June 4, 2012
Pocket neighborhoods, cottage housing, and the dominant suburban form
Recently I came across the following cluster of five houses in an otherwise standard subdivision of front-
facing houses with their usual (yawn) front setbacks, side setbacks, and usual suburban land use controls that created the dominant suburban urban form.
The image of these five houses in Teton County, Idaho, however, will immediately induce a land use lawyer's headache. Inevitably, everyone knows, that if there is the will to make something like this work as a "one off" experiment, someone will call it a "planned unit development," or something like that, and there will quickly be a retreat from the strictures of the dominant code and a run for the relief provisions, whatever they may be locally. Maybe its a conditional use, maybe it's a special use district, a planned unit development. [Insert your local jurisdiction's relief provision here.]
But I began to wonder... what if you wanted to build a whole community, or thinking big--a whole city--built upon the premise of this five-house approach? As readers of this blog know, I have recently been somewhat infatuated with the idea of how attention to our smallest living units--neighborhoods--can be an impetus to solving our larger land use and environmental challenges. And so, I find this particular model of five units intriguing. Think about the density of these single-family houses (quite high), and think about the livability of an environment like this (also quite high, I believe). This approach will not appeal to everybody--nothing does--but if it can appeal to people in big-sky country of eastern Idaho, I think it could appeal to lots of other people, too. The combination of density and appealability seems to me a potentially winning combination in efforts to try to build more dense, environmentally sustainable communities.
Now, the question is, how could we make experiments in suburban neighborhood design like this easier from a land use law perspective? One person who has thought about the issue significantly is Ross Chapin, whose book Pocket Neighborhoods, addresses urban design of small neighborhood units in suburban reaches. Chapin's dominant proposal clusters 8 to 12 houses, rather than five, around a central "common," as shown in the graphic here. In addition, the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington has compiled codes from places that have adopted this style of housing, which the Center calls cottage housing. For those interested in pursuing this, a review of the codes the Center has compiled is well worth it. These model and enacted codes provide approaches to neighborhood design that I believe could prove valuable to re-thinking what it means to live in a suburb, and maybe even in quasi-urban, environments.
Stephen R. Miller
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