| A Day with Author and Architect Ross Chapin
April 28, 2015
by Karen Ray
What does a small community with a population around 1,100 people on an island in the greater Seattle area have in common with Oak Cliff? More than you might think. The small town of Langley, Washington has a rich history, architecturally distinct character and strong community involvement where residences have definite opinions about the development within their town. So when Architect and Developer Ron Chapin proposed putting in a “pocket neighborhood” they were both curious and concerned. Sound familiar?
What is a pocket neighborhood? With all the current development in Oak Cliff, you may have heard the term. The concept has been around for ages but Ross Chapin has idenitified the components and nuances that make a successful Pocket Neighborhood in 21st century America. After spending his architecture career designing well crafted and meaniful homes, he began to see the bigger picture of "fitting into a larger fabric of community," as Susan Susanka, author of The Not So Small House, puts it. His book, Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World, outlines his personal and professional observations of successful Pocket Neighborhoods while also demonstrating his own variations of well designed and award winning communities. Mr. Chapin states in his introduction that his purpose is, "[to] offer guideposts and inspiration to help restore the coherence of vibrant, small-scale communities in our large-scale world."
With the need to increase housing city wide, density developments are a part of the approach. Pocket Neighborhoods are one way to add density housing but with the community in mind. This has become rare in the typical American residential development but common to traditional older built communities. In an effort to bring enlightenment and discussion about the potential of Pocket Neighborhoods, Council Member Scott Griggs, Old Oak Cliff Conservation League, Dallas Homeowners League, and North Oak Cliff Residences for Responsible Urban Development sponsored Ross Chapin and invited him to spend a day in Oak Cliff and present his key design principles, understanding of human social interaction and experience in designing and developing Pocket Neighborhoods. I was privileged to join Dr. Joseph Beckham along with his wife, Angie Mobley, in accompanying Mr. Chapin around our great city. Meeting in the morning, we took him on a tour of the greater Oak Cliff area and gave an overview of all the neighborhoods from north to south discussing the beauty and diversity that is Oak Cliff as well as our current callenges. Mr. Chapin was really impressed and inspired by what he saw in the fabric our neighborhoods. He complimented us on our speech patterns; always referring to our neighbors in Oak Cliff as "we" instead of "us versus them.” We ended our tour in the Bishop Arts District and enjoyed a late breakfast and uplifting conversation at Oddfellows.
The first presentation that afternoon was at Dallas City Hall to City Staff, Council Members and select developers and business people. The presentation was geared towards the implementation and zoning ordinances for sucessful Pocket Neighborhoods. Following the presentation was a meeting exclusively for City Staff where Mr. Chapin conducted a brainstorm session and offered his recommendations for adopting the best of combined city zoning ordinances across the nation for Pocket Neighborhoods. It was agreed that a single zoning ordinance should be written versus specific ordinances written into particular Planned Development areas. This would allow the development of Pocket Neighborhoods, conceivably, into any zone as long as it follows the prescribed list of requirements. In addition, the developer must meet with the city staff and surrounding community for a prelimanry and final design review to ensure it meets the vital qualities and spirit of a Pocket Neighborhood.
The day came to a crescendo with Mr. Chapin's presentation at TeCo Theater which was open to the public. This presenation was much more comprehensive and detailed, concluding with questions from the audience. Mr. Chapin covered both the dos and don’ts of Pocket Neighborhood developments.
A few of the notable characteristics we learned are the following:
· Though an entire development may be large, each grouping of houses should be no more than 12 – 16 households with 8 – 10 being more ideal. Each cluster should be its own pocket with its own communal building and commons. Less than 4 households and the cluster loses its cohesiveness; lacking identity, diversity and the activity of a larger group.
· Each cluster should have a mix of home sizes, mixed income level and demographics.
· Pocket Neighborhoods are not about architectural style but a carefully planned built environment; a pattern language that addresses human interaction and the human life experience.
· Layering elements are key to creating necessary privacy within a very open community. Landscaping with various size plants, low fences, yard and porch railing with flower boxes are part of the layered elements from the sidewalk to the front porch, and ultimately, the front door of every house.
· Every house must have a livable front porch that is a minimum 80 square feet and have a minimum depth of 8 feet.
· No house has windows that look into the private spaces of the adjacent house.
· The automobile is properly corralled but not turned outside to the adjacent neighbors or viewed from the street in disregard or disrespect. The path one takes from their automobile to their front door is a pleasant experience.
· Adjacencies to existing neighbors are respectful, having creative inviting views and interface.
· Walkable connections between Pocket Neighborhood developments and existing adjacent residences are highly desired.
· Clear access and readable signage for emergency services are top priory, especially fire and medical.
· A Pocket Neighborhood doesn’t have to be a new development. It can be a group of neighbors who share an alley or adjacent yards and they start by tearing down the fences that divide them to create a shared space.
Mr. Chapin’s complete description of the qualities and measurable elements that make for good Pocket Neighborhoods can be found in his book which can be purchased on Amazon.com or at Barnes and Noble. Further resources, tools and ideas can be found on his website: pocket-neighborhoods.net
Mr. Chapin’s visit and interaction with our community, I believe, was of great value and a success. As a community we need to continue a relationship with the City of Dallas development staff to ensure the pursuit to institute the best possible zoning ordinance and procedures for Pocket Neighborhoods and other density development approaches. Our community and neighborhoods matter!