Rebuilding Small-Scale Community

by Oliver Penny, Student ASLA

A proposed design for a cottage court development in Athens, Georgia, featuring a community garden in the foreground. / image: Oliver Penny

Although the coronavirus pandemic is currently the most pressing public health issue in the United States, there is another health crisis that has possibly been worsened by our recent shelter-in-place actions. This crisis concerns the rising rates of loneliness and isolation in the developed world, which, even prior to the pandemic, presented a growing public health concern. As one illustration of the problem, a 2019 survey by Cigna found that 61% of respondents reported feeling lonely, representing a 7% increase over their 2018 survey.

It is concerning that rates of loneliness could be rising and are now so prevalent since there is substantial evidence showing that social isolation and loneliness are associated with an increased risk of early death. Research has shown loneliness and isolation can be as damaging to one’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness and isolation are especially problematic for older populations—among those most vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19. One study found that 27% of Americans over sixty now live alone, compared with 16% of adults in other countries.

This rising health risk has undoubtedly become more pronounced with the “social distancing” measures required to stem the spread of the virus. The term “social distancing” has rightly been criticized as a misnomer, with the phrase “physical distancing” offered as a more accurate description of the prescribed behavior. Nonetheless, the widespread adoption of the term social distancing perhaps shows how our perception of social connection is intimately tied to physical space. Zoom meetings and other digital tools might be vital for maintaining connections with others in the current climate, but they are still a poor substitute for in-person interactions.

One way to combat the rising rates of loneliness while also providing the vital sustenance of face-to-face interaction is by fostering more connections with neighbors. Such connections are one of the few available sources for meaningful in-person interaction during the lockdown. Even as restrictions on public gatherings are lifted, it could be a slow and fitful process before public spaces regain their former conviviality.

Given this forecast, perhaps now is a good time to lay a new foundation for strengthening ties with neighbors. However, the way many of our neighborhoods are designed discourages interaction with neighbors. The large lots and wide expanses of pavement dedicated to parking and roads can create a great divide that leaves each household isolated—both physically and socially.

There have been some design solutions to remedy this situation, with New Urbanism being the most prominent example. Research suggests that certain design elements in New Urbanist developments, such as shaded sidewalks and welcoming front porches, improve interactions among neighbors. However, there are perhaps other solutions that need to be considered. Solutions at a smaller scale could not only complement the larger, multi-block developments typical of New Urbanism, but offer additional opportunities for connecting neighbors.

One such solution is clustering homes around a shared open space in a pocket neighborhood. Ross Chapin, the architect who coined the term, defines them as a cohesive cluster of attached or detached houses gathered around a shared open space. The shared open space can be a lawn, plaza, pedestrian street, or even the open space formed by unfenced yards in a standard subdivision. What all these spaces have in common is a clear sense of stewardship that is shared among the surrounding residents.

Within the pocket neighborhood category, Chapin has become known for designing a certain type of pocket neighborhood known as a cottage court (also known as cottage clusters). Cottage courts take the form of four to fourteen detached cottages situated around a shared open space. They are typically located within a traditional neighborhood and are often used as an infill option to increase density within neighborhoods. These developments are one type of missing middle housing that is sorely lacking in the current U.S. market. Much like other forms of missing middle housing, cottage courts can gracefully increase housing density in a suburban environment while still preserving the character of the surrounding neighborhood.

As an added benefit, the relatively small number of cottages sharing a common space appears to provide an optimal scale for promoting sociability among residents—especially when compared to denser developments such as the typical high-rise apartment. Investigating the social potential of these cottage courts was a key focus of my master’s thesis. Specifically, I attempted to identify the outdoor design elements that have the greatest potential for promoting social interaction among residents within cottage courts.

A central theme of my research was attempting to uncover the favorable conditions that appear to strike the right balance between the needs for privacy and the needs for community. Key design elements for achieving such a balance include dedicating at least 25% of the land in each cottage cluster to common greenspace and providing certain communal features, such as community gardens, to encourage residents to share and care for some common land. Indeed, my research found that collectively-owned common space can be a powerful medium for connecting neighbors—especially when each common space is shared by only four to twelve households.

Cottage courts are just one design tool out of many that are needed to address the complex issues related loneliness and isolation. Such developments not only face significant regulatory hurdles, such as restrictive zoning ordinances, but also run counter to prevailing American norms related to privacy and individualism. As a silver lining, perhaps the current downturn provides a much-needed pause to slow down and re-evaluate some of our prevailing values and replace them with others that better promote healthy communities and healthy environments. Reshaping cultural norms through well-designed cottage courts is one small-scale solution that can have a large-scale impact. Indeed, the foundation for building stronger communities that are more resilient in face of future global crises can begin by first uniting neighbors around some common land.

Oliver Penny, Student ASLA, is a recent graduate of the master’s program in Landscape Architecture (MLA) at the University of Georgia’s College of Environment and Design.

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