A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2021


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Pocket Neighborhoods – Good Things in Small Packages

by Candace Brown


I take a walk through what seems, at first, like a perfect neighborhood. Uninterrupted by mailboxes, parked cars, kids’ bicycles, or lemonade stands, the empty sidewalk curves in a graceful line past one carefully groomed lawn and massive house after another. It is so different from the neighborhood where I grew up.

Where are the children? I remember when being part of the neighborhood “gang” was a good thing, our many hours of outdoor play, and the well-worn paths between our houses. We learned to get along, because we could be sure at least one of our mothers watched from a kitchen window or had us within earshot. Sometimes they sent us on errands to borrow a cup of sugar or deliver gifts of baked goods or homegrown produce. And when that involved visits to older neighbors, we showed the respect we had been taught, listened with fascination to their stories, and helped them with chores. We felt secure in our neighborhood, our tribe, the place where we belonged.

But here, neatness and order reign. The dominant feature of a house is not a front porch, but a three car garage. Suddenly, one of them opens by remote as a car turns into the driveway. Just as the driver glances at me, with suspicion, the garage door comes down again with a thunk that says “keep out.” In this neighborhood, security is based on exclusion.

Award winning architect, planner, and author Ross Chapin, believes the best kind of security is based on inclusion, on the fact that people who feel connected through a small, close knit community, care about and look out for each other. Chapin designs what he calls “pocket neighborhoods,” which he defines as “clustered groups of neighboring houses or apartments gathered around a shared open space.”


Chapin’s phenomenally popular book,Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small Scale Community in a Large Scale World,” resulted from his research into past and present forms of human settlements and his years of experience in designing and developing smaller, more intimate neighborhoods, including six pocket neighborhood projects. He has also designed over 40 neighborhoods for other developers, spanning the U.S. and locations in the U.K. and Canada. The ideas fostered by Chapin and his firm, Ross Chapin Architects, excite a lot of people.

Ross Chapin



“With pocket neighborhoods — a few dwellings gathered around a commons — I’m naming a pattern that is innate to our human nature, yet we seem to have forgotten it,” Chapin states on his website. “I want to bring this idea into the thought field of our culture. I want to bring it back into the minds of home-dwellers, architects, planners, developers, city officials, educators, students and community advocates. Its simplicity is its power.”

His first such project began in 1996, with developer and fellow visionary Jim Soules. They built the Third Street Cottages in the town of Langley, Washington, on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound. Thanks to innovative zoning codes which allowed greater density under these special circumstances, they were able to cluster eight small cottages around a common garden area, all tucked into a piece of land just off a busy street. To Chapin, it felt like a safe little pocket.

These cottages offered great visual appeal, but the most profound appeal turned out to be the feeling of community, especially for single people, adults with elderly parents, young families, and “empty nesters.” Word traveled fast and enthusiasm grew, with the promise of meeting deep human needs, both practical and emotional. Residents can easily take care of each other’s pets or children, look in on someone who is ill, offer a hand with chores, or just sit on a porch and visit. Those who love gardening might get involved with planting flowers or vegetables in the common area. Frequent potlucks and other gatherings keep folks connected.


Although many think of pocket neighborhoods as clusters of quaint cottages, in fact, the dwellings can be any style, including condos or apartments, and the shared space can be a garden courtyard, a reclaimed alley, unfenced backyards, or even a quiet street. The important factor is close proximity, a sense of territory, and stewardship. When the physical features of homes and neighborhoods make interaction inevitable, relationships that foster caring and mutual support develop naturally. “Humans are gregarious,” Chapin said in an interview, and he believes we’ve lost something we instinctively crave.

In the case of pocket neighborhoods, size matters. The term does not refer to the larger neighborhood, but rather a smaller zone within it. Chapin explained it to me this way: “Let’s say we’re at a party. We will not be talking to 80 people. We’ll be talking to the neighbors we can know.” By this he meant that, as an example, we form small pockets of conversation with those sitting on either side of us at a long dinner table, just as pocket neighborhoods exist along the length of a street.

But even as his pocket neighborhoods may feel complete unto themselves, they are not intended to shut out the larger community. “These are not gated, closed communities,” he said. “The word ‘pocket’ implies shelter and protection, but it’s permeable. It’s an ecological niche that provides protection for the life within that niche.”


Designed to maximize opportunities for contact while preserving privacy, features like clustered mailboxes and parking that require one to walk through the commons mean people meet each other and talk. All homes face the commons, but the more open side of a house—the one containing the most windows—faces the less open side of another, containing only high windows and skylights. Small fences, gates, plantings, and porch railings all create layers of privacy that indicate the transition from public to personal territory.

In an age when it seems we communicate more through electronic devices than face to face, Chapin’s ideas might help save our very humanity. They are not new. His book describes the history of this and similar concepts. The equivalent of pocket neighborhoods existed in Seattle and California in the early 20th century.

Chapin finds his true calling in his design career. “It’s who I am and how I have to live,” he said. Who knows? You might be one of those who discover that life in a pocket neighborhood is how you want to live too.

Note: The next issue of Neighborhood Life will go inside a pocket neighborhood, talk to the neighbors, and look at the practicalities, challenges, and rewards.



Ross Chapin Architects:   http://www.rosschapin.com

Third Street Cottages: http://www.rosschapin.com/Projects/PocketNeighborhoods/ThirdStreetCottages/ThirdStreet.html

Website for the book “Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small Scale Community in a Large Scale World”




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