Mending the Web of Belonging,
and Support Among Neighbors
Just as I was finishing writing my book on pocket neighborhoods, I was invited by a friend to a garden party. Twenty guests were invited to dine at a long table in her orchard overlooking a broad valley. It was a beautiful scene.
We all knew our host, but many of us did not know one another. At one point during the gathering, she asked that we take turns introducing ourselves and saying a few words. When my turn came, I said my name and that I was just finishing writing a book about pocket neighborhoods. Of course, the response was, “What is a pocket neighborhood?” After pausing for a moment, I suddenly noticed a connection. “This table is like a city block within a neighborhood,” I said. “Look where our conversations have been happening before our introductions — one at each end, and one in the middle. These are like three pocket neighborhoods along our block.” I pointed out how conversations happen spontaneously in smaller groups, while a conversation with the larger group requires organization. Then I asked them to imagine themselves as a house — each with a formal façade adorned with a bay window, two-story arched entry, and two garage doors. “If we were a typical neighborhood, our stiff facades would be facing the street, while the life of
our homes would be oriented toward our backyard BBQ, kitchen, and family room. The street out front would be empty, except for cars. If we were at a dinner party,” I continued, “there would be no conversation! We each have all the privacy in the world, yet no community. In a pocket neighborhood, active living spaces of houses face toward a common area shared with nearby neighbors, while quieter, more private spaces are farther back. Living in such a neighborhood, like friends around a dinner table, conversation is effortless.”
The home I grew up in was an American classic: a shingled bungalow with a wrap-around porch, within a neighborhood of homes built at the turn of the last century in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. The street out in front seemed to have a constant stream of walkers parading by, and there was never a question that it was off limits for kids.
During warm summer evenings, I remember our porch being the scene of long, meandering conversations, typically begun with a laptop supper. Several adults, including my folks, my great aunt, and a neighbor or two stopping by, would offer up the main stories. Often us kids would add our own animated chatter to the mix. After dinner, we would head back out for another round of play in the neighborhood. When we returned after sunset, the adults would still be talking on the porch.
Reviewing the American Dream
Since those days of my youth, the new houses being built have changed radically.
With the introduction of air conditioners, porches became a nostalgic extra, replaced with two- and three-car garages, with their wide doors and driveways flanking the street. Family life retreated indoors, taken up at first with TV and entrenched over time with ever evolving choices of electronic entertainment. Once a mecca for kids and pedestrians, the street became a kind of no-man’s-land, a danger zone replete with strangers and fast cars. Today, parents chauffeur their kids to “play dates” and after-school activities, and neighbors are more likely to be seen at the grocery store than knocking at the back door.
For empty nesters, it’s a different scene altogether. Without the bustle of kid’s activities and the impromptu drop-by neighbor, daily life can feel lonely and isolating. Friends can be across town, and family members across the country. Who can you call in case of an emergency? Who will walk your dog or go for groceries if you break a leg or are in bed with the flu?
Ask any of the 80 million retiring baby boomers to describe their ideal home, and the answer is not likely “a large, high-maintenance house out of sight from any neighbors and tied to the world by car.”
The challenge is, what other living options are there?
Exploring another approach
About 15 years ago I had an opportunity to explore this question. The town I live in on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle, has only 1,000 people. Yet it is only 7 miles as the crow flies to where Boeing builds their airplanes. You can imagine how the pressures of suburban sprawl seriously threaten the character of our town. In response, our town passed an innovative “cottage housing” zoning ordinance, the first of its kind in the country, to help direct new development toward neighborhood-sensitive, small-scale infill housing.
The ordinance focuses on expanding the choices for households of one and two people, such as empty nesters, singles, and single parents — a population segment today that represents more than 60 percent of American households. The carrot of the code is an incentive that allows twice the number of homes normally allowed in residential zones. The catch is that the house size is limited to 700 square feet on the ground level and no more than 1,000 square feet total, including a second floor. Such an increase in density comes from the recognition that cottage-sized homes have less impact than their plus-sized cousins. In addition to the size limitation, the ordinance stipulates that the cottages must face a usable landscaped common area, have a room-sized porch, and have parking screened from the street.
Around the time when this ordinance was passed, I met Jim Soules, a builder with a planning background and a former Peace Corps volunteer. We are both passionate about small houses and decided to test the new code as a way of demonstrating the market for smaller homes. We pooled our savings, rallied our relatives into joining us, and purchased 4 lots within a 5-minute walk of downtown. We came up with an approvable plan and were able to convince the local bank to lend us the capital to build eight cottages and a commons building.
A Pocket Neighborhood
The cottages we built were tucked off of a relatively 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.
Our hunch that there was a market for small homes in a community setting proved true. The cottages quickly sold to working and retired single women, empty nesters, and a couple with a 3-year-old child. Within a few months, word got out about our pocket neighborhood across the country, with articles in numerous magazines, newspapers, and cable TV. The response we received was electric. Inquiries came in from all age groups, but especially seniors, asking, “Are you building any of these in my area?” It became immediately clear that we had tapped into a deep, unmet longing for smaller, simpler houses where neighbors actually know one another.
Design Patterns for Community
Many people respond enthusiastically to the cottage style of our pocket neighborhoods. The buildings and details are quickly familiar and easy to love. But style is not critical to what we are doing. Beneath the skin of the form are the bones that make these communities work. In the way of the “pattern languages,” a structured method of describing good design practices developed by Christopher Alexander, we have identified a series of essential design patterns below to describe key elements of pocket neighborhoods.
Clusters of Nearby Neighbors — A larger neighborhood might contain several hundred households, but when it comes to pocket neighborhoods, I think the optimum size is around 6 to 12 households. These are your nearby neighbors, the ones you know by name and run into on a daily basis. They are the ones who “have your back” — the first to notice a need, and the first to call for assistance. Think of it as a neighborhood within a neighborhood.
Shared Commons — The shared outdoor space at the center of a cluster of homes is the key element of a pocket neighborhood. This space is neither private (home, yard) nor public (street, park), but rather a defined space between the private and public realms. Residents take part in its care and oversight, and feel a pride of ownership. A stranger walking into the commons will immediately feel they have entered private space and is likely to be greeted with a friendly, “Can I help you?”
During the daily flow of life through this commons space, nearby neighbors offer a friendly nod of greeting or stop for a chat on the porch. These casual conversations can grow to caring relationships and a meaningful sense of community — all fostered by the simple fact of shared space.
Eyes on the Commons — The first line of defense for personal and community security is a strong network of neighbors who know and care for one another. When a small cluster of houses looks onto the shared common areas, a stranger is noticed. As well, nearby neighbors can see if daily patterns are askew next door or be called upon in an emergency.
Layers of Personal Space — Community can be wonderful, but too much community can be suffocating. On the other hand, with too much privacy, a person can feel cut off from neighbors. Creating multiple “layers of personal space” will help achieve the right balance between privacy and community.
For example, a guest coming to visit might pass through an arbor into the commons. This is the first layer. From here to the front door are five more layers: a border of perennial plantings at the edge of the courtyard, a low fence with a swinging gate, the private front yard, the frame of the porch with a sittable-height railing and flower boxes, and the porch itself. Within the cottages, the layering continues with active spaces toward the commons and private spaces further back and above.
Room-sized Porches — The front porch is a particular “layer of personal space” that needs highlighting. It is essential in fostering neighborly connections. Rather than a small “key-fumbling” porch, it should be large enough for friends and family to gather, and in view of the commons, street, or sidewalk in front.
Nested Houses — Having a next-door house or apartment peering into your own can be uncomfortable and claustrophobic. In pocket neighborhoods, we design homes with an open side and a closed side so that neighboring homes can “nest” together — with no window peering into a neighbor’s living space. High windows and skylights on the closed side can bring in ample light while preserving privacy.
Commons Buildings and Gardens — How many lawn mowers do you need in a close-knit neighborhood? Sharing is a central value of residents living in a pocket neighborhood. So, the answer is, one.
Some communities take it a step further with a shared multipurpose room complete with a kitchenette to host community potlucks, meetings, exercise groups, and movie nights. Larger communities may afford a community kitchen and dining hall, guest apartment, and workshop. Pocket neighborhoods of any size will enjoy the benefits of a community vegetable garden.
Beyond being amenities for residents, these common facilities cultivate relationships among neighbors and strengthen their sense of community — and they are considered by some as essential ingredients for creating community.
Corralling the Car — In America, nearly everyone has a car. But cars don’t need to dominate our lives. Don’t let garage doors be the first greeting. Shield parking areas and wide banks of garage doors from the street. In warmer climates, we locate parking areas so that residents and guests walk from their car doors to the front door. This arrangement creates an opportunity to enjoy the flowers and nod to a neighbor along the way.
Of course, there are more patterns, but these are few of the essential ones to convey the hallmark features of a pocket neighborhood.
Creating Community Where You Live Now
But let’s say you do not want to move from where you live now. How can you create a stronger sense of community? Here are a few actions that most people can do with little or no money at all.
Move your picnic table to the front yard — See what happens when you eat supper out front. It’s likely you’ll strike up a conversation with a neighbor. Invite them to bring a dish to share. It’s likely others will want to join in. Make room.
Plant a front-yard vegetable garden — Don’t stop with the picnic table. Build a raised bed for veggies; plant edible landscaping and fruit trees. If you’re inclined, invite your neighbors to share the garden. Along with carrots and sweet peas will come conversation and friendship — a bountiful harvest.
Build a fence bench — If you live on a street with walkers, build a bench into your front fence to offer a welcome way-stop or a foot-activated water bowl to offer their dog a cool drink on a hot day.
Make a Book Lending Cupboard — Take a book, lend a book. Collect your old reads and share them with passersby in a book-lending cupboard mounted next to the sidewalk out front. Give it a roof, a door with glass panes, and paint it to match the flowers below. Or, change the story — create a poetry cupboard with a signboard announcing, “Read a Poem, Write a Poem.”
Mending the Web of Belonging, Care, and Support
For aging boomers, this seems to be the time when many of us are evaluating our living situations. Where is home? Such a fundamental question can come when our parents (or we ourselves) are facing another season with the burdens of a big house and yard, or in the wake of natural climate events that are disrupting lives within entire regions.
The sad story is that many of us lack networks of personal and social support. Family members can be spread across the country, friends live across town, and neighbors don’t know one another. Too often, a listening ear or helping hand is not available when it’s most needed.
Pocket neighborhoods are one answer to mending a web of belonging, care, and support among those who are physically closest to us — our neighbors. Their small scale makes it easier for neighbors to know and look after one another. The simple act of having a neighbor admire a newly planted garden or share stories about grandkids strengthens the bonds of “neighborship.” This makes all the difference.
I’d like to say that pocket neighborhoods are common. The fact is, there is a lot of work to do. Neighborhood and housing advocates are speaking out. Planning officials are changing zoning and housing policy. Architects and developers around the country are creating new communities. Writers and producers are featuring stories in a range of media. One thing is for certain, though: The baby boomer generation will surely reinvent how they want to live out the rest of their lives, and for many that will be in neighborhoods that foster the same sense of community that many of us knew growing up.