10 Ways to Create Community Where You Live

Building a community from scratch is daunting, but the good news is that vibrant communities can grow from existing neighborhoods over time through the actions of people who live there, often without much money being spent.

Right here, right now: Ten ways to build community.

1. Move your picnic table to the front yard. See what happens when you eat supper out front. It’s likely you’ll strike up a conversation with a neighbor. Invite them to bring a dish to share. Your kids will probably love it, too.

2. Plant a front yard vegetable garden. Don’t stop with the picnic table. Build a raised bed for veggies; plant edible landscaping and fruit trees. If you’re inclined, invite your neighbors to share your garden. Along with carrots and sweet peas will come conversation and friendship—a bountiful harvest.

3. Build a room-sized front porch. The magic of a Good Porch comes from the way it is both private and public, belonging to the household while being open to passersby. It may be the most essential element for bringing life to a neighborhood. Its placement, size, relation to the interior and the public space, and height of railings are both an art and a science. First thing to remember: make it more than a tiny cover for fumbling for keys; make it room-sized — a veritable outdoor living room.

4. Add layers of privacy. Curiously, giving your personal space more definition will foster connections with neighbors. A secure space will be more comfortable and more often used, which will increase chances for seeing your neighbors, even if this is a passing nod.

But rather than achieving privacy with a tall fence, consider an approach with layers: a bed of perennial flowers in front of a low fence, with a shade tree to further filter the view. These layers help define personal boundaries, but are permeable at the same time.

Here’s a challenge: can you create 6 layers between the street and the front door?

5. Take down your backyard fence. Join with your neighbors to create a shared safe play space for children, a community garden, or a wood-fired pizza oven. In Davis, Calif., a group of neighbors on N Street did just that. Twenty years later, nearly all the neighbors around the block have joined in.

If that’s too radical, consider cutting your six-foot fence to four feet to make chatting across the fence easier, or building a gate between yards.

6. Put up a Book Lending Cupboard. Take a book, lend a book. Collect your old reads and share them with passersby in a book-lending cupboard mounted next to the sidewalk out front. Give it a roof, a door with glass panes, and paint it to match the flowers below.

Or, change the story: read a poem, write a poem. Create a poetry cupboard with poems to share.

Oregon’s City Repair for other inspiring neighborhood-building ideas like this. Check them out!

7. Organize summer potluck street parties. Claim the street, gather the lawn chairs, and fire up the hibachi! Take over the otherwise “off-limits” street as a space to draw neighbors together.

8. Build resilience together. Create a neighborhood survey of assets, skills, and needs for times of crisis. Frame it around “emergency preparedness,” but watch how it cultivates community.

9. Create an online network for nearby neighbors. Expand the survey into an active online resource and communication tool. Find a new home for an outgrown bike. Ask for help keeping an eye out for a lost dog. Organize a yard sale.

Take advantage of free neighbor-to-neighbor networking tools such as Nextdoor to facilitate communications and build happier, safer neighborhoods. As they say, “online chats lead to more clothesline chats.”

10. Be a Good Neighbor. It’s easy to focus on your own needs and concerns, but a slight shift in outlook can make a big difference in the day-to-day lives in a neighborhood. Check in on your elderly neighbor if her curtains aren’t raised in the morning. On a hot summer day, put out a pitcher of ice lemonade for passersby, or a bowl of cool water for dogs on walks.

To be sure, grievances among neighbors are common. But when there is a base of goodwill in a neighborhood, little squabbles won’t escalate into turf fights, and neighborhoods can become what they are meant to be: places of support, security and friendship.

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The Good Porch

Summertime: a perfect time for porches.

I grew up in a classic shingled bungalow with a wrap around porch. My sister’s family lives there now. The front porch faces the street and the lake (as many in Minnesota do); the side porch faces a wooded ravine with a creek, and is wide and long enough for four beds, making it an unbeatable sleeping spot, especially on waking to dappled sunlight and morning bird sounds.

During warm summer evenings, I remember our porch being the scene of long, meandering conversations, typically begun with a laptop supper. Several adults, including my folks, great aunt and a neighbor or two, would offer up the main stories. Four to six of us kids would add our own to the mix, with animation. After dinner, kids would head out for another round of play in the neighborhood. Returning after sunset, the adults would still be going on.

The rich memories I have on this porch may be why I love porches so much, and pay attention to what makes them work, or not.

Garrison Keillor, our generation’s Mark Twain, grew up in a nearby town, and has his own wealth of memories and perspectives on porches. He says,

“The porch promotes grace and comfort. It promotes good conversation simply by virtue of the fact that on a porch there is no need for it.”

Of porches, there are many kinds. The covered entry shelter, just big enough to fumble for keys. The grand portico, built to impress, but completely inappropriate to hang out on. The faux porch, which looks like a porch, but is a useless add-on to make a blank facade more interesting. The back porch, a utilitarian passage for coats, boots and nearby neighbors.

And then there is the timeless front porch, a unique room that belongs to the household while being open to passersby. Its magic comes from the fact that is part interior, part exterior. It is both private and public.

After the shared commons, a good front porch is the next most essential element of a pocket neighborhood. It is the medium of connection among neighbors. Coming home from a long day at work, you might be invited by a neighbor on his porch to join in a call-out order for pizza. It’s also a buffer between you and your neighbors, with just the right amount of boundary to carry a signal, “I don’t want to be disturbed.”

Making a good porch is both an art and a science.

Careful placement, dimension and design will ensure that a porch will enjoyed for years. Here are some guidelines:

Getting the right location is the first step A front porch is a place of transition, so make it part of the primary entrance, connected to the front yard and in full view of the street or public walkway.

Make it large enough Lingering hellos and goodbyes require a space about 5 ft. across. Six feet is the minimum width for an eating table and chairs, or a setting of porch rockers. I prefer 9 ft. to 10 ft. wide, by about 12 ft. long. At this size the porch becomes a veritable living room, an extension of the interior living space.

Don’t cut through the middle Don’t arrange a lane right through the middle of the gathering space; place the passage to the front door to the side instead. If the porch is wide enough, the door may be centered between two gathering spaces.

Keep the porch open It’s tempting to enclose a porch with windows. Remember that the porch contributes to the life of the public space, and making it too enclosed shifts the balance. Consider seasonal roll-down canvas curtains or fully removable storm windows to provide additional shelter when needed.

Define the edge A railing defines a critical social boundary between public and private realms. Don’t leave it out! I like railings about 24 to 30 inches high—just the right balance of open and closed for a porch opening onto a shared commons. It also happens to be just the right height for “perching” and for placing a cup of tea (provided it’s wide enough). Make sure to check your building code: if the height from the deck to the ground is more than 28 inches, most codes require the railing to be 36 or 42 inches high. A note about height: a porch just a few feet from a busy public sidewalk will want to be elevated, with a higher railing for more of a boundary. To determine the best height for the railing on your porch, mock it up before building it.

Build flowerboxes What can be more wonderful than raised flowers? They’re bright and cheerful, always changing, and they entice us with their fragrance. Beyond their delight, flowerboxes add a soft edge to the boundary between personal and public space, and give life to the shared commons space or street.

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Not Just Cute Cottages

A Pocket Neighborhood in an urban setting: Swan’s Market by Pyatok Architects, photo by Ken Gutmaker

Pocket Neighborhoods have received quite a bit of press since Ross Chapin Architects and The Cottage Company began building their communities in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s. These intimate neighborhoods feature groupings of detached cottages and small homes clustered around garden courtyards. As you will read in the book, however, pocket neighborhoods are not just about cute cottages around a courtyard.

In essence, pocket neighborhoods are about nearby neighbors sharing and caring for common ground.

These communities don’t have to be built from scratch, or take much money at all. Section Four in the Pocket Neighborhoods book features a story about two subdivisions where residents have taken down their backyard fences to create a safe play-space for their kids. Another story tells about a suburban cul-de-sac where neighbors regularly take over the street for summer potlucks. In Baltimore and Los Angeles, residents along urban alleys have reclaimed their access lane as a shared commons, complete with BBQs, picnic tables and container gardens. And all over America, nearby neighbors are coming together to plan community gardens in vacant lots and undeveloped street right-of-ways.

New pocket neighborhoods can take the form of clustered homes around a garden in a variety of configurations in small towns or suburban settings. In urban settings, pocket neighborhoods are likely to be attached or stacked apartments opening onto a shared courtyard. This is because the higher value of urban land will force denser development. Cohousing is another form of pocket neighborhood that is becoming more common, but that will be for another blog post.

Style is not what matters; homes could take the form of Craftsman cottages, contemporary sheds, or urban lofts. Nor is location — suburban, urban, small town. It’s all about having a ‘scale of sociability’: nearby neighbors in relation around shared space in ways that foster community while preserving privacy.

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The Garden Party

At the beginning of the Pocket Neighborhood book there is a story about a garden party I attended last summer. It was hosted by a friend in her orchard overlooking a broad valley — 20 guests at a long table dappled with late afternoon August sunlight. It was a beautiful scene. We all knew our host, but many of us did not know one another. At one point during the gathering, she asked that we take turns introducing ourselves and saying a few words. When my turn came, I said my name and that I was just finishing writing a book about pocket neighborhoods. Of course, the response was, “What is a pocket neighborhood?” After pausing for a moment, I said “This table is like a city block within a neighborhood. Look where our conversations have been happening before our introductions — one at each end, and one in the middle. These are like three pocket neighborhoods along our block.”  I pointed out how conversations happen spontaneously in smaller groups, while a conversation with the larger group requires organization. Then I asked them to imagine themselves as a house — each with a formal façade adorned with a bay window, two-story arched entry, and two garage doors. “Now, turn around. If we were a typical neighborhood, your stiff facades would be facing the street, while the life of your house would be oriented toward your backyard BBQ, kitchen and family room. The street out front would be empty, except for cars. If we were at a dinner party,” I continued, “there would be no conversation! We each have all the privacy in the world, yet no community.” I called them back to face the table.  “In a pocket neighborhood, active living spaces of houses face toward a common area shared with nearby neighbors, while quieter, more private spaces are farther back. Living in such a neighborhood, like friends around a dinner table, conversation is effortless.”

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Seeding the World with Ideas

If you’ve spent any time at all on this website, you’ll see that there is a lot of information here. The question people sometimes ask me is, “why are you giving away your best ideas?” My answer is that I’m looking out at the state of our world and asking myself what I can contribute to making it better. Hanging on to ideas I’ve helped develop may feather my own nest, but not the world nest. Another approach is to take our tested examples, synthesize what makes them tick, and offer them to others in an ‘open source’ spirit — in hopes the ideas will be seeded into the culture and take root in fields farther than I can reach on my own.

After our first Pocket Neighborhoods made their way to the national media, we began to see developers copying our work — or, if you will, projects that were inspired by our work. I was flattered. However, many of these projects were copying our style, not the substance. They may have been inspired, but they weren’t getting it.

So I began to work on the Pocket Neighborhood book as a way of condensing and coalescing the clearest ideas that we were working with: the Six Layers of Personal Space, the appropriate size for pocket neighborhood clusters, the ways privacy is maintained between homes, the lessons learned from our development, and so forth. I figured that the more people know about how Pocket Neighborhoods work, the more likely we will see examples with the proper DNA.

Is there such a thing as an original idea? Almost never. We stand on the shoulders of those that came before us. And we stand side by side in collaboration with our colleagues. Standing with me (and often leading the way) on the early pocket neighborhood projects was Jim Soules. He saw the potentials, realized the spark and fired the engine to move them forward. Before Jim stands Jack Lynch, the city planner in my town who introduced the zoning ordinance that made our first project possible. And before Jack are Seattle developer John Kucher and architect Marcia Gamble Hadley, who pioneered the 1991 renovation of ten small (as in 400SF small) cottages around a central court dating back to 1916. This bungalow court may have been inspired by similar developments taking place in Southern California, which, in turn, trace lineages to Ebenezer Howard’s 1899 vision of ‘Garden Cities’, New England Methodist Camp Cottages dating to the 1830s, and to the courtyard typology of Andalucía, Spain. All of these stories, and more, are told in the Pocket Neighborhoods book.

So — how can I hold claim to ‘my’ ideas?

This writing is putting me in the mood to acknowledge others whose shoulders I stand on. In particular, I often feel gratitude for my design teachers at the University of Minnesota who nurtured by sensibilities:  Ed Kodet, Jim Stageberg, Jerry Allan and Tom Bender. Who is more selfless than a teacher?

And then there is Christopher Alexander. While he was not my teacher directly, his ideas influenced my thinking from my early years in college. If one could wear the mantle of ‘original thinker’, it would fit him well. I don’t stand on his shoulders; I rest on his foundation. A longer acknowledgement of his role in my life as a designer is written elsewhere on this website.

Beyond the powerhouse of Jim Soules pushing the manifestation of our pocket neighborhoods, these communities needed others to make them successful: Linda Pruitt tracking financial details that allowed us to make realistic design decisions, leading marketing and sales efforts, and engaging her uncanny sense of beauty with landscape and interior design; Jay Kracht coordinating our construction efforts; Todd Paul bringing delight to the gardens; and in my office, Karen DeLucas managing architectural details as well as communications through the flurry of creation.

Why give the best ideas away? Because its the best way to better world.

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We have Liftoff!

At long last, this website and blog about Pocket Neighborhoods goes out to the world! 1/11/11 — seems apropos for beginnings. Or, as it may be, the beginning of a new arc in the spiral of an idea that goes far back in time.

Our hope is that these ideas enter into national and local conversations as viable possibilities for the way we can live — meeting personal needs in the context of community. Fifteen years ago, when we first started experimenting with pocket neighborhoods, it seemed like this pattern of living should have been common — it is so simple, so applicable to a variety of settings, and so seemingly needed in our society. Unfortunately, the charm of a ‘home of one’s own’ has taken us on a track away from our innate human nature — that is, as gregarious, social animals. We believe that a balance of privacy and community is not only possible, and it is desired by vast numbers of people across all generations. We have shown viability for pocket neighborhoods in the marketplace; now we want to see pocket neighborhoods embraced by city planning boards, developers, architects, neighborhoods and buyers.

This website and blog are designed to augment the Pocket Neighborhood book, adding live links to resources, summarizing its key concepts, showing a range of examples, and bringing in further commentary and dialog. I hope you take time to explore all its sections.

The book describes pocket neighborhoods in much more detail. It is filled with stories of the pioneers who blazed their trails, as well as the people who live there, and the progressive planners, innovative architects, forward-thinking developers, craftspeople and gardeners who helped create them. If you’re a visual person, there are a LOT of photographs (mostly mine, with a few from Ken Gutmaker, Grace Kim and others).

We hear that the first shipment of books is now heading this way on a slow boat from China. In a few weeks you will actually be able to hold the Pocket Neighborhood book in your hands. That will be a cause for celebration! Pre-order it NOW! And if your order it from this website, I’ll sign your book before it goes out.

To push a metaphor, we’re the “new kids on the block”… Can you help us get connected with your world? Tell your friends, neighbors and colleagues. Show it to your city planner and mayor. Tell your architecture professor. Link this site to your website. Let us know who we should know about. Join our Facebook page, sign our email list, tweet us, post about us, and share this.  AND tell us what you think — What do you like?  What could we do better? Tell us if you hit a missing link, found a glitch, grammar mistake or speling errer.

Lastly, this is a good time to thank all the people who helped carry, nudge, and cheer these ideas forward — including my staff at RCA (especially Karen DeLucas), Peter Chapman at Taunton Press, Sarah Susanka (the Not So Big House champion), Jim Soules, Linda Pruitt (The Cottage Company), Deborah Koff-Chapin, and so many others unnamed. Thank you.

Let’s now turn the page to the next chapter . . .

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Close to Launch!

We’ve been hard at work under the hood to get this rocket ready for launch. There will be a lot of information about Pocket Neighborhoods that should be useful for a wide range of readers — the general public, city planners, developers, architects and builders.  We’re new on the block — so we welcome your suggestions to improve the site, and to connect to the wider world.  Get ready, get set, . . .

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