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I was raised on a dead-end street with 11 homes in a growing suburban town west of Boston.
The largest house on the block was a comfortable 2,100 square feet. My gang of friends freely walked the sidewalks to school, played hopscotch, rode our bikes up and down our street, and felt wildly adventurous, making forts in the “woods” (our backyards) together.
I learned the meaning of community by attending town schools, participating in local sports, and watching my parents vote diligently at the town hall. We frequented the same bank, jewelry store, florist, hardware store, bakery, pharmacy, doctor, grocery store, farmers markets, and church.
My favorite Saturday morning task was helping my dad load the station wagon with the trash and drive to the town dump. The view of mountains of rotting garbage took a backseat to the lively conversations my dad and I had with the town criers and neighbors. The community extended far beyond our street.
I felt a sense of comfort, security, and connection there, but something was still missing.
Twenty-five years later, I married and moved to a rural town 30 miles south. Our 5,000-square foot house, built in the 1980s, grew in 10 years to become a 10,000-square foot fortress. Its horrible proportions, overdone landscaping, poor balance, lack of architectural rhythm, mismatched and countless windows, sliders, skylights, dormers, columns, doors, and garages made me feel disoriented and unsettled.
I began to see that these oversized houses, meant to keep out undesirables, were damaging our children, communities, environment, wallets—and our spirits.
I was a McMansion wife and only knew our immediate neighbors. We nodded at each other when prompted and waved with casual politeness. The cars passed quickly on our busy street rushing to the mall, grocery store, and school. Our family of five, nestled a bit too comfortably in our overgrown house, went days without interacting in any real respect. We tended to our business and used the Nutone intercom to chat.
I’d lost all sense of the community I had growing up.
Years have passed, and I’ve since moved out of my marital home. The McMansion, and all it represented, did me in. I longed for something different.
My search took many forms. Huddled in the cozy corner chair of Borders book store, I read every self-help book I could get my hands on. I quit the job I held for 20 years teaching dance when narcissistic stage moms and tights and tap shoes became physically and emotionally too painful.
I didn’t give up though. I kept searching the internet for answers. I hoped to find communities nearby that were more connected—but nothing.
Then, I stumbled upon yoga for exercise and meditation to ease my troubled mind. Yoga class felt foreign, as I was weirdly accepted for my lack of knowledge. No one gave a damn what I was wearing, where I lived, whom I married, what I did for work, or where I was from. Meditation didn’t come so natural. I wiggled, scratched my nose, and pleaded with my mind to stop wandering, but it felt good to sit somewhat still and learn to focus on nothing but my jagged breath.
This newfound experience helped a bit to ease my longing for connection and wellness, but I had yet to find a place I wanted to put down roots. My observation of the growing epidemic of obesity, eating disorders, cosmetic surgery, med-spas, and eyelash/nail/blowout/tanning salons were now mainstream.
I hadn’t given up my search for utopia. I wanted freedom.
I fantasized about walking barefoot in fields of grass, smelling fresh air, reconnecting, and seeking vibrant new paths to wellness. I wanted to walk my dog in a dog park and not let her out through a doggy door protected by an electric fence. I wanted to take a stroll through the neighborhood and stop to chat with a sweet couple about the latest art class they just took.
I wanted to move away from the “New America” I rejected to find a wellness community centered around access to fresh, healthy food, fostering community and social ties, returning to nature, neighborly harmony, and even an attractive return on investment.
Waiting for a flight connection at the Miami airport with my husband, my eye caught a Time Magazine: Special Edition headline: “Wellness: Finding a Healthier You—Heart, Body, Mind and Soul.” Yes, that’s it! I thought.
I picked it up, along with a new journal and a package of breath mints, and dug right in. The woman on the cover of the magazine was a vision of vitality with a soft smile on her face, a gentle breeze blowing in her hair, rolling hills and flowers in the background. I opened the cover mindfully, skimmed the table of contents, and stopped to find an article titled: “Wellness Communities: Can Where You Live Change Your Life?” The article stated that, “Disenchanted with car-dependent suburban sprawl, Americans are embracing ‘wellness communities’ designed to support a more holistic, better way of living.”
Is this it? Could this be what I’ve been searching for all these years?
Author Jennifer Rainey Marquez describes this paradise—named Serenbe. How serene, I thought. Marquez defines Serenbe as an “agrihood.” I smiled; it sounded blissful. The term itself is still fluid and developing, but a few facts are certain.
Agrihoods promote wellness, community health, and social interaction. Agrihoods create jobs and support a very local economy. Typically, a community farm is the centerpiece of the neighborhood and serves as an opportunity for education as well as employment. Its residents believe people and the planet are more critical than soda and shopping.
It turns out that the type of community I had dreamed of was no fantasy. The Global Wellness Institute and the Urban Land Institute released pictures showing that people like me existed and they were living in planned wellness agrihoods in 27 communities all over the United States. And what’s even better is that agrihoods give residents a place where they genuinely want to spend their valuable time.
For a moment, I returned to those years in my childhood, knowing my neighbors, walking to school, riding my bike, and playing with friends.
I could see myself having that chat with my neighbor and creating meals with locally grown vegetables. I could use geothermal power to run my home, picnic in the park, bike to town, and wake up where the sun shines over a broad, green landscape not poisoned with chemicals. I felt nourished and hopeful.
Agrihoods incorporate the best of rural, suburb, and urban communities—they are suburbia redefined. Agrihoods are not a nostalgic dream; they are real. They are now.
The Urban Land Institute claims agrihoods are rapidly growing. Almost all are 30 minutes from a city. Some are small, some are large, but all are centered around environmental conservation, community connection, and sustainable living.
Next week, my husband and I fly to Atlanta to discover the top agrihood on our list: Serenbe, where the suburbs meet the farm. People today live cut off from the earth and their neighbors. We are taking a turn away from that, and it feels like home.