Pocket Neighborhoods

Pocket Neighborhoods

SKU# 071275

Creating small-scale community in a large-scale world

Ross Chapin


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  • Product # 071275
  • Type Hardcover
  • ISBN 978-1-60085-107-0
  • Published Date 2011
  • Dimensions 9 x 9 1/2
  • Pages 224
  • Photos 220
  • Drawings 30

A 2012 Nautilus Silver Award Winner

Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small Scale Community in a Large Scale World introduces an antidote to faceless, placeless sprawl — small scale neighborhoods where people can easily know one another, where empty nesters and single householders with far-flung families can find friendship or a helping hand nearby, and where children can have shirt-tail aunties and uncles just beyond their front gate.

The book describes inspiring pocket neighborhoods through stories of the people who live there, as well as the progressive planners, innovative architects, pioneering developers, craftspeople and gardeners who helped create them.

Sarah Susanka, author of the best selling Not So Big House series, wrote the forward to the book, placing pocket neighborhoods within context of the contemporary trends in housing and community. Ross begins the book by outlining the shifts in the scale of community and the American Dream over several generations, leading to super-sized houses in a sea of development, then describes a solution to help restore healthy, livable communities. The first section of the book looks at historic precedents of pocket neighborhoods, from 15th century hofje almshouses in the Netherlands, to a 19th century Methodists Camp Community on Martha’s Vineyard, to early 20th century Garden City models and Southern California Cottage Courtyards. The second section covers a wide range of contemporary pocket neighborhoods, including New Urban communities, affordable housing, houseboat communities, eco-neighborhoods, and Ross Chapin Architects’ own pocket neighborhood examples. The third section focuses on ‘cohousing’ communities, from Danish origins in the 1960s, to examples across America, Australia and New Zealand, including a chapter on senior cohousing. The fourth section looks at retrofitting pocket neighborhoods within existing communities. Throughout the book are series of “Design Keys” that highlight the essential principles of pocket neighborhood planning and design, and short stories about “Pocket Neighborhood Pioneers” who blazed new trails. The book is filled with rich photographs, drawings, illustrations and site plans, and a Resources section at the end provides leads for the reader to explore the topic in further detail.

Table of Contents


Part One:
Pocket Neighborhood Precedents
1: Setting Up Camp
2: Gardens of Compassion
3: Visions of Garden Cities
4: Bungalow Courts, Walks, and Walk Streets
5: Cottage Court Revival

Part Two:
Contemporary Pocket Neighborhoods
6: A New Cottage Court
7: A Neighborhood within a Neighborhood
8: A Pocket Neighborhood on a Challenging Site
9: The Neighborhood the Neighbors Built
10: A Floating Neighborhood
11: Lanes, Woonerfs, and Mental Speed Bumps
12: Back House, Front House, Lane
13: New Urban Pocket Neighborhoods
14: Lines of Enticement
15: Pocket Neighborhoods within a Village

Part Three:
Cohousing Communities
16: Danish Origins
17: Cohousing in America
18: Greening the Neighborhood
19: Saging Communities

Part Four:
Pocket Neighborhoods in Existing Communities
20: Infill in a First-Ring Suburb
21: Urban Homesteads
22: Cultivating Community in the Garden
23: Taking Down the Fences
24: Taking Back the Alley
25: Taking Back the Street
Afterword: The Fabric of Community



The home I grew up in was an American classic: a shingled bungalow in Minne­sota with a wrap-around porch, within a neighborhood of homes built at the turn of the last century. My grandparents and great aunt lived on the next block, and our porch was the hub of lingering family conversations on warm summer evenings. The entire neighborhood was our playground, and I knew which houses I was welcomed into.

In the 1960s, the interstate freeway system extended out from St. Paul, opening the surrounding farmland to waves of suburban ranch homes. To my young eye, they were appallingly beige and plain. This mediocrity felt like an insult to the land, and I began imagining alternative designs for houses and neighborhoods that had more life and vitality. Looking back, I can see how these contrasts sparked my desire to become an architect.

I eased into a career as a young architect focused on designing individual homes fitted to the clients’ particular needs and their sites. Yet no matter how well designed these homes may have been, I was left with the nagging feeling that I wasn’t able to address the needs and desires of living in a community. Nearly all the neighborhoods I worked in were merely collections of individual houses, each an island to itself, with little real connection among neighbors. There was only so much I could do at the scale of one house.

At a talk I gave to a group of builders and architects, I met a developer who challenged me to think bigger. We decided to join forces and collaborate on building a cluster of small cottages that created a community together. They were tucked off of a busy street, like a pocket safely tucking away its possessions from the world outside. It seemed to me like a “pocket neighborhood,” and the term stuck. The cottages had a very approachable style that everyone seemed to love. Yet beyond their appearance, it became immediately clear that we’d tapped into a deep, unmet longing for community. Soon after we completed our first pocket neighborhood (which we’ll look at in detail in Chapter 6), word got out about them, and the response we received from across the country was electric. It was not just from small households or a particular age group, nor was it about the cottages themselves; what we heard was a widespread, deeply felt desire to live in a real neighborhood.

We continued to design and build variations of pocket neighborhoods to test the market for these small-scale communities. And during this time, I’ve sought to understand the key design principles that foster vibrancy and life in a community. In my explorations, I discovered a wide range of related projects, both historical and contemporary, that shed light on these principles. This book is an account of this search. My hope is that it will offer guideposts and inspiration to help restore the coherence of vibrant, small-scale communities in our large-scale world.

Discovering Pocket Neighborhoods

This book is about a pattern of settlement that is rare in America, yet common to traditional communities around the world. I call it a pocket neighborhood. By my definition, a pocket neighborhood is a cohesive cluster of homes gathered around some kind of common ground within a larger surrounding neighborhood. I like to think of it as a neighborhood within a neighborhood.

Pocket neighborhoods form at a scale where meaningful “neighborly” relationships are fostered—smaller than what we usually think of as a neighborhood, but larger than a couple of houses. Garden courts are good examples, but a pocket neighborhood could also be a coherent city block, a series of suburban houses with joined backyards, a reclaimed alley, “cohousing,” or an elder housing cluster woven into a larger neighborhood.

Shared outdoor space is a key element of a pocket neighborhood. It is neither private (home, yard) nor public (a busy street, park), but rather a defined space between the private and public realms. The residents surrounding this common space share in its care and oversight, thereby enhancing a felt and actual sense of security and identity. Because of its location and design, the shared outdoor space fosters casual interaction among neighbors, which, in time, may grow into deeper, long-term friendships.

The Japanese phrase—muko sangen ryo donari—comes close to describing the scale of a pocket neighborhood. It translates as “three houses across and one to either side and back.” These are one’s immediate neighbors.

What’s the Right Size for a Pocket Neighborhood?

A neighborhood might contain several hundred households, but when it comes to pocket neighborhoods, I believe the upper limit is in the range of 12 to 16 households. If a cluster has fewer than 4 households, it loses the sense of being a cluster, or a group. It lacks the clear sense of identity, diversity, or activity of a larger group.

On the other hand, when the number of households grows beyond a dozen or so, it becomes difficult for people to know their neighbors in any depth, or to live close enough to call on them in an emergency.

  • Pocket neighborhoods are clustered groups of neighboring houses or apartments gathered around some sort of shared open space—a garden courtyard, a pedestrian street, joined backyards, or a reclaimed alley. They can be in urban, suburban, or rural areas.
  • A pocket neighborhood provides the setting for neighbors to develop meaningful relationships beyond the family. It is the physical basis for creating community with surrounding neighbors.
  • The shared commons of a pocket neighborhood is held and cared for by surrounding neighbors, who feel the space as an extension of their personal world.
  • In a pocket neighborhood, there is a collective sense of ownership that extends beyond the front yard gates to the edge of the shared commons at the street. A guest or stranger will feel this territorial sense as soon as they enter the commons.
  • A neighborhood is where you might describe “the red house on the corner of Elm and Main Street”—a known location, a kind of local landmark that helps define and give character to a neighborhood. But you may not know who lives there. In a pocket neighborhood, neighbors know one another: “Kate and Joey live across the way.” These are neighbors you can ask about your child’s earache or other daily dilemmas, and invite to join in an impromptu takeout order for pizza.
  • A pocket neighborhood is not the wider neighborhood of several hundred households, but a realm of a dozen or so neighbors who interact on a daily basis—like a neighborhood within a neighborhood.
  • Imagine you’re 6 years old and your mom says “go out and play.” If she’s comfortable with you going beyond the front gate, you’re likely living in a pocket neighborhood.

Living in a Large-Scale World
Why pocket neighborhoods? Why now? The American Dream of owning a single-family home with a private yard and a garage seems to be what most people strive for. It is certainly what is being sold. Yet demographics and family structures have changed significantly since this version of the dream was awakened. We’re living in a larger scale world than our grandparents, with more—or certainly different—stresses and pressures. Understanding how we arrived at where we are now will help us find ways to meet our deeper needs and desires.

The Lure of Privacy
Houses are typically marketed on their virtues of curb appeal, size, privacy, and personal amenities. Realtors list an impressive two-story brick-faced portico, three-car garage, and a bathroom with every bedroom. A media room and backyard barbeque round out the amenities, making the home a self-reliant hub of family life.

Once new homeowners move in, however, it may take some time for them to meet their neighbors. The street out front is less likely to be a place to chat with a neighbor than a space to come and go through by car. Most activities happen in the privacy of the home and backyard, while the world beyond the front door is left vacant.

Looking at this in terms of scale, the small-scale levels of room, house, and backyard get a lot of attention, while the next-level scale of the street and block get little use. This means fewer opportunities to share a favorite recipe, tell about the trip to the lake, or discuss the upcoming mayor’s election. Without daily relationships, nearby neighbors are less likely to call on one another to look after a child while going out for groceries, or check in on an elderly neighbor when the curtains haven’t opened by 10 a.m. When this critical level of scale is weak or undefined, the vitality and resilience of a community are diminished.

The Scale of Community and the American Dream
Let’s face it: Humans are gregarious. We like to live around others. For thousands of years our ancestors lived in clusters, barrios, hamlets, neighborhoods, and villages. Many lived their whole lives within a small circle of where they were born.

For much of human history, walking distance defined the scale of community. Most of one’s daily relationships in life took place, by circumstance, within an area defined by the distance a person could easily walk. Horses and wagons expanded the circle, but still, the scale of community was closely knit and tied to place. When Henry Ford took the Model T to the masses and a vast highway network unfurled across the American continent, proximity released its hold on close relationships, and the walk-circle community quietly disbanded. Work and friendships were just as likely to be found at distances measured in miles rather than blocks. Bell’s telephone “miraculously” eliminated the bounds of distance all together. These technologies changed the scale of community as had never happened in all of history.

The automobile and cheap, endless oil opened up “broad acres” of land, and a new American Dream took root, giving millions of people access to single-family home ownership. Fathers had well-paying work in the city, while mothers and children had a wholesome life in the suburbs. Or so the story goes.


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