“Kind of creepy here, don’t you think?” These are the first words I hear over my granola and almond milk as I eavesdrop on a nearby group of bankers – bad suits, slicked hair – here for a business conference. “I feel like I’m on The Truman Show,” says another. It’s not hard to see his point. Earlier, driving to breakfast in my golf buggy, I passed through a picture-perfect postcard of country Americana, complete with rolling pastures, horses and grandparents sitting on their porches. The sun was shining and the locals waved at me (avoiding eye contact with strangers while keeping 1.5 metres apart wasn’t a thing yet). Without exception, everyone seemed jubilantly happy – a far cry from my usual, dreary commute. The parallels between my current reality and the Jim Carrey classic were enough to make me worry my buggy would crash into the horizon.
But this is not Seahaven Island, the counterfeit town created for Truman Burbank. It’s Serenbe, a purpose-built wellness community 30 minutes south of Atlanta, Georgia. While the name – a portmanteau of ‘serene’ and ‘being’ – might elicit a raised eyebrow, the concept isn’t without logic. Research by the World Health Organization suggests that up to 90 per cent of health outcomes are tied to where and how we live, with non-communicable diseases (such as cancer and heart disease), many of which are linked to your environments and behaviour, now expected to account for nearly three quarters of all deaths worldwide. A big problem then, to which a town founded expressly to promote the wellbeing of its residents offers a radical, albeit wacky, solution.
After breakfast, I join Serenbe’s founder and CEO, Steve Nygren, for a tour. The retired restaurateur and property developer is a whitehaired, slight man in his 70s. After moving his family to the country in pursuit of a quieter life, he decided the best way to stall the advancing bulldozers heralding Atlanta’s urban sprawl was to found his own 405-hectare development. Fifteen years later, 700 people live in Serenbe’s 360 homes and, as he tells me as we set off on a two-hour hike through the town’s forest, there are plans to house 3500 residents.
Despite the warm temp, Steve’s hiking gear of choice is a pale blue Oxford shirt, chinos and brown loafers; they’re not slowing him down, either. We pass the goat yoga enclosure (yeah, it’s a real thing) and arrive at a stone labyrinth.
“It’s a meditation,” he says, with a sage-like air. Serenbeans, he tells me, use the time walking to its centre to mull over problems, retracing their steps to consider solutions. From here, we walk up to the paddock and I ask Steve about his personal regimen. He walks along forest trails between neighbourhoods every day, does pilates twice a week and does two sessions with a PT weekly, too. It appears to be working – while I’m soaked through with sweat, there’s barely a bead visible on him.
Brave New World
As eye-opening as it may be to test my fitness against a septuagenarian, that’s not the primary reason I’m here. I want to find out whether a purpose-built wellness-focused community such as Serenbe presents a viable solution to the myriad ills of modern living. Since Steve first broke ground in 2004, the pace of the world outside has only accelerated. Incidences of obesity and depression are trending upwards. “[We’re experiencing] an epidemic of ill health, but the places we live in only serve to make things worse,” Steve says. “We need to move, we need to interact with nature and we need to interact with other humans. But society is set up to stop us from doing all of those things.”
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