Pocket Neighborhoods: Fostering Community with Shared Space

By: Beth Krietsch Urban living
Pleiades Modern - Durham, NC

When finding a new place to live these days, much of the emphasis is placed on interior and exterior details. Structure, design, space, location, potential—that sort of thing. But a sense of community is not often top of mind. In fact, more people seem to be more concerned with how much privacy they’ll than getting to know their potential neighbors.

But with more and more pocket neighborhoods popping up, perhaps this will change. Designed to facilitate community and shared resources, pocket neighborhoods are planned clusters of homes organized around a shared space such as a courtyard, conjoined yards, an alleyway, or community garden.

The idea of a pocket neighborhood came about in 1996 when architect Ross Chapin designed the Third Street Cottages in Langley Washington—a group of eight cottages clustered around a shared garden, offset from the street. The development, which he called a pocket neighborhood, allowed people to see that eight small homes could have less impact on the environment than if the same piece of land had been divided into space for just four larger residences. From there, the interest grew.

Chapin and his architecture firm continued to develop numerous pocket communities and are still very involved in promoting this design concept today.

A key tenet of these pocket communities is that residents share responsibility of the communal space—they help care for it, look out for one another, and use it to foster community, whether through planned gatherings or the impromptu conversations that arise after stepping outside to take in the sunrise with a mug of coffee.  

“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,” the website for Ross Chapin Architects describes.

A case study in pocket communities

Pleiades Modern is a pocket community currently in development in Durham, North Carolina, where homes are grouped around a grassy communal area. Pleiades was envisioned as a space where residents can gather and relax. As of late 2017, there are four homes positioned around this shared space, but the community will comprise a total of nine once development is completed in 2018.

The idea is that from the back deck can be engaged with that entire space,” says Adam Dickinson, broker at 501 Realty, and an investor of the new pocket neighborhood, who adds that parents will be able to keep an eye on their children playing in the common space just by stepping outside their door.   

Residents will pay dues to a homeowners association, probably around $75 each month, to handle landscaping responsibilities for the shared space, and they can pay more to have landscaping help in their private outdoor areas as well.

But does all this focus on shared space hinder privacy?

Those living in pocket neighborhoods benefit from a shared space with neighbors, but this doesn’t mean they need to sacrifice space to themselves. Privacy is a key consideration in the development of nearly any pocket community. Many pocket neighborhoods integrate structural and design components that foster a sense of solitude or seclusion, even when homes are positioned close to one another. This can be achieved with fences, porches, hedges, trees and other landscaping techniques, along with window placement.

Often, the more exposed side of one home—where there are numerous windows, doors, etc.—will face the back side or ‘closed’ portion of another home. This way neighbors obtain some privacy rather than constantly gazing into each other’s worlds.

Pleiades Modern is a great example of this, where each home has its own fenced-in yard in addition to the shared green space, and window placement was a precise and deliberate consideration. “Each house has unique window placement,” Dickinson says. “By moving the windows around we’ve created a different experience as you go through the houses, and it also helps create privacy between the homes.”

Sometimes, though, the line between public and private space in a pocket community is rather fine. A porch or stoop may technically be part of a home’s private space, yet when in close proximity to shared property, this area can often quickly transform into a place used for gathering and interacting, which is why Chapin and his team suggest that porches and other “active” areas of each home face the community’s common space, in order to facilitate this easy merging of public and private space.

Bigger isn’t always better

Rather than sprawling expanses of homes we’re so used to seeing in subdivisions, the overall footprint of pocket communities tend to be on the smaller side—usually with a dozen or less homes clustered around the shared space. According to the principles established by Chapin, if the number of dwellings exceeds 12 or so, an additional cluster of homes organized around a shared space should be created, with pathways used to connect the various clusters.

This emphasis is crucial because this smaller size and shared space is what fosters community and interaction. In many cases, it even builds feelings of security among residents.

“From a safety perspective it’s a good thing,” Dickinson says. “People knowing their neighbors creates a naturally occurring neighborhood watch.”

Clustering a limited number of smaller dwellings around a shared space is also beneficial from an environmental perspective, as pocket neighborhoods typically are less resource-intensive than more traditional housing developments or subdivisions. And they’re often more walkable, so people are less reliant on cars. And the compact nature of these communities means they can be built on a small area of land, which limits sprawl and use of natural resources.

“If done well, you can create something that’s both dense and enjoyable and restful,” Dickinson says. “Density doesn’t have to be a concrete jungle.”

Versatile in nature, pocket communities can be built in nearly any setting, whether urban, suburban, or rural. And though common design principles apply, there is no defining look of pocket neighborhoods. One may be a cluster of unconnected modern homes, like at Pleiades Modern, while another is made of a group of apartments in an urban building. And they’re designed for all sorts of people. Many pocket communities aim to attract people of any age range, as long as they have a shared interest in fostering community.

Zoning challenges of pocket neighborhoods

Zoning is a common challenge in developing pocket neighborhoods, as many zoning regulations are dated and a large percentage of land is zoned for detached single family homes. Some municipalities have altered their building codes to facilitate the development of these communities, but many have not.

Fortunately, even when regulations get in the way of development, there are often workarounds possible with a bit of creative thinking, legal help, and research. Ross Chapin Architects has created a model Pocket Neighborhood Community Development code to help strategize.

In order to build Pleiades Modern, the developers had to call in legal help for the process of creating easements necessary to get the land rezoned, as the property was made of three larger lots zoned for single family homes.  

“What we had to do was effectively hack the zoning code by using easements,” Dickinson explains. But they did succeed and the land in downtown Durham will soon contain nine homes that they hope will attract a likeminded group of people who value a mix of public and private green space and are interested in getting to know their neighbors.

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