How Pocket Neighborhoods Inspire

Home buyers are looking for the right property, but they’re also looking for the right community. Does your area have elements to draw them in?

Developers and architects are often looking for new and different ways structures and amenities can help create communities residents truly love. One example of this trend is so-called “pocket neighborhoods.” The term is loosely defined as a space where small groups of houses or apartments (usually around eight to 12) face toward a common area, whether that be garden courtyards, pedestrian streets, or a shared indoor space.

This community format was a recurrent topic of conversation at the 24th annual Congress for New Urbanism, held in Detroit this month. Grace Kim, a founding principal of Schemata Workshop in Seattle, told a packed room of congress attendees that this version of cohousing is generating interest within a wide cross-section of society. “There are a lot of people looking for this type of community,” she said, from retirees looking to downsize to tech-industry types weaned on co-housing to young families who lack the support system provided by nearby relatives. “There’s oftentimes a waiting list.”

Architect Ross Chapin — credited as an early adopter and innovator in this niche for his work on the Third Street Cottages community in Langley, Wash., in the late 1990s — says he had a feeling pocket communities were needed in his community and that they would catch on across the country. “I had a hunch. Then it went viral,” Chapin said at the new urbanism summit, noting that those who introduce these types of developments often do a service for local residents. “You can raise the value of your community and raise the number of options.”

But even if your town doesn’t boast a pocket neighborhood, there are still plenty of important lessons that architects and new urbanists can impart. Learn what makes these areas so well loved, and you might get insight into smart design techniques that can make for better curb appeal and community interaction in your own area.

Built-in Gathering Places

Pocket neighborhoods are often defined by the existence of shared space in the middle of a small development. But there’s a great deal of flexibility in how architects and designers define that shared space. It can be a mix of indoor and outdoor, often depending upon the climate, and the use can be both social and practical. Residents with smaller spaces might find the existence of guesthouses helpful for hosting out-of-towners, while young families might appreciate a play space for the kids. Chapin suggested focusing on cooking and eating options, such as a large barbecue pit or commercial kitchen. “In every development project I’ve been involved in, we’ve included some sort of commons building,” he said, adding that the amenity could be as simple as a shed filled with tools for residents to share. “It doesn’t have to cost very much. Just have something there — preferably with food.”

Gardening is also a popular option, from neighbors planting together in common spaces to hiring horticultural experts. Kim went with the latter option when she decided on a year-round farm for the rooftop of the Capitol Hill Urban Cohousing development she’s working on in Seattle. She said the amenity will not only help teach kids living in the development where their food comes from, but also provide hyper-local produce for the rest of the community.

Making Space for Spontaneous Connections

While pocket neighborhoods almost always have a central space for socializing, architect Bruce Tolar told attendees he likes to incorporate features that foster community in places where neighbors are likely to bump into each other, such as when they’re retrieving their mail. That’s why instead of creating a central spot for postal activities for his Cottage Square development in Ocean Springs, Miss., he clustered mailboxes in groups of four all around the development. “It’s not just a street full of mailboxes that you so often see,” he said, noting that this “human-scale” approach is more comfortable for residents (if not for postal workers). Kim said other so-called “programmatic” areas, such as bike storage, also benefit from a bench or other features that invite residents to socialize spontaneously.

Chapin said there’s a biological metaphor that helps explain this relationship between planned physical spaces and the community-building conversations that can happen around them. “Synapses are possible because there are receptor points in your brain,” he said, noting that this is similar to how mindfully designed spaces open opportunities for building relationships in a pocket community. “If you take the receptor sites out, there’s no communication.”

Layering in Transitional Space

Another element common to pocket neighborhoods is the incorporation of intermediate zones between the street and the common area, and the common area and the private home. “The more layers there are, the more we are able to choose to come out,” Chapin explained. He noted that a carefully placed combination of low and high windows can help residents keep an eye on the common area while still maintaining privacy where it’s needed. He also noted that simple details such as proper porch railing height can make a big difference. The best-case scenario, he said, is when a “railing is just high enough that you can perch on or set a coffee cup on” it.

Kim said layers of social space help accommodate people who have different approaches to neighborly interaction. A big fire pit or communal table out in the open might be fun for some, but others might gravitate to smaller nooks, where they can converse with just one or two others. “People will say that cohousing is just for extroverts. Well, usually extroverts are married to introverts!” Kim said. “Having these various scales allows a variety of people” to feel comfortable in the space.

A Culture of Community

Chapin noted that it’s important to foster conversations about what’s happening in the community, and that it might help to bring in someone to facilitate such communications.

“Hire a community consultant,” he suggested, noting that if all residents can take part in running the common areas, their investments will pay off. “Have them do as much as they can within their abilities.”

The importance of a shared vision for the community applies to both rental and owner-occupied communities. In fact, these communities may foster interest in home ownership regardless of their structure. Tolar’s Mississippi development is rental only, but he said it’s been a gateway to greater home ownership. “The [residents] who are there longer, they develop bonds,” he said, recalling one renter who temporarily moved to Ocean Springs after Hurricane Katrina and ended up staying long-term and buying a home there. “We’re an enabler, almost, in that process of becoming home owners.”