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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3 Responses to Seeding the World with Ideas

  1. I am a retired architect now living in Cocagne, New Brunswick, Canada. Being retired and now living on a modest pension form Missouri State Parks, I now have the luxury of freely sharing my ideas. I find that our generation has so much to offer in this era transitioning lifestyles. The baby boomer generation is perhaps the last generation with the experience of actually living a neighborhood lifestyle. My initial foray was to share technical information for building with super insulated housing concepts. I soon came to the conclusion that houses are interesting, but the communities they create are equally or more important. My focus is now moving towards empowering groups of people to take back neighborhood development from the bankers and developers. Needless to say, the Pocket Neighborhood Book has been an inspiration and valuable resource to share with groups. I am looking forward to sharing this movement with as many people as are willing to listen. It is paramount that the message be proactively taken to communities and openly shared. Thanks for the blog platform.

  2. Ed Dearborn says:

    I feel you could market these neighborhoods to cater to certain groups, so those with similar beliefs, lifestyles or past can stay in association. This also lends itself as a special marketing tactic aimed at those groups looking to provide such lifestyles to their members.

  3. Eddie Coates says:

    Ross. I can’t applaud you enough for your willingness to put your passions and interests on display so that the rest of the world can benefit. I only wish that more architects and developers were willing to bring down their walls for a few minutes and remove their blinders to see what greater good could be accomplished by sharing ideas rather than trying to beat everyone else to the punch. Although I’m sure there have been many, many copycat pocket neighborhoods in form around the country, without understanding the nuts and bolts of “we do this because” (as Steve Mouzon puts it), there may be little hope that these copies foster and then nurture community as genuinely as possible. You, your team, and those that came before you have a big fan in Oklahoma.

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