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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Smaller, more sustainable living in neighborhoods that fit in

Kaid Benfield

Posted January 3, 2012

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  Greenwood Ave Cottages, Shoreline, WA (by: Karen DeLucas via Pocket Neighborhoods)

When talking about reducing the footprint of our living patterns on the landscape and the earth’s limited resources, I always stress that this does not necessarily mean high-rises or even multi-family living at all.  Those can be perfectly accessible pathways to sustainability for people who prefer them, but one can also have sustainably designed neighborhoods of single-family homes on moderately sized lots.  The lots can be even smaller without sacrificing access to the outdoors if ample shared green space is integrated into the setting.  Ultimately, more sustainable living patterns need to be about a diversity of choices within a community, rather than the ghettoes of identically sized and styled housing products typically offered during the recent heyday of sprawl.

For over a decade now, these beliefs have drawn me to the work of architect Ross Chapin, who has pioneered smaller-scaled home designs placed in beautiful community settings.  He and I have never met, but my co-authors and I profiled his Third Street Cottages in Langley, Washington, in our book Solving Sprawl, and I featured the small infill development again in a 2008 article.  I use images of the Third Street project often in my speaking engagements, because they are not only functional but also amazingly photogenic.

Third Street Cottages placed eight small homes around a shared common green, on about two-thirds of an acre in a walkable small town setting.  To my eye, they look fantastic.  To be sure, the small structures aren’t ideally sized for a large family, Third St Cottages (via Pocket Neighborhoods)but their scale works for a significant part of the housing market, and the concept – a compact footprint around shared common space – can be and has been applied to groupings of larger homes that still conserve land and resources while increasing walkability.

Chapin calls the concept “pocket neighborhoods,” and he is currently marketing a book of the same name, subtitled “Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World.”  I haven’t yet seen the book, but I’ve seen its outline and am familiar with many of the projects and approaches it describes.  I have also spent a great deal of enjoyable time perusing the accompanying website.

The press release describes the central idea this way:

“Why pocket neighborhoods? Why now? There has been a monumental shift in how Americans are thinking about most everything; one increasingly evident being the way people are reimagining how they live in their homes and in their communities. The American Dream of owning a single-family home with a garage seems to be fading fast. Demographics and family structures have changed significantly and we are living in a larger scale world than our grandparents – a world with vastly more stresses and pressures.

“Pocket neighborhoods, best defined as clusters of homes gathered around a landscaped common area, are springing up all over the country. The people who live in these most sought-after communities know they share something extraordinarily valuable: a model of community that provides a missing link. They have their cherished privacy, but with something more: they get to know each other in a meaningful way, and are able to offer one another the kind of support system that family members across town, across state or across country cannot.”

  Danielson Grove, Seattle (via Pocket Neighborhoods)

Chapin stresses the community-building quality of the shared common space, especially for children who can mingle in a traffic-free outdoor environment.

This is a great idea, but not a new one.  The idea of smaller lots coupled with shared commons can be seen in historic New England towns, more recent new urbanist developments and, indeed, in settlements going back to antiquity.  It is the abandonment of that tried-and-true formula that is relatively new.

There are a number of things that I like about Chapin’s brand of smart-growth gospel.  It does indeed allow efficient use of space and resources, which when practiced at scale also produces a secondary benefit of reducing and shortening car trips.  Not insignificantly, Chapin's projects are pursued with great design and attention to beauty, in harmony with host communities; only the hardest of hard-core advocates (I do know a few, but not enough to make a difference) is going to sign up for sustainability that’s ugly. 

  sample site plan (via Pocket Neighborhoods)

But, perhaps most important, it is a strategy that can be implemented incrementally on smaller pieces of land.  In my world, people are always looking for the Huge Idea to produce Big Change.  But that’s not the way things happen in the real world, especially when we are seeking to accommodate development in our existing cities and towns.  The evolution of 21st century sustainable communities must be about infill development and replacement of outdated properties, generally one project at a time.  The pocket neighborhood approach allows subtlety and sensitivity as we simultaneously add more people and live more compactly.

Chapin’s development partner in Third Street Cottages and several other Washington state projects has been The Cottage Company, founded by Jim Soule.  Company president Linda Pruitt summarizes the incremental approach:

Danielson Grove, Seattle (via"Our mission is to continue to pioneer single-family housing choices that fit seamlessly into larger neighborhoods. Intrinsic within that mission is connecting with people and environment in a simple, life-sustaining way. Our over-riding approach is to create beautiful, serene places where people want to spend their lives."

I think they are doing pretty well at that, judging by the properties I’m familiar with.

(For interested readers, I have also profiled other creative small-living designs, including the wonderful Katrina Cottages; the Tiny Texas Houses; Seattle’s “Backyard Cottages”; and Houston’s Project Row Houses.)

The materials on the Pocket Neighborhoods website stress that the concept embraces a range of qualities and characteristics, accommodating such diverse settings as an urban apartment building, an infill housing cluster off of a busy street, a cohousing community planned by its residents, and even “a group of neighbors pulling back their fences to create a commons in their backyards.”  Chapin notes that there are underlying design patterns, however, shared by all pocket neighborhoods.

Some of those design patterns address the need for privacy, an obvious priority for close-together living.  Chapin notes that, in his cottage designs, the homes ‘nest’ together, Third St Cottages, Langley, WA (via an ‘open’ side of one house facing the ‘closed’ side of the next.  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.  (See photo of Third Street Cottages, second from top.)  The result is that neighbors do not peer into one another’s world.

The website is full of fascinating photos, drawings and models.  While the architect has a book and services to market, it becomes clear as one digs in that Chapin is also mission-driven:  he believes in this idea and wants to spread it to others.  In the "Creating Pocket Neighborhoods" section, for example, there are beautiful photo-examples of some of the core characteristics, sketches and renderings of site-design variants, and even a section on how neighbors might choose to manage their own pocket neighborhood.  (Personally, I'm more than a bit wary of neighborhood associations but, if you're so inclined, you might as well have a good model.)

The site shows how pocket neighborhoods can be small or larger, and how they can nest within an existing community.  There's even a section on how to create a zoning code to accommodate pocket neighborhoods.  That's not a bad idea since, like so much of smart growth, it's likely to be illegal in many communities without a variance.  Sigh.

  Danielson Grove, Seattle (via

Chapin allows that pocket neighborhoods probably aren’t for everyone, but he believes – as do I – that the market segment to which they appeal is growing.  For those who seek a greater sense of community, the concept is definitely one very promising way to go.  Here he is on how the shared commons can benefit kids:

“Children need increasingly larger zones of play as they grow up. A baby explores the room their parent occupies, while an older sibling is free to play in the next room, or in the back yard. At some point, though, a child’s desire to explore the world beyond the front gate is blocked by the real and perceived ‘stranger danger’ and 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.”

That makes a lot of sense, no?  Here’s a video of Ross Chapin showing one of his developments:


Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC’s Sustainable Communities Video Channel.

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Jon ReedsJan 3 2012 11:29 AM

These pocket neighbourhoods look great, but I'm a bit worried there's no attempt to define minimum density standards. That might sound a bit hypercritical when the alternative on your side of the Pond has been ultra-low-density hypersprawl, but I suspect in countries like the UK with much higher population densities and land under acute pressure, the issue is crucial to sustainable development.
Perhaps, too, it's crucial anywhere, once you take provision of sustainable transport into account.
Here in England, the Government dropped a decade-old requirement for new residential development to meet a 30 homes per hectare (around 12 to the acre) net residential density standard in 2010. Now it's following that up with planning guidance proposals that would undermine decades of struggle against sprawl.
But 30 to the hectare is actually, historically speaking, a pretty low urban density and a century or so ago builders could build terraces at more than twice or even three times that density with each home on its own footprint and even some amenity space. And very fine homes (and very sought after) they often are. In a crowded continent like Europe surely shouldn't we be looking to move towards that?
And in a world that needs to stop driving and start using sustainable transit, shouldn't we be moving towards it everywhere?
Happy New Year.

Ben BrownJan 3 2012 12:41 PM

Another great post, Kaid. Ross's work is a terrific model, along with Bruce Tolar's work with Katrina Cottages (

While these compact neighborhoods are not for everybody, they fill an important niche that's widening every day because of demographic and affordability trends.

Kaid @ NRDCJan 3 2012 12:58 PM

Jon - It may be that one either likes incremental improvements in density or one doesn't. I do.

In any event, Third Street Cottages, the prototype for this kind of development, places 8 homes on 2/3 of an acre. That works out to 12 per acre and meets your government's former minimum. I'll grant that they don't look highly urban but, to me, that's the appeal. These aren't for the part of the market that would like to live in higher densities; they are for the part that would otherwise live at 3 units per acre.

SteveJan 3 2012 01:08 PM

Kaid, I'd highly recommend Chapin's book... one of the best of 2011, IMO. I met him in Portland at a joint speaking engagement just before it came out, and he's a delightful fellow as well.

As for Katrina Cottages, I'm finally in the process of rebuilding in a way that's easily modifiable... hope you don't mind me linking to this post.

Kaid @ NRDCJan 3 2012 06:17 PM

Great news, Steve. I'll be eager to see the rebuilt site. One of the best initiatives to emerge from NUism in my opinion.

Innisfree McKinnonJan 3 2012 10:10 PM

These pocket neighborhoods remind me of cohousing developments in some ways. I lived in one of the first cohousing projects developed in the US (Muir Commons in Davis CA). It was beautiful and a great place for kids. My crazy lifestyle didn't make it easy for me to participate in community activities in the way that was expected. These pocket neighborhoods might be a nice option.

However, I would like to know more about who chooses to live in these kinds of developments. The assumption is that residents would otherwise be living at low densities, but I'm not sure how we know this. In my experience people have strong feelings about density and I'm not sure that a bit of attractive landscaping will really change those feelings.

Jon ReedsJan 4 2012 07:28 AM

Sure, I fully take your point about incremental increases being a way forward. Nor would I claim "one size fits all" in density; the right density will depend on the circumstances.
Actually, what really worried me was the reference to "12 to the acre". This is just the density that Ebenezer Howard and his followers specified as the maximum permissible, a philosophy which led to more than a century of sprawl in the UK and elsewhere and strongly influenced planning in North America too.
When 30 to the hectare was specified as the minimum in England (in 2000) it made those purists who still pursue Howard's ideals (who still have a strong influence in UK planning) very cross and they worked hard for a decade to undermine it (during which brownfield - i.e. previously developed land in UK-speak - densities rose to 44dph and greenfield finally just topped 30dph), finally succeeding in 2010.
I don't know if it's true in America, but house builders here find it most profitable to build as few houses on a site as possible, not as many. Strange but true.
Now Howard's followers are demanding a new generation of garden cities - small bits of low density sprawl usually on greenfield sites (as ever) - and there are even some who claim this represents smart growth.
As you can imagine, it's all a bit worrying.

Leif OlsonJan 4 2012 09:55 AM

I highly recommend this book to all planners, elected officials, design professionals, and neighborhood advocates. In Fayetteville Arkansas we just passed a Cottage Housing Development ordinance (12-06-11) and this book along with a number of ordinances passed by cities in the Pacific Northwest were great guides for customizing this concept for our community. Currently, Planning Staff is working with a number of applicants on development proposals and hope to have some projects on the ground in 2012 so that we can see what works and what doesn't for future tweaking of this ordinance.

Kent @pleasetryJan 10 2012 09:30 AM

It's good to see alternative living arrangements getting some traction in the States. I recently moved to Tokyo and have been blown away by the walkability and livability of many of the neighborhoods here. Definitely more compact than these pocket neighborhoods, but much the same feel in many cases. I'm trying to spread the word to get people to visit Tokyo and see for themselves how workable high-density living can be. Of course it helps that the public transit is world-class and violent crime is virtually non-existent.

Ross ChapinJan 11 2012 01:44 PM

Kaid, thank you for your engaging article on pocket neighborhoods. You’ve got a good understanding of them, even before reading the book.

You’re right, I am mission-driven. When I experience the endless, ubiquitous sprawl and mediocrity of our built environment, I know we can do better. That’s what pushed us to build a prototype for another approach in the mid-1990s, and a number of further variations in the years since. When people can see the real thing, they can more easily imagine it for themselves. It may not fit exactly, but it motivates people to make real changes in their thinking and doing.

You said it in your article, but I want to highlight what I see as the essential definition and impact of the pocket neighborhood idea. I’ve come to see that the pattern is more universal, and more important than I first imagined.

While our projects have primarily been detached cottages and small homes around shared gardens, pocket neighborhoods are more than this. They are about the scale of face-to-face human communities—a relatively small number of households coming together around a shared space. In an dense urban setting, a pocket neighborhood may take the form of stacked flats around an atrium, or a block of rowhouses reclaiming a back alley as a commons. Another version may have a series of homes—attached or detached—opening to a pedestrian street. In an existing neighborhood, residents might take down their backyard fences to create a community garden or playspace, or take over a cul-de-sac for a neighborhood potluck. In the New Urbanist lexicon, pocket neighborhoods work equally well across all transects and should be in the toolbox of solutions for walkable, livable communities.

Again, it’s all about scale. Rather than one household relating to several hundred others in the wider neighborhood (1:300), each dwelling can have an intermediate zone of relationship with a handful of nearby neighbors (1:10). This makes all the difference for children (who are otherwise under virtual house-arrest after age 4), single moms (who might need someone to look after the kids while out on an errand), and olders (who may need an occasional helping hand and watchful eye). In a pocket neighborhood, nearby neighbors are on a first-name basis with one another, the first to notice a need, and the first to call for assistance. The a world with far-flung families, a pocket of close neighbors can be an antidote to isolation.

Jon, regarding density, our built projects range from approximately 7 to 12 units per acre; higher than typical suburbs (3-4/ac), but not urban. The challenge with going higher than 12/ac is that parking requirements eat into the space allotted for the shared commons. In a pocket neighborhood design study we did for a new village in England, we reached 20 units/ac through attached dwellings and a lower parking requirement. When you look at the plan, click on the neighborhood elements to see how the small pocket neighborhood clusters tie into the larger neighborhood.

I’m actively looking for examples of pocket neighborhoods in denser, urban settings. If readers know of anything, built or planned, I’d like to see them. Please write me at ross (at) rosschapin (dot) com.

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