Pocket neighborhoods are clustered groups of neighboring houses or apartments gathered around a shared open space — a garden courtyard, a pedestrian street, a series of joined backyards, or a reclaimed alley — all of which have a clear sense of territory and shared stewardship. They can be in urban, suburban or rural areas.
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.
How is a Pocket Neighborhood different than a regular neighborhood?
A pocket neighborhood is not the wider neighborhood of several hundred households and network of streets, but a realm of a dozen or so neighbors who interact on a daily basis around a shared garden, quiet street or alley — a kind of secluded neighborhood within a neighborhood. The wider neighborhood is where you might describe “the red house on the corner of Elm and Main Street”— a local landmark that helps define and give character to a neighborhood.
You may know some of these neighbors, but likely not the hundreds that live there. In most neighborhoods, streets are public, yards and gardens are private, but protected semi-public spaces are unusual. In a pocket neighborhood, neighbors have a shared stake in the common ground they live next to. Because of their watchfulness, strangers are taken note of and children are free to play. Neighbors are on a first-name basis: “Tom and Melissa live across the way.” These are the first ones to call on in an emergency, and the closest to join you for an impromptu order of takeout pizza.
Why is shared outdoor space so important?
The shared outdoor space at the center of a cluster of homes is a key element of a pocket neighborhood. Residents surrounding this common space take part in its care and oversight, thereby enhancing a felt and actual sense of security and identity.
This shared space has clearly defined boundaries — beginning at the entrance from the street and extending to the gates of the private yards — creating a felt sense of territory by anyone who enters. A stranger walking into the commons is likely to be addressed with a friendly, “can I help you?” At the same time, a 6-year-old’s mom is likely to feel at ease in allowing her daughter to explore the “bigger world” beyond the front door.
During the daily flow of life through this commons space, nearby neighbors offer ‘nodding hellos’, or stop for a chat on the porch. These casual conversations can eventually grow to caring relationships and a meaningful sense of community — all fostered by the simple fact of shared space.
Community sounds good, but does it come at the expense of privacy?
While there are many examples and kinds of pocket neighborhoods, privacy is an essential ingredient that allows residents to have a positive experience of community. In a classic cottage courtyard community, there are several increasingly private ‘layers of personal space’ between the shared commons and the front door: next to the sidewalk is a border of perennial plantings and a low fence with a swinging gate; then the private front yard; the frame of the covered porch with a low railing and flower boxes; and the porch itself, which is large enough to be an outdoor room. Within the cottages, the layering continues with active spaces oriented toward the commons and private spaces further back and above.
To ensure privacy between neighbors, the cottages ‘nest’ together: the ‘open’ side of one house faces the ‘closed’ side of the next. You could say the houses are spooning! The open side has large windows facing its side yard (which extends to the face of neighboring house), while the closed side has high windows and skylights. The result is that neighbors do not peer into one another’s world.
Do Pocket Neighborhoods only have cottage-style houses?
No! Residences in a pocket neighborhood can be any style — Craftsman Cottage, Contemporary, Spanish Mission, Screaming Solar or Modern Modular. They can be detached single-family houses, attached townhouses, or clusters of urban apartments. The key idea is that a limited number of nearby neighbors gather around a shared commons that they all care for. There are a number of design principles that make pocket neighborhoods successful, but style is not one of them.
What are these design principles?
Successful pocket neighborhoods start with the central idea of a limited number of dwellings gathered around a shared commons. When the number gets larger than 8 or 12, other clusters form around separate shared commons, connected by walkways. Multiple clusters can form a larger aggregate community. These communities are not isolated to themselves, like a gated community, but connect and contribute to the character and life of the surrounding neighborhood. It is essential that cars and traffic do not invade the shared pedestrian space. The active rooms of the homes, including front porches, face the commons rather than turning their back to neighbors. As noted above, there is a layering of public to private space, and careful placement of windows to ensure privacy for each dwelling. These are core design principles, essentially. Read the book for further principles, far more articulation, and examples.
In many pocket neighborhoods, residents park their cars away from their homes, having them walk through the shared common area on the way to their front doors. Is this viable in cold climates?
This relationship between the car door and front door greatly increases the level of interaction among neighbors and strengthens their bonds. For many people, the short walk is not considered a hardship, even in snowy or rainy climates. That said, others feel that having an attached garage is an amenity or requirement that outweighs the community-building benefits of the walk through the commons. It’s still a pocket neighborhood, but with fewer chances to meet.
What kinds of people are attracted to live in a pocket neighborhood?
All kinds! Singles, Empty-Nester Couples, Families, the ‘Great Generation’, Baby Boomers, Gen-X and Y, Millennials — anyone who wants to live in a close, tight-knit neighborhood. They are not for everyone, of course. People who want a private, independent lifestyle have many conventional housing opportunities to choose from. But for a growing segment of people who want a stronger sense of community, pocket neighborhoods offer a welcome option.
Why are pocket neighborhoods so good for children?
Children need increasingly larger zones of play as they grow up. A baby explores the room their parent is in, while an older sibling is free to play in the next room, or in the back yard. At some point, though, their desire to explore the world beyond the front gate is blocked by the real and perceived “stranger danger” and danger from traffic. Children are then chauffeured to friends’ houses and organized activities until they can drive on their own. Too often, children feel painfully isolated and lack access to safe, unplanned play.
Pocket neighborhoods provide a protected, traffic-free environment for a child’s widening horizon — a place for unplanned play alone and with other children, and a place to have relationships with caring adults other than parents. This matches their growing curiosity, need for increased responsibilities and maturing social skills.
Why are Pocket Neighborhoods important now?
The fabric of social health in our society has been fraying, in part because many people lack networks of personal and social support. Family members can be spread across the country, friends live across town, and neighbors don’t know one another. A listening ear or helping hand is not available when it’s most needed.
Pocket neighborhoods can help mend a web of belonging, care and support. Their protected setting encourages informal interaction among neighbors, laying the ground for caring relationships. An elderly neighbor may need assistance trimming a hedge. Another needs help looking after the kids while going for a short errand, or feeding a cat while away on vacation. Nearby neighbors are the ones most available to respond to daily needs. They are also the ones to hear a story, admire a newly planted garden bed, or reminisce about old times. All of these encounters strengthen webs of support and friendship, which are the basis for healthy, livable communities.
Is this meant to be affordable housing?
It can work well for affordable housing. It can also be the choice for affluent communities.
Is zoning an issue for pocket neighborhoods?
Most towns and cities have zoning regulations that limit housing to detached, single family homes on large private lots with a street out front. Forward-thinking planners are seeing pocket neighborhoods as a way to increase housing options and limit sprawl, while preserving the character of existing neighborhoods. The zoning section of this website has more information about this.