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Getting the Pocket Neighborhood Right


Ross Chapin recently presented his ideas on the concept of Pocket Neighborhoods at an Urban Times sponsored workshop in Asheville, N.C. The event, a collaborative venture organized by the Asheville Design Center, drew over 100 design professionals, planners, and members of the public, focused on Chapin's ideas of creating a community designed around the forgotten concepts of neighborliness and well… community. On his website, Chapin provides the following breakdown of pocket neighborhoods:

Pocket neighborhoods are clustered groups of neighboring houses or apartments gathered around a shared open space — a garden courtyard, a pedestrian street, a series of joined backyards, or a reclaimed alley — all of which have a clear sense of territory and shared stewardship. They can be in urban, suburban or rural areas. These are settings where nearby neighbors 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 shirttail aunties and uncles just beyond their front gate.

Chapin's presentation and ideas are interesting in this time of built environment renaissance. Here we have an architect that's introducing a concept that highlights many of the ideals that Jane Jacobs was so adamant about in her discussions within The Death and Life of Great American Cities while at the same time dismissing the idea that quality development must take place within the city core or exurban fringe.

Chapin's ideas also integrate with one of the trends identified by American Planning Association President Mitchell Silver as it pertains to retrofitting suburbia. What's particularly interesting about the pocket neighborhood concept is that it creates shared space, with amenities for intentional community, while still providing an amazing amount of flexibility in the overall design. The idea builds upon the concepts of alleys and joined backyards which have become instrumental in many discussions of New Urbanist design while working on an extremely small scale (Chapin recommends sizing the neighborhoods at 8 to 12 households making the concept suitable for urban infill development).

Overall Chapin provides a revision to the concept of subdivision design that offers opportunities to bring together several desirable concepts within the realm of urban planning (including infill development, affordable housing, cluster subdivision design, aging in place, etc.) without forcing development in anyone direction. It's clear that the concept offers a fresh look on how we conceptualize housing. One important linkage that arose at the Asheville event was how pocket neighborhoods can be used with cottages or tiny houses in order to offer a quality of life that focuses on a shared sense of place rather than an abundance of personal space. This aligns with Urban Times author Andrew MacKenzie's discussion of holistic thinking and small house plans. I encourage those interested in the pocket neighborhood concept to check out Chapin's book and his body of work.  His book highlights the key components of creating a pocket neighborhood while helping developers avoid creating cartoons of the concept (Chapin had plenty of examples of poor pocket neighborhood deployment).  As we see more people buck the McMansion trend and head for smaller houses, there may be more of an opportunity to create the type of intentional, well-planned communities that Chapin advocates.