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More boomers are opting for smaller neighborhoods with a bigger sense of community

Pocket Neighborhood Umatilla Hill

Pocket neighborhoods are small on space but big on community. — Photo by Misha Gravenor

Rosemary Fowler calls them "the parade of gawkers." Every night after dinner, as she sits in the white wicker chaise on her front porch, she sees them stream by to check out her cozy neighborhood-in-the-making.

See also: Pocket neighborhood slideshow.

The Carmel, Ind., nurse, 56, is not surprised that her sunny yellow house, and the seven other two-story cottage-style homes in various stages of completion, are attracting attention. Instead of a street separating the $225,000-to-$400,000 homes that face one another, a landscaped courtyard divides them. Visitors walk to the front door of each home through a common walkway.

Although the houses are clustered together, their layouts ensure privacy: The houses may be close, but if one has large windows on one side, the wall of the house next door will be windowless. Each cottage has a picket fence in front.

Eventually, the development, called Inglenook, will have 27 cottages in groups of six or eight ranging from 1,000 to almost 2,200 square feet.

Fowler, who bought the small three-bedroom home and shares it with her best friend, Becky Meadows, 60, has not regretted her move from her bigger house and yard. "This is beautifully designed, easier to maintain and gives me more time to get to know my neighbors," she says.

Not that there are any yet. Fowler and Meadows are the new kids on the block in fact, the only kids in Indiana's first pocket neighborhood. Developer Casey Land is writing new contracts, so it's only a matter of time before Fowler will chat with neighbors hanging out on their porches. "I'm going to be part of a close-knit community where people look out for one another, socialize and when needed, take care of each other," says Fowler. "I fell in love with the concept."

A what?

Chances are, you will be hearing more about pocket neighborhoods. This increasingly popular housing option generally consists of a dozen or so compact houses or apartments that share common or green space. That might be a pedestrian walkway, garden, courtyard or shared backyard or alley. Central mailboxes give neighbors even more opportunities to interact.

Backyards are typically small, with the focus on the front especially those porches. Usually, pocket homes have an open floor plan and are newly constructed, but could also be in an existing enclave. Regardless, they are tucked into "pockets" of a neighborhood or part of a larger new development, often near walkable destinations like shops and restaurants.

Parking, you ask? Pockets may have a separate parking area or attached garages, but they deemphasize the automobile mentality, where drivers pull into garages and disappear into houses until it's time to hop back into the car. Instead, the architecture emphasizes forming relationships with neighbors.

Next: Why smaller may be better for boomers. »

Boomer magnets

While the concept is appealing to all ages, it's particularly popular with the 50- and 60-year-old set. "Pocket neighborhoods are an excellent fit for the boomer generation," says architect Ross Chapin, author of Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World.

"Not only are people looking for alternatives to the suburban model, but boomers want smaller, smarter, community-oriented living environments."

At a time when families can be widely dispersed geographically and people are living longer and healthier lives, pocket neighborhoods are a way to feel connected, reduce costs, simplify sort of like a condominium without shared walls and feel safer. Few burglars want to mess with caring, sharp-eyed neighbors.

Housing experts see the popularity of pockets as a reaction to sprawling, car-centric suburbia and the conveniences of urban living. "It's not just people saying, 'Oh, I love these cute little houses,' " says Ben Brown, a North Carolina-based community design consultant. "What's driving the trend is aging Americans who can't live in faraway suburbs and younger people from Generation Y who prefer to live close in to town." AARP's "2011 Boomer Housing Survey," which polled nearly 3,500 adults ages 45 to 65, found that, when deciding where to live, people valued having shops, medical facilities and places to worship within walking distance.

The survey also found that boomers are attracted to communities that remind them of the past. The lifestyle of pocket neighborhoods, where everybody knows your name, is a throwback to yesteryear. In 2006, Dave Hundhausen, 72, and his wife, Pat, 71, moved from Waukesha, Wis., to Umatilla Hill, a neighborhood in Port Townsend, Wash. The couple own one of 15 bungalows sharing a common green.

"We love it!" says Dave, a retired college professor. "This reminds me of what it was like in the late '40s in my hometown. You know everybody, talk to them, learn and socialize."

A community garden allows residents to grow vegetables, and a borrowing list discourages duplicate purchases of common items. The Hundhausens and others are working on emergency preparedness as a group (they live on an earthquake fault line), and several residents take an environmental course, meeting at one another's home to study. Recently, a neighbor had knee replacement surgery; residents made her meals for two weeks and helped with other hard-to-handle tasks.

Next: Demand for smaller communities on the rise. »

Rising demand

Ross Chapin, who has designed 40 pocket neighborhoods, says he receives frequent inquiries from colleagues, developers, builders and would-be residents. Though no one keeps exact figures on the number of U.S. pockets, the majority are in the Pacific Northwest.

Chapin estimates that several dozen architects and developers are working on these projects. "When national conferences are doing panels on pocket neighborhoods, you know it's a big deal," says consultant Brown, who has participated in them.

Also gaining ground are affordable housing pockets, like the Cottages at Oak Park in Ocean Springs, Miss., where homes were in short supply after Hurricane Katrina. Completed last August, the community sits on a former trailer park, half a mile from the coastal town center.

These 29 separate cottages, constructed like custom homes, are all rentals. "I wasn't looking for a place, but they were that nice," says Mike Bruno, 56. Last September, the shipbuilding company manager moved into his $900-a-month, environmentally responsible two-bedroom. (One-bedrooms are $600 a month, a three-bedroom is $1,200.) Bruno's adult children think the homey setup, with nearby cobblestoned streets and greenery galore, is cool, and his young grandson likes all the friendly people.

Architect and developer Bruce Tolar, who designed the Cottages at Oak Park, also created adjacent Cottage Square, another pocket neighborhood with affordable housing. A third 40-cottage development will be completed soon in nearby Pass Christian. "It's a great way to inject affordable housing into existing communities," says Tolar. Residents don't have to worry about getting around; they can walk, bike or use public transportation. Within blocks are a grocery store, medical offices, a YMCA with older adult programs, two schools and parks.

Municipalities like the housing model, too. New water and gas lines don't have to be installed in existing neighborhoods. "We try to build a lot of aspects of pocket neighborhoods into every project in Ventura," says Rick Cole, Ventura, Calif., city manager. "Pocket neighborhoods have greater social cohesion. Places people care about hold much greater economic value than faceless suburbs."

Next: Cramped vs. cozy. »


Last year, when their last child graduated from college and moved out, Linda and Mark Lauritano considered downsizing from their 3,000-square-foot home in Stow, Mass. When they had to pack up Mark's parents' house in Maine and move them to a New York apartment, Linda and Mark committed to living with less.

They found Concord Riverwalk, a new community of 13 small homes in nearby historic Concord. From there Linda, a project manager, could take the commuter train into Boston, rather than drive for an hour or more every day, and the couple could walk to movies and restaurants in town. "I had never heard of a pocket neighborhood," says Linda, 55. But the couple was sold on the design, convenience, energy efficiency, community gardens, outdoor screened pavilion and fireplace, and the diverse ages of residents.

Still, Concord Riverwalk has been an adjustment for Linda: Their two-bedroom is half the size of her old house, and close homes have replaced the 1.5 acres of privacy. Yet she has no regrets.

They're not sure what will happen if they need more space for grandchildren someday. But Mark, 56, a business consultant, isn't worried. He thinks it will be much easier to sell the new place than their old, large home in Stow that always needed repairs.

They aced one big worry: housing family during Christmas. Two of their sons slept in the partially finished basement, the other on a pull-out couch in the study. Mark's mother stayed in the second bedroom. Coziness turned out to be a blessing. Says Mark, "Because our new place is smaller and the living area is open, we spent a lot more time together talking."

Sally Abrahms writes about boomers and aging. She blogs about caregiving at or at

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