Monday, July 16, 2012

Book Review: “Pocket Neighborhoods”

A friend recently suggested “Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World” by Ross Chapin.  During an upcoming vacation, I’ll be near several of the projects that Chapin cites and am hopeful of convincing my travel companion to make some detours.  To prepare for the trip, I read the book.  I’m glad I did.

Chapin’s thesis, although somewhat buried by the way the book is organized, is that there are many ways to build better and stronger communities by how we organize our physical surroundings.  Chapin’s professional involvement has been as an architect, land planner, and developer.  Therefore, his primary focus is on new-built projects and on the inspirations that led him to doing his own pocket neighborhood projects.

But after mostly exhausting that topic, he continues into related topic such as co-housing (a pocket neighborhood with a common house for communal meals), community gardens, modifications to existing large lot single-family home lots to create infill neighborhoods, and removal of fences to join together the backyards of neighbors.  I could have wished for more details on most of the topics, but found every topic insightful and worthy of inclusion. 

To me, the test is whether his ideas can be applied to the North Bay.  The answer is that they can be and have been.

An early inspiration that Chapin describes is the bungalow court of Southern California, opposing rows of single family Craftsman-styled cottages facing a common court.

Sure enough, there’s a bungalow court in Petaluma, on Keller Street immediately behind Volpi’s.  It post-dates the initial bungalow court concept and reflects a trend toward economy.  The cottages have southwestern architecture and lack the Craftsman details.  Plus the individual cottages have merged into opposing rows of shared wall apartments.  But the concept remains much the same and an orange tree in the court give homage to its Southern California origins.

Similarly, another pocket neighborhood concept that Chapin describes is the Dutch “woonerf”, a narrow street detailed for pedestrian use and usable only by cars traveling at a walking pace.  Although not truly a woonerf, Coady Court in Petaluma has much of the appearance of one.  The couple of times that I drove into the street, the setting encouraged me to drop my speed to nearly a walking pace.  The absence of a cul-de-sac bulb further inhibits traffic.

With neat homes pressed close to the street, Coady Court has the appearance of a neighborhood that bonds together to celebrate holidays and to help in the daily life.  I’m sure that the City and the Fire Department would object if the residents tried to convert their street to a true woonerf, but I’d be on their side.

I don’t know anyone who lives in the bungalows or Coady Court, but I’d love to hear stories about either.  If you have information, please share.  And if anyone can point out other similar neighborhoods in the North Bay, please do so.  Summer evenings are great opportunities to tour interesting housing alternatives.

Then there is the question of whether Chapin’s ideas can be applied to future Petaluma situations, to which I offer an enthusiastic affirmative.  Without even considering new greenfield construction, I can point to several retrofit ideas that could be readily applied.

The backyards in my neighborhood adjoin in odd ways, but I’d still be willing to consider a back fence removal plan, similar to the one Chapin describes in Davis. 

A block away are a pair of unused alleys that should ripe for a neighborhood alley reclamation similar to Baltimore one presented by Chapin.

And I’m intrigued by the idea of converting the backyards of oversized but underutilized single-family lots into new pocket neighborhoods, similar to the Seattle area project described by Chapin.  I can’t point to any particular lots, but suspect there are numerous opportunities in the neighborhood along East D Street, near the future SMART station.

No book is perfect.  I can offer several criticisms of this one.  It was odd to have Ebenezer Howard described as the originator of many New Urbanism concepts.  In the standard New Urbanist dogma, Howard’s “Garden City” ideas were fatally flawed and opened the door to drivable suburbia.

As Jane Jacobs described Howard’s concepts in the “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, “His aim was the creation of self-sufficient small towns, really very nice towns if you were docile and had no plans of your own and did not mind spending your life among others who had no plans of their own.”  That doesn’t make him sound much like an originator of New Urbanism.

I don’t mind Chapin picking up and dusting off Ebenezer Howard.  Howard was a well-meaning if slightly daft English gentleman whose biggest problem was that people took his ideas and ran with them without considering the consequences.  But the speed with which Chapin moves Howard from gutter to pedestal is neck-snapping.

More significantly, Chapin’s subtitle is a more accurate description of his direction than the title itself.  Much of the book had more to do with creating communities that it did with pocket neighborhoods.  I had the sense that he’d promised his publisher a 200-page book and found himself struggling for topics after 120 pages, so began casting a bigger and bigger net.

But overall, those are quibbles.  The content was meaningful and thought-provoking.  And the inclusion of the topics beyond pocket neighborhoods felt appropriate even if slapdash.  Every few pages offered an “ah-hah” moment, although I was continually flipping back to the introduction to see if I’d misunderstood the roadmap.

“Pocket Neighborhoods” is recommended.  I’m looking forward to visiting a couple of examples.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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