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Monday, June 09, 2008

Sustainable Defensible Pocket Neighborhoods

My neighbor is an architect with a dream. The idea that has captured his imagination is to design and create small neighborhoods for seniors and folks with disabilities consisting of about a dozen resident owned cottages with shared green spaces, community gardens and connected to a commons area. One of the amenities included in these pocket neighborhoods is a caretaker couple who help residents access the support services they need to live independently.

Call it assisted living light! The idea is to utilize architectural and community design principles that have been shown to promote security, social interaction and safety for residents.

I love the concept which harks back to the little villages and small rural towns that once dotted the Wild West and the less secure societies of the Old World of centuries gone. The village idea has been researched by architects and planners like Oscar Newman as he tried to determine why some public and affordable housing communities thrive and why some are an unmitigated disaster.

The answer he found was in keeping neighborhoods small and relatively self-contained. In communities where 150 families lived off of a long empty hall, the way home from work and school soon becomes a dangerous no-man's land. In communities where a few families share a courtyard or landing, the areas remain well cared for and safe, often despite horrendous crime rates in the surrounding town.

Newman cites several key principles to creating what he calls "defensible neighborhoods". He primarily stresses small cul-de-sac configurations that discourage internal traffic and through traffic. With a dozen neighbors sharing a commons space with each cottage having easy access, front porches fronting on the commons and shared spaces, the very design encourages interaction with your neighbors. Twelve families soon know everyone in the neighborhood and trouble sticks out like a sore thumb when it comes calling. If someone is in trouble, there are folks close by that care about you who can come to your aid. At the very least, your neighbors will more likely call 911 if they see smoke coming out of the eaves of your house.

These communities also feature connections like walkways and cart paths to nearby stores, parks and transportation links. With support services and full accessibility, such communities would be an ideal alternative to nursing homes and assisted living facilities, especially for folks who do not wish to surrender their independence. The pocket community concept creates a supportive community without the regimentation that goes with a "facility".

Besides, these neighborhoods will look like neighborhoods, just more compact with common areas that are pretty, well-kept and which encourage neighbors to lean on the fence and have a conversation or to go for a stroll of an evening and say, "Hi" to the neighbors. For seniors, an active social life has been show to help prevent health problems, mental deterioration and even financial difficulties.

A couple of posts back, I wrote an entry critical of some of the "sustainable communities" folks and my concerns have not changed. The sustainable communities activists often assume a broad level of community planning, government supervision and, what I believe, will be burdensome regulation. The pocket neighborhoods concept, however, allows for small communities (as few as 12 or so families) to create neighborhoods with a high quality of life, full accessibility, high security factors AND supports that provide a greater level of independence for neighbors who are aging or have disabilities.

The concept my architect friend advocates, takes the best points of this innovative community design movement and reduces it to a size that is manageable by developers, small towns and property owners and eliminates the need for enormous government to make it happen. Pocket neighborhoods like this will be attractive for small groups of seniors looking to reduce the cost and physical demands of maintaining a home.

Green construction and energy efficient technology make sense for these kinds of neighborhoods too, especially if seniors with relatively fixed incomes make up the bulk of the community. AND this type of sustainable community is grown and spread using sound free market forces, creating work and business for local communities. As the style of community becomes more popular, consumer demand will lead to the same type of changes proposed by sustainable community advocates without the pernicious effects of using a socialist club to force such changes.

I'm sold on this approach and hope Jay and I can put it all together. I think it's an idea whose time has come. I wouldn't mind buying one of these houses myself. I'd like to live in a neighborhood where Sheila and I were the "young couple".

I'm just sayin'


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