Tiny Tuesday: 10 Ways to Create Community, Revisited

For the last Tiny Tuesday of the year, I’m revisiting a topic from six months ago, when I moved into a new house. Architect Ross Chapin recommends ten strategies for making any neighborhood into a great community. I strive to enact many of them; here’s my report card so far.

Strategy 1: Dine in your front yard. We have a lovely old porch swing and we eat breakfast and dinner on it when weather permits, using a wooden bench as a table. Sometimes folks we know will walk by, creating interactions that wouldn’t happen if we’d stayed in.

Strategy 2: Plant a front-yard vegetable garden. This is a possibility for next year. Our front yard is on the sunny south side of the property, but there are rabbits in the neighborhood, and I would prefer not to put a fence around such a visible garden. We did plant a front-yard cherry tree (a housewarming gift from friends).

Strategy 3: Create a welcoming front porch. We live on a thoroughfare through town and our porch is quite visible from the street, but it needs a few structural repairs and a fresh coat of paint to really invite neighbors in. We had lots of visitors on Halloween, and we put up lights for the holidays.

Strategy 4: Create layers of privacy. Our first floor is slightly raised, so despite our proximity to the street it’s actually very difficult to see inside the house from outside. Guests who park behind the house must pass through a gate and traverse a fenced-in portion of the yard to reach our back door.

Home
Our neighbors made ski tracks through our front yard!

Strategy 5: Eliminate backyard fences. We have a very see-through split rail fence on our north property line, and none at all on the east side. The west side has a 7-foot privacy fence, so speaking to those neighbors is reminiscent of Wilson from Home Improvement. Neighbors cross our lawn to visit or play. (We inherited a swing set, which is popular with nearby kids.)

Strategy 6: Build a Little Free Library. We are unlikely to do this since our town library is only a quarter mile away.

Strategy 7: Host a block party. The side street nearest to us had one this fall! Prior plans prevented us from attending, but we heard there was a parade, a barbeque, and flashlight tag. We have great neighbors!

Strategy 8: Develop an emergency plan. We’ve traded contact info with our neighbors and told them to call or knock anytime they need anything.

Strategy 9: Create an online forum. This was easy. In the last five years nearly every community in Vermont has started an online mailing list through a platform called Front Porch Forum. Ours is no exception.

Strategy 10: Be a good neighbor. We chose our mailbox location to appease several neighbors (and we relocated it several times). Neighbors have offered tools and their own time to help us with yardwork. We don’t need a lawnmower because a teenager two doors down takes care of it. We invite each other over for dinner parties and exchange goodies for the holidays. It’s the epitome of small-town America.

Tiny Tuesday: Big House, Little House

Portland, Oregon famously has some of the most tiny-house-friendly laws in the country. This NPR article notes that last year Portland averaged one new accessory dwelling unit (ADU) per day, partly because the city enables almost any homeowner to build one and exempts them from certain permitting hurdles and parking rules. But the ADU boom is also a response to zoning laws that go the other way, ones that encourage very large houses and gentrification.

Portland, like most cities, limits the number of primary dwellings that can be built on a lot. This causes developers (who are only trying to make a living, after all) to build out instead of up, so most new construction consists of the most profitable single-family dwellings possible. Usually that means maximizing interior square footage, taking up as much of the lot as setbacks allow. Thus neighborhoods become more expensive to live in, and residents who can’t afford it are forced to leave.

ADUs don’t quite prevent gentrification, but they decelerate it by enabling a diversity of income levels within the same neighborhood. Smaller than the primary dwellings but efficient in terms of both HVAC and use of physical space (mainly since they tend to be new construction), ADUs offer more affordable options that fill in the fabric of an existing neighborhood. Big house, little house.

Here are some other articles I’ve written about ADUs. Thanks to Laura Schutz.

Tiny Tuesday: 10 Ways to Create Community

Having just moved from a rural, car-dependent area to a walkable, quintessentially New England town center, I’m excited to meet my new neighbors. “Community” means so much more than a geographic location – it’s the people who dwell there and how they relate to each other.

Few people have studied community more than architect Ross Chapin, a longtime advocate of small houses. Chapin has championed pocket neighborhoods for decades, and he designed one of the most famous examples: Third Street Cottages in Langley, Washington. Since not everyone is so lucky to live in a pocket neighborhood, Chapin offers 10 strategies for creating that same kind of community in any living situation. Read the whole thing here, or read my summary below.

Strategies 1, 2, and 3 involve the use of your front yard: eat meals where passersby can interact with you, plant a vegetable garden near the street, and build a welcoming porch. Strategy 4 addresses security concerns through layers of privacy: a low fence or hedge to demarcate the property in a friendly way, trees to obscure views into the house.

Chapin
A front porch beckons, and a low fence and shade tree provide layers of privacy.

Strategies 5, 6, and 7 are fun ways to bring neighbors physically together: remove backyard fences, erect a Little Free Library, and host a block party in the middle of the street. Strategies 8, 9, and 10 help neighbors to establish trust and look out for each other: create emergency plans, use an online forum to make announcements and share goods and ideas, and simply “be a good neighbor”.

I believe I can enact nearly all of these strategies in my new home. Stay tuned for a progress report in a few months. My favorite principle is the conventional wisdom that Chapin turns on its head… perhaps good fences make good neighbors, but NO fences make even better neighbors.