The Business of Building Utopia

I’ve heard many strange things from Uber drivers. But this was a new one. 

“Are you sure?” she asked, questioning my destination as I hopped into her car at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport one night last fall. “I’ve been driving Uber to and from the airport for five years now, and I’ve only taken someone south twice.” North is the city proper and Atlanta’s endless suburban expanse. South is deep country. The crickets get louder and the sidewalks vanish.

Tucked into Georgia’s remote Chattahoochee Hills, a mere 30 miles from one of America’s biggest urban centers, is Serenbe (pronounced “saren-be”), a 750-resident, 1,400-acre “agrihood” founded in the early 2000s. Billed as a premium-living paradise—in its own literature and in Architectural Digest and O, the Oprah Magazine, among others—it allows residents to connect with nature while surrounded by award-winning architecture. When I arrived, an employee handed me the keys to my lodging and an electric golf cart to use for the duration of my five-day stay. But after a pause she reconsidered. “Maybe I should drive you,” she said, skeptical of my ability to navigate to my temporary home in the dark. We drove by a rustic-chic farmhouse restaurant and down a winding country road, past a stylized rusted-metal signpost displaying the quote “All beauty is an outward expression of inward good.” I found the language pretentious, self-satisfied, and utterly irresistible. Still, I felt a vague sense of panic rising within as we drove through the darkened woods: Where was the award-winning architecture?

Just as my concerns began to peak, we reached Serenbe’s residential area, a fully formed, cleverly constructed community like something out of a Narnian fantasy. Currently divided into three large “hamlets,” the development is a whimsical hodgepodge of more than 300 minimalist-modern homes, townhouses, cottages, and farmhouses. We passed a general store, a florist, a high-end bike-repair shop, a school, and a playhouse before reaching my two-bedroom townhome in the hamlet of Grange. The 1,500-square-foot lodging was nearly three times the size of my New York apartment and had the ambiance of a premium Airbnb, with elegant decor, a library of self-help books, and Serenbe-branded glass water bottles. I stepped out onto the back deck overlooking a wooded expanse and was met with silence; even Serenbe’s dense neighborhoods are free from the sounds of traffic and commerce. Many residents have electric vehicles, and Serenbe rents out golf carts like mine to visitors in an effort to reduce noise pollution. Even during the busy day and evening hours, you can hear a pin drop. 

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