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Seattle-area architect leverages the power of the commons to foster stronger neighborhoods

“I’m trying to bring the neighbor back into the neighborhood,” says Seattle-area architect Ross Chapin, author of a beautiful book called Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating a Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World. Chapin believes design has a strong influence on community connectivity, which is best developed when residents have contact with land held in common, especially in small, four- to twelve-household “pocket neighborhoods.”

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Chapin about his work as an architect and designer of pocket neighborhoods. Read on to learn how the commons have influenced both his decades-long career, and his ability to strengthen relationships among neighbors through design.

— Jessica Conrad

How did you first learn about the commons?

I’ve known about the commons for years, but it was Jay Walljasper’s book All That We Share that helped me gain a deeper understanding of the commons as an idea and worldview.

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 can people do if they don’t live in a place that’s conducive to the pocket neighborhood model?

It’s really all about making a shift in orientation. Consider moving your picnic table to the front yard, for example, or planting a vegetable garden near the sidewalk. Instead of keeping everything about your home completely private, try putting yourself in relation to others.

I’m not saying we should give up privacy entirely. Healthy communities require individual privacy. But I think we’ve turned up the dial on privacy in America to the point that many people have become isolated, lonely and fearful. Our friends might live across the city, and our families might be spread out across the country. So what do you do when you’re stuck at home as a single mom with an ill child and need to get out for groceries? If you haven’t developed a relationship with your neighbors, who can you call on? Humans are social animals. We need to have neighborhoods that acknowledge both our social connection, and our privacy.

So when you make your shift in orientation, think about creating layers of privacy. This goes back to your question on design. If your apartment door opens directly onto a sidewalk and parking spot for your car, like a motel, there’s no layer. Alternatively, imagine you have a Dutch door opening out onto a living-room-sized porch with a low railing and flowerbox. Beyond that might be a small yard and low fence. Then a perennial border. And then the sidewalk. These are “layers” of personal space. They define personal boundaries, and yet they’re permeable. They help you can engage the commons on your own terms, providing a balance of privacy and community.

How are pocket neighborhoods governed?

In pocket neighborhoods, homeowners typically own some property jointly and manage it together. They often schedule workdays, or assign each other to care for different areas of the property. Maybe a maintenance company comes in a couple times a year to take care of the big stuff.

In any neighborhood, some people have green thumbs, while others have no clue about plants—and that’s fine. I think neighborhoods need to tolerate each resident’s desired way of engaging with the commons. I don’t think it works well if each person has to engage the commons in the same way.

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.

Why do you call yourself a commoner?

Until now, I haven’t self-identified as a commoner. But it’s true: I am a commoner.

Thinking back to the summer I was fourteen, I remember lying at the end of a dock on a lake in Minnesota watching the sky as twilight gave way to night. My friend Tim and I gazed for hours into space, talking about vastness, time, and possibility. I may have become a commoner that night, because I realized then what it meant to be a citizen of the world: We are so small; yet still a part of it all. How can any one of us claim to own…anything?

This interview has been edited and adapted for OntheCommons.org.

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