Book of the Day: Pocket Neighborhoods

* Book: Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating a Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World. By Ross Chapin.

Excerpted from an interview with the author, conducted by Jessica Conrad:

How does the commons influence your work as an architect?

My goal as an architect is to help people see how to connect and contribute to their surroundings—to the commons. For example, think about the street as a commons, or as a “community room.” Each property bordering the room contributes to its character. If the design of a house, apartment, or shop on the street only takes itself into account, it will have little connection to its neighbors, and its contribution to the street will be haphazard at best. But if its design acknowledges the building’s place in the whole (or the block, in this case), then it will make the whole stronger and add to the street’s character.

Can you explain how the commons influences your design for pocket neighborhoods?

In pocket neighborhoods, a small cluster of households is situated around a shared commons. This small-scale setting is what makes them work. The commons is a “pocket” set apart from cars and traffic, and because of this, it is safe and sociable.

In many neighborhoods I’ve helped create, we’ve located parking areas away from the homes so that residents walk through the commons from their car doors to their front doors. In those seventy-five feet, residents may look at the begonias in their neighbors’ yards, or nod to a neighbor on his porch. They might start up a conversation, and who knows? They might even order pizza or fire up the barbeque for a shared meal. These conversations happen because people are sharing the space together, sharing the commons.

What else sets pocket neighborhoods apart?

In “normal” neighborhoods, with two to three hundred houses, people know landmarks: the red house on the corner, or the street with the weeping willow. But in a pocket neighborhood, residents know people by name: Kim and Steve across the way, or Alice, the single elderly woman next door. You might pay attention to whether or not her blinds are raised by ten o’clock, which is normal. If they aren’t, you might walk over to check in.

Those are the relationships of care. When you live in a pocket neighborhood, your nearby neighbors are the first to notice if a pattern is off. They are the first people you call if a simple need arises. And they’re also there to strike up a quick chat.

What do you see as the biggest obstacle to creating a commons-based society right now?

Simply stated, it’s fear. Until we truly have a sense of “being home” and of “belonging” to a place and a community, there will be an underlying sense of fear. In response, we strike out to claim the space around us, including all the useful resources within reach. This of course, is the existential quandary of our time.

This fear is currently expressed in the endless sprawl of the suburbs, the ugliness of our physical environments, and the frayed social networks that result from lives lived behind garage doors and piles of stuff.

What is the greatest opportunity to strengthen and expand the commons right now? In a word, it’s storytelling. Or, creating places where we can tell our stories to one another as part of daily life. After Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of “FEMA trailers” where lined up in rows in a gravel field to provide emergency housing. Besides having toxic interiors, the mindless layout treated the survivors as numbers. Imagine, instead, trailers with porches in groups of six to eight surrounding a children’s play area and outdoor kitchen. While children are playing safely, adults are sharing their experiences. Healing begins with storytelling. And storytelling happens spontaneously around a shared commons.”