By Mary Beth Breckenridge Akron Beacon Journal
Ross Chapin is re-envisioning the neighborhood.
Chapin, an architect from Whidbey Island, wants to bring back a stronger sense of community to the places where we live.
He’s doing that by promoting what he calls pocket neighborhoods, small clusters of homes that share a common green space and are designed to promote interaction.
Chapin believes people are longing for simpler lives with more interpersonal connection. It’s the kind of existence he knew growing up in a cottage on a Minnesota lakeshore, in a neighborhood steeped in what he called “porch culture” — a culture where people had reason to venture outside their homes, where kids could roam and where neighbors interacted on a regular basis.
Yet since the middle of the 20th century, homes and neighborhoods have gotten bigger, communities have been designed to accommodate cars instead of pedestrians, and living spaces have become oriented toward the rear of the house and the backyard.
Americans have been sold on the need for privacy, Chapin said, and community has suffered as a result.
Chapin thinks a hunger exists for a better balance. “How do we live smaller, live smarter and live together?” he asked rhetorically.
He’s sought to achieve that by designing or developing pocket neighborhoods around the country. For the past 10 years he worked with Seattle developers Jim Soules and Linda Pruitt to build six pocket neighborhoods, and he’s designed dozens more around the country.
Chapin has written a book on the subject, “Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small Scale Community in a Large Scale World.” He also has a website, www.pocket-neighborhoods.net.
The purpose of a pocket neighborhood is to put a dozen or so households in close proximity and give the residents an incentive to interact daily. It’s not a commune, but more like a cozy block.
The size of the neighborhood is important, Chapin said. He recommends eight to 12 households, enough to create a lively, diverse cluster, but not so many that neighborliness is lost.
Shared space is another key element, such as joined yards, a garden courtyard or a pedestrian street. It’s a place where kids can play, where neighbors might share a community garden or picnic, and where residents spend time or pass through regularly, Chapin said.
Chapin’s pocket neighborhoods have some other distinctive features: He turns the houses around so their fronts face the shared space. Also he incorporates larger front porches, and he advocates having common gardens and buildings, such as a shed to house shared lawn and garden tools or a multipurpose room for community potlucks and gatherings.
Smaller homes also encourage more outside living.
He prefers to create a parking area away from the houses, requiring the neighbors to walk through the common area.
Another option, he said, might be a lane leading to attached garages that are shielded from the common area.
Even though pocket neighborhoods promote interaction, Chapin still emphasizes the importance of privacy. He designs and orients houses so the residents can’t look out their windows into their neighbors’ houses.
The benefits to pocket neighborhoods are many, Chapin said. As neighbors become closer, they help and watch out for one another. Security is enhanced, because unfamiliar people in the common space are more likely to be noticed. And children in the neighborhood have lots of adults involved in their lives, as well as a safe area to play and explore the outdoors.
While Chapin’s neighborhoods are built from the ground up, the pocket neighborhood concept can translate to existing neighborhoods, he said. Neighbors might remove fences to create a shared yard where children can play, for example, or they might reclaim an alley as a gathering space.