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Share Common Ground

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

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. »

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