LeadingAge Magazine · March-April 2020 • Volume 10 • Number 02

Pocket Neighborhoods and Service to the Middle Market

February 16, 2020 | by Gene Mitchell

Can this neighborhood design model, though not created originally for older adults, inspire creative thinking about lower-cost developments?

In this issue of LeadingAge magazine, we’ve focused on how providers might develop a model for older adult living that serves those people with too much income for subsidized living, but who can’t afford entrance fees and other costs associated with life plan communities.

One article in this issue, “Meeting in the Middle: Community as a Middle Market Strategy,” shows how some providers are creating communities that encourage a strong sense of belonging and engagement among residents. Another article, “Design and the Middle Market,” gathers the perspectives of architects about how rethinking design might help reduce costs, even if design cannot, by itself, create a sustainable middle-market model.

Are “pocket neighborhoods” an option at the intersection of design and social interaction?

The term refers to clustered groups of houses, usually small (but not to be confused with the current “tiny house” movement) and built around a shared space, or “commons.” Pocket neighborhoods are often good choices, for instance, as infill developments in settled areas, because as many as 10 houses can be built on an acre of land.

Pocket Neighborhood 1
Danielson Grove, Kirkland, WA. Design by Ross Chapin Architects, developed by The Cottage Company.


Ross Chapin, an architect based in Langley, WA, coined the term “pocket neighborhood,” and has been involved in designing and developing a number of them around the U.S. for more than 20 years. He is the author of a popular book, Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small Scale Community in a Large Scale World, published in 2011. He also maintains the Pocket Neighborhoods website, which is a one-stop shop of information on all aspects of the philosophy, design, and implementation of the model. The site is well worth a visit for anyone with an interest in innovative design.

The concept has made some inroads among LeadingAge members. Rose Villa, a life plan community in Portland, OR, features “pocket neighborhood garden cottages,” and Garden Spot Village in New Holland, PA, has a new Sycamore Springs neighborhood that is at least partly inspired by the concept.

LeadingAge spoke with Chapin about the origins of the model, how it dovetails with the needs of people seeking community engagement, and how it might inspire innovation in living options for older adults.

“Friends Around the Campfire”

LeadingAge: I understand that you coined the term, “pocket neighborhood.” Can you tell us your history with this model?

Ross Chapin: I named it, but once I started writing the book, I realized that this is as old as human settlement. We’ve lived in small clusters of extended families and networks of close neighbors gathered around campfires and wells for thousands of years.

And we've looked after one another, multigenerationally. I think it's only been in our lifetimes that we have segregated the generations. The American dream home is a stand-alone house and garage for Mom, Dad, and their kids. Grandma might live across the country in the old family home, until she moves to an [aging-services community] with professional care. This separation is unnatural.

In the early 1990s, I was part of a conversation in the small town where I live on Whidbey Island near Seattle. Sixty-four percent of households in our town were 1-2 people, and yet the zoning promoted larger garage-fronted family sized houses. There were no options for small households. And so we put together a zoning ordinance called the Cottage Housing Development ordinance, which gave incentives to build small cottages around shared gardens on infill lots.

Not long after that, I teamed up with a developer. We purchased 4 lots and built 8 cottages on 2/3 of an acre. They were about 700 square feet with one bedroom and a loft, surrounding a common green. We were rewarded by selling out almost immediately. And not only that, local and national media picked up on it and within months our story was in 200 newspapers and dozens of magazines and TV programs around the country. I went on, with my partners, to build quite a number of these in the Puget Sound area.

I realized we had created an approach, a model, that not only served the needs for our little local community, but tapped into a widespread unmet need. It was a sub-niche that was hidden.

LeadingAge: Who was buying those houses?

Ross Chapin: Quite a few of the people moving in have been older single women wanting a simple, low-maintenance home and sense of community within a walkable neighborhood. And empty nesters, for sure. Others have been couples with young children who appreciate having elders around for helping in the parenting, in a loose way. Having a shirttail auntie or grandma next door was fantastic.

Community is proving to be a continuing deep need in our culture. I’m reading that social isolation is a growing epidemic that is tied to dire physical, mental, and emotional consequences, especially for elders. But we don’t have a clear direction on how to deal with it. I was at a conference on housing and aging in Los Angeles where presenters were proclaiming that we have reached a time when technology is going to solve the needs of the elder population—with video monitoring, beepers, and smart devices.

I listened to all that and I thought, sure, but the reason we need to rely on technology is because the structure of our communities is dysfunctional.

It ties into how we serve elders. Yes, I think aging in place at home is important. Perhaps more important is aging in community. This may mean living in a home embedded in a tightly knit neighborhood, and it might be some form of elder-supportive, more focused community.

Pocket Neighborhood 2
Architect’s rendering of Conover Commons, Redmond, WA. Design by Ross Chapin Architects, developed by The Cottage Company.


LeadingAge: The small size of most houses in pocket neighborhoods is a distinguishing feature, but what other important characteristics do these neighborhoods have?

Ross Chapin: Let me respond to that first by saying that we steer people away from [just talking about] size. Yes, we often build smaller dwellings, but that's not the most important thing. The most important thing is the scale of sociability. In small groups, conversations are spontaneous. We love to tell stories, reminisce, and banter. These casual meet-ups grow relational threads of care and belonging. Pocket neighborhoods are designed around this propensity.

The shared commons is the heart of the cluster of homes. It’s what brings people together and gives it vitality.

Porches are another key feature in fostering neighborly connections. They are part of the house, an extension of the interior, but also belong to the passers-by and the nearby neighbors.

With all the focus on community, privacy plays a big role in their success. We like to design homes with open and closed sides so that neighbors don’t peer at one another. And we provide “layers of personal space” between the sidewalk and the front door: a border of shrubs and flowers plus a low fence plus a private yard plus a porch with a railing. The layers provide a buffer to the more public world.

LeadingAge: How might this model be adapted to a retirement community?

Ross Chapin: We designed Riverside Crossing, a community in Montana with 51 independent living homes (in 6 clusters) and 2 assisted living homes along with support services for people who age in their own homes off campus. There will be a neighborhood center, buildings offering health and personal services, a little café, and a workshop for residents to do projects.

About those independent living homes, if you were to drive through the community, [you] wouldn't immediately say, “Oh, this is an elders community, right?” There is a mix of 2-story houses and 1-story detached homes. Each has an accessible suite on the main level. Bedrooms upstairs are for grandchildren and adult children. The smallest are slightly over 600 square feet; the largest are just 1,800 square feet.

One house type has 2 suites on opposite ends of a 1,200-square-foot house with a shared common area in the middle. This layout might work for a person who owns the home, renting to a person who doesn't. Or an aging parent with an adult child. It provides a sense of privacy within a moderately small house.

Some people think having a home that meets all your needs is most important. I think it’s better when homes don’t provide for every need and occasion. In another community I helped start, there are 16 apartments in 4, 4-plex buildings, each a mere 700 square feet with 2 bedrooms. Definitely snug! But there is a common house that accommodates larger gatherings for meals and parties, and a guest room for overflow guests. In a snug house, residents come out and community happens.

LeadingAge: Is there usually a formal organization among the residents, perhaps some version of a homeowner’s association?

Ross Chapin: That’s another conversation that’s really important. As an architect or a developer, we’re involved in creating, metaphorically, the hardware. It’s tangible and measurable. There is also an unmeasurable side, the software, the community side, the sense of belonging and meaning, the sense of connection. For the people living there, this is what matters most.

Here’s the challenge: Living in a more closely-knit community requires a way to easily resolve the inevitable disputes that come up and make decisions, small and big.

You can provide top-down enforced rules and governance, or you can provide tools for facilitating civil meetings that allow all people to be heard and for fostering community life. I prefer the latter. It’s not difficult, but I recognize it’s not for everyone.

LeadingAge: I would like to introduce the cost angle to this. Generally, the houses you're building tend to be smaller than what you would see in a typical subdivision. I know I'm asking you to speculate, but doesn’t it seem reasonable to think that creating this kind of a neighborhood would lower costs for people moving in?

Ross Chapin: Will it save some money? It can. Smaller houses cost less. The shared commons buildings and gardens, on the other hand, add cost. We think the value they add is worth the cost. That said, we often leave people's own small yard with fertile soil (no landscaping), so they can make their own little garden their own.

LeadingAge: Many LeadingAge member communities have acreage available. I imagine that putting a little 2/3-acre pocket in there would be an option, if they can make the numbers work.

Ross Chapin: Yes, as part of a larger campus of services. There can be 8-10 units on an acre, wonderfully. The key factor is having a sociably scaled cluster, roughly 6-10 houses. A larger site may have multiple clusters.

I think this missing middle market is critical. And I think we need to be creative. Having this challenge is good, to think about solutions that we otherwise might not address.

Gene Mitchell is editor of LeadingAge magazine.