A few months ago I ordered the book ‘pocket neighborhoods’ written by Ross Chapin, an American architect. I had already come across his ideas numerous times online and each time I got excited. In his view a lot of things come together that have long been brooding in my own mind and heart. It expresses a deep desire of mine (and of many others!).
Our houses and neighborhoods are built on profit and traffic. Not on community, health and the joy of living. We buy the biggest house we can afford with the aim of selling it again at a certain moment. Preferably with a big profit, of course. Our streets and districts are built around traffic in order to get to this or that office by car. We drive at least an hour to get there and then work all day in order to be able to buy more stuff with which to fill bigger houses. We have limited options if we choose to live differently. Restrictive legislation and financial opportunities make it pretty difficult to go off the beaten track. To live a simple and mindful life in a home of our own choosing. Modest, ecologically built, healthy, surrounded by nature, peace and quiet, in a community centered on a healthy balance between privacy and contact, maybe even together with people who think more or less along the same lines as we do…
This is not a new desire. People have felt this way for ages. For example, check out this video about Henk Kuipers from Tilburg that I saw last week at a meeting organized by De Kennismakerij:
Sounds familiar, right? What a wonderful person, this Henk! And what a sad story, really. Anyway, back to pocket neighborhoods. Man, how this makes my heart beat faster! This is how I want to live. And if I want this so badly, there must be others with the same desire, right?! In fact, I keep picking up signals from people who are dying to live in small, devoted communities focussed on interaction. In nature. Perhaps it is the same as when you’ve decided to buy a certain car, you suddenly see it everywhere… But somehow I don’t think that’s the case here. There is more to it than that. Society has become more and more self-centered. Single person households are growing fast. Loneliness is the result. We are being stimulated to live in cities, cooped up together. Even though this is against the nature of many people.
I firmly believe that certain values and needs are solidly anchored in our genes. One of those is the need for interaction with each other: real interaction, like knowing your neighbors and being able to count on them when you need to; being able to visit them when you feel like it but also to spend some time on your own now and then. A place of security and shelter: on a small scale, but with plenty of outside space, manageable. The way our districts and neighborhoods are organized now is fully focussed on transportation and traffic. The buildings are soulless, monotonous, built for profit. That simply won’t do.
Enter the pocket neighborhoods. What are they? Small communities of max 12-15 houses. More than that would compromise the community effect because of the forming of sub-groups. With up to 15 houses you can really get to know each other. The houses are placed around a green community space or garden. Every house has a porch facing the communal space and every house has a private garden. There is no room for cars. Those are being kept outside the neighborhood, which is a bit sheltered from its surroundings with only one or two access ways. Think of the little courtyards typical for old Dutch cities. Those porches are a must by the way, as far as I am concerned! I have always loved them, they look so inviting and cosy.
There is a clear separation between the public space and semi-public communal garden, the semi-private porch and the private indoor space and garden. This provides a sense of community and safety. When someone enters the communal garden they are immediately recognized as neighbor or guest.
Of course I’m an advocate for such a pocket neighborhood of tiny houses. Combined with small houses to add variety and ensure a healthy mix of different ages, incomes and household sizes. I believe that’s important. When building small houses the target audience selects itself. People with a ‘bigger is better’ attitude won’t be interested in small houses. The people who buy small houses are attracted to simplicity. They enjoy small living with everything within reach and less cleaning and maintenance. The houses should not just be small, but they also need to work in their environment. The whole puzzle should fit, both in shape and function. Quality and design are important too: small does not necessarily mean ‘cheap’.
Ross Chapin claims that certain patterns that stimulate community building are timeless, just as our emotional responses to these features. I agree. Project development concerning living should be focussed on community building instead of profit and traffic. It’s about more than building houses. Recently I was asked to give a short speech for Tiny House Nederland at a Symposium about small living in Almere. I referred to the idea of ‘pocket neighborhoods’ there. Municipal councillor Tjeerd Herrema also spoke at this event. I was very happy to hear him stress the importance of affordability and facilitating bottom-up initiatives. He mentioned the term ‘postzegelbuurtje’, which freely translated means something like: a small neighborhood the size of a postage stamp. In my opinion this is the perfect Dutch term for a pocket neighborhood. I have been racking my brain for a good translation for some time, so thank you Tjeerd!
One of those tiny houses in such a lovely ‘postzegelbuurtje’ for me please! Where young and old live together and I know my neighbors. With a view on all the green around me and a porch from where I can easily have contact with the other residents. Where I can greet them when they come home from work while I’m sitting on that porch of mine with a book and a cup of tea. And when I feel like it I’ll spend some time working in the communal garden. Who knows a neighbor will join me and before you know it we’ll have decided to eat together. We’ll put out a big table and everyone brings something to it. The kids of the family from across can play safely, since there’s always someone who will keep an eye on them and traffic is not an issue. If the elderly neighbor from a few houses down the road is sick, I’ll bring him a bowl of soup. Is this an idealistic picture? Of course it is. The fact is that it takes time and effort to build a close community. But deep down we long for it. And the fact is also that current neighborhoods are just not structured for building a community at all.
I say: the age of the postzegelbuurtjes has arrived! The various initiatives that pop up everywhere show this. The rise of ecovillages is an example. Or de Knarrenhof, Erfdelen, het Oererf, het Krabbenhofje, Arneco, to name a few others. I sincerely hope these amazing initiatives will get the room they need to grow. They are pioneering, clearing the way for others and need all the support they can get! And my own postzegelbuurtje? That will happen too, don’t write me off just yet. I still have some irons in the fire. How and what and where? Only time will tell ;)