A group of civic and architectural partners in Little Rock has developed a great concept for improving a declining neighborhood, incrementally increasing density, and applying advanced measures for stormwater control at the same time. All this in a single-family, affordable infill development with first-rate design. No wonder it has won a slew of awards, including a 2013 national honor award from the American Institute of Architects for regional and urban design.
The project employs the “pocket neighborhood” concept championed by architect Ross Chapin – reducing the footprint of a group of smaller, single-family homes by sharing gardens and amenities that would occupy more land if duplicated for each individual house. Chapin, who has worked mainly in the Pacific Northwest, gives his projects high-quality building materials and beautiful design features that respect their neighborhood settings. I’ve been a fan since before I knew the concept had a name, when I ran across his pioneering and lovely Third Street Cottages in Langley, Washington. I love incremental approaches to increasing density, in part because they seldom require major lifestyle changes and in part because their relatively harmonious design improvements can be somewhat easier to sell to suspicious neighbors inclined to distrust change.
The pocket neighborhood approach is not for everyone, though; in fact, as I learned while teaching a course in sustainable communities at George Washington University Law School, it may not always appeal even to audiences already disposed to favor environmentally progressive approaches. When I showed the students Chapin’s designs for an in-town enclave some 10 miles north of downtown Seattle, they disdained them as too suburban and expensive.
The good news is that Little Rock’s Pettaway Pocket Neighborhood retains all the good aspects of Chapin’s concept while curing the aspects that troubled my students. Far from a suburban location, the site on the Arkansas capital’s Rock Street is a 10-minute walk (0.5 miles), according to Google Maps, from the governor’s mansion, and only about a mile to the heart of downtown. The site enjoys a Walk Score of 77, being within a quarter mile of at least one restaurant, grocer, park, school, and health care clinic (I didn’t count how many of each). As you can see from the satellite image, the site is also proximate to an amazing number of places of worship. There are three bus lines nearby, though Little Rock’s system is not known for frequency of service.
As I’ve stressed in previous articles, a central location generally means reduced rates of driving, not only because walking and transit are more viable but also because driving trips are shorter, releasing lower levels of carbon emissions. The wonderful Abogo calculator from the Congress for the Neighborhood Technology indicates that households in the Pettaway site’s neighborhood emit only half as much carbon for transportation, on average, as do households in metro Little Rock as a whole. The gridded pattern of well-connected streets further enhances walkability and reduces driving.
The site plan places nine homes around shared green space and amenities on a one-acre assembly of five parcels. This essentially doubles the density previously contemplated for the site. According to a press release, the homes average 1,200 square feet – not large by American standards, but in line with trends favoring smaller home sizes that appeal to a growing market share – and have two to three bedrooms each. Affordable pricing – about $100,000 – comes from standardized dimensions and materials. Designers chose structured insulated panels and a few types of windows in various configurations.
The size of the homes is important because it represents the so-called “missing middle” between the larger homes that captured the US market in recent decades and the much smaller ones typically found in multifamily dwellings or the trendy but still miniscule (pun unintended but acknowledged) portion of the market claimed by cottages and the so-called “tiny house” movement. For many decades, bungalows of a thousand or so square feet were quite typical for American households, but very little such housing has been built since the 1940s.
Once a lively 20th-century streetcar neighborhood, Little Rock’s Pettaway has since taken a turn for the worse. The Pettaway Neighborhood Manual reports that 26.3 percent of the district’s residents live in poverty, approaching double the 14.3 percent rate for the city as a whole. The satellite view shows many vacant lots, and over 30 percent of the neighborhood is said to be vacant and abandoned.
The Pettaway pocket housing project was a collaboration between fifth-year architecture students in the University of Arkansas School of Architecture and the University’s Community Design Center, an outreach program of the school. It was commissioned by the Downtown Little Rock Community Development Corporation, in partial fulfillment of a planning grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, with additional funding from the city of Little Rock.