Q&A with Architect Ross Chapin, Author of Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World


Image courtesy of Ross Chapin Architects

Image courtesy of Ross Chapin Architects


Fifteen years ago, architect Ross Chapin and developer Jim Soules collaborated on the Third Street Cottages, a cluster of eight small cottages around a shared garden. The small homes were tucked off a busy street, which seemed to Ross like a pocket safely tucking away its possessions from the world outside. He began calling it a “pocket neighborhood,” and the term stuck. Chapin has been designing—and advocating—for the pocket neighborhood as a means to create successful small-scale communities ever since. In 2011, he published the book,Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World, and I asked him to elaborate on his vision.

How would you define a “pocket neighborhood”?

Ross Chapin: In essence, pocket neighborhoods are about nearby neighbors coming together around shared ground. These can be in the suburbs, small towns, as well as urban settings. A pocket neighborhood can be a cluster of cottages around a garden courtyard, urban lofts opening to a shared space, subdivision homes where residents have taken down their backyard fences to create a safe play area for their kids, or where nearby neighbors plant a community garden on a vacant lot.

I live in an older urban neighborhood that has a great mix of housing types and economic, ethnic, and age diversity. Most homes here, including my own, are just a 5-minute walk from shops, restaurants, schools, and public transportation. How does my very community-centric neighborhood differ from a pocket neighborhood?

Chapin: It sounds like the public spaces around you are filled with life and vitality, and you have a rich diversity of destinations and places to walk to. Pocket Neighborhoods provide an additional space between one’s private home and the public street—a semi-public space that is held and cared for by the residents surrounding it. If you’re a stranger walking into this space, you’ll immediately feel you’ve entered a zone of ownership. If you’re a guest, you will feel welcomed. And if you’re a parent, you’ll feel at ease with your young child wandering out to play.

Can the pocket neighborhood idea help transform suburban sprawl?

Chapin: Yes. Homes in Pocket Neighborhoods are usually closer together and oriented to a shared space. In the projects we’ve designed over the last 15 years, there have been up to twice the number of homes per acre than the surrounding community. We were able to do this because the size of the houses was limited to 1,000 or 1,500 square feet. Some of these communities were tucked behind existing homes on large lots in first-ring suburbs. Most people driving by don’t even know they are there.

Isn’t privacy an issue in a Pocket Neighborhood?

Chapin: Sure. We all have a need for some degree of privacy. In Pocket Neighborhoods, we create conditions for privacy by design, rather than distance. For example, houses have open and closed sides so that neighboring homes ‘nest’ together — the open side has large windows facing its side yard, while the closed side has high windows and skylights to bring in ample light while preserving privacy. The result is that neighbors do not peer into one another’s living space.

It’s not for everyone, of course, but for those who want a stronger sense of community, it is a welcome option.

There are a lot of studies coming out showing that the Gen Y generation isn’t particularly interested in McMansions or even home ownership, and that they want to walk everywhere. Yet developers are reluctant to create communities that cater to these shifting attitudes. Why?

Chapin: Developers will follow the money. They made a lot of it as the Boomer Generation had its love affair with an American Dream of bigger and bigger houses, expansive garages, lots of toys, and a desire for privacy. The Millennials aren’t buying it. As their buying power increases, developers will follow their cues.

You devote a chapter to cohousing in your book. As Americans seem so committed to the single-family home, do you see a real future for it here? What might change people’s minds about it?

Chapin: There will always be a market for the single-family home. However, trends are pointing toward a desire for smaller, more environmentally responsive homes in community-oriented settings. Cohousing is one such alternative. It was introduced in America in the 1980s as an enthusiastic alternative for pioneering individuals and families. As many of our own friends and relatives are trying it out, cohousing is becoming more accepted as a viable lifestyle.

Cohousing communities are pocket neighborhoods that are planned, owned, and managed by the residents themselves. These communities typically include 12 to 30 households clustered around common ground. Each home is owned privately, but residents collectively own extensive facilities such as a kitchen and dining hall, community garden, playgrounds, offices, children’s play room, workshop, and exercise gym.

Pocket neighborhoods, and cohousing in particular, tap into our native human propensity to be together. We are social animals. We are not happy being isolated for long times. Yes, there are hermits among us, and we need degrees of privacy. But given the choice, we gather together. Pocket neighborhoods work with these natural tendencies, being places that make it easy to be in closer relationships, to cultivate community with a balance of privacy. So in the long run, what will change minds will be our own natures.