Pocket neighbourhoods

Meet a city community that combines high-density living with open space.

SIX years ago, Jo Thomas moved into Adelaide’s CBD – but not into a lonely, city shoebox. She moved into Christie Walk, a residential development on the site of an old bottle-recycling depot. On land the size of about three suburban blocks, there are now 27 apartments and townhouses.

“I work long hours in my job as a doctor and when I first came here my daughter was still at school,” she says. “Her grandparents lived here too and she really liked being close to them, but she also had a lot of other people around, with diverse interests. It was good company for her.”

Christie Walk is included in a new book by American architect Ross Chapin, called Pocket Neighbourhoods: creating small scale community in a large scale world.

In a pocket neighbourhood, Mr Chaplin says, houses or apartments are grouped around shared open space, which can be a courtyard, a lively pedestrian street, or even conjoined backyards. There, residents will meet by chance and children can play safely.

Dr Thomas believes living at high density would be much more difficult without that kind of design. “We can stop and chat if we feel like it, or share a meal in the community room,” she says. “We know each other, but we have our own private space and dwellings. It’s the best of both worlds.

Despite a narrow, awkwardly shaped block, the layout of Christie Walk feels open and lively. There’s no driveway through the site. Instead, plants cover about a third of the space, including a deep rooftop garden and a vegie patch. The buildings also far exceed the minimum efficiency standards; residents’ utility bills come in at one-third to one-half of the state’s average.

Urban Ecology, an advocacy organisation founded by Christie Walk residents, has just released a short film and information pack, a decade after they ran their first site tour.

The project’s architect – and a former resident – Paul Downton, says the group set out to inspire better cities.

“We wanted to build something that recognised the city as a positive thing: not a problem to run away from, but a solution to walk towards,” he says.

“In terms of making great places to live, conventional development has missed the point completely. The pocket neighbourhood idea is a way of putting people back in touch with each other without rubbing their noses in it.”

Mr Downton says the idea of “connection” was a key to the design. “You can do it anywhere and everywhere. It comes back to recognising what humans are all about: we are not consumers,” he says. “Development should be about making us better able to enjoy life and connect with each other and the natural environment. Those are big aspirations, but they’re achieved through tweaks at the immediate, local level.”

The scope for this kind of change isn’t limited to new projects. In existing neighbourhoods, a good way to remove social barriers is to keep our physical barriers low.

“If you’ve got a six-foot fence out the front and you can’t see the street, you’re not going to make much connection there. Or compare backyards that are sealed off with ones where the kids can still see each other and ask each other to play,” he says. “Little changes can make a big difference to relationships.”

Read this article at The Age online

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