a city. It’s really something new, and you thought through so many of the things that make those other places less and less suited to our lives as we live them now. It’s not perfect, of course — some of the residents I spoke to acknowledge the expense and the cultural homogeneity of the place (mostly white and relatively wealthy). But it’s a damn good start, and it inspired me in many ways.  

The weekend’s theme was sustainability, as presented in the documentary Beyond Zero. That movie explains how a carpet manufacturing company, run by your friend Ray Anderson, did something quite amazing. He didn’t just try to be 10% or 30% more sustainable. Instead he completely revolutionized the way he made carpets. He did this incrementally, but by the end of his life he had created something that never existed before.   

In other words, he too innovated something entirely new. 

In business, I find sustainability interesting because it’s a new way of thinking about an old problem, as Ray Anderson proved. Just as you thought of a better way to develop land. After we watched Beyond Zero, we were asked to answer a serious question: how is what you do plundering the earth? 

After some thought I realized that my company didn’t really plunder the earth at all, But we did plunder something else, something I’ve known for a long time.  As I sat with this uncomfortable truth and the weekend unfolded, I was inspired again and again by the innovative layout of the land and the thoughtfulness of the urban planning, as well as the message of the movie.

As a tech agency, we are insanely busy and operate at a pace best suited for the young. Like war, agency life isn’t for middle-aged people, parents, or those who aren’t intensely self-driven. This means that what we plunder isn’t the environment, but human souls.  

I left Serenbe determined to find a way to innovate change in agency life, to address the chronic burn-out that plagues all but the most resilient workers. 

So thank you for bringing your vision into the world and for motivating me to realize that innovation is possible in mine.