Originally published by Plaza de Armas.

On a recent drive through the Government Hill neighborhood, along the edge of Ft Sam Houston, urban developer Peter French noticed something curious: a cluster of eight small homes with a private parking court. The cottages debuted in April 1929 on a lot that stretches one block, from Grayson to Quitman, with a typical width of about 65 feet. All the homes face inward, and are connected by a walkway that bisects the lot.

A small but growing group of urbanists, French among them, see this design as a key to building healthier communities.

These “pocket neighborhoods” simply turn houses away from the street, toward a semi-public space, which often takes the form of a landscaped courtyard. Residents give up their private yards in exchange for a larger communal area where children can play safely and adults can forge stronger relationships as they garden, barbecue, or have a drink with their neighbors after work. Proponents of this style of development claim that it has far-reaching implications for safety and social well-being. Ross Chapin, author of Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small Scale Community in a Large Scale World, argues that this layer of small-scale shared space helps “mend [the] broken web of belonging, care and support” that is missing from many suburban communities. 

I can’t speak for the relationships forged at the Whippoorwill Cottages (a name for this development that French’s research turned up; they were originally named Grayson Courts), but I do know quite a few people who have lived in a cluster of homes with a shared courtyard off St. Mary’s Street, just south-west of King William. Often referred to simply as “The Compound,” this group of homes was not originally designed as a courtyard neighborhood: all the houses face outward toward either St Mary’s or Stieren Street. Real-estate lawyer and art enthusiast Michael Casey was approached about buying a group of four adjacent duplexes on this corner around 1990. He decided to purchase a vacant house with a large, fenced-in back yard behind the duplexes at the same time. 

As the old tenants moved out, Casey began renting the apartments to his friends in the art community. He slowly assembled a group of tenants with common interests, connected through landlord’s own passion for contemporary art and urban revitalization. In addition to building a like-minded community, Casey says he wanted to feel that “if someone called with a problem in the middle of the night, I’d be happy to hear from them.” 

Soon after this shift, a tenant named Alejandro Diaz asked Casey if he could move his bed into the kitchen, and turn the front room into an art gallery. Luckily the lot was zoned for commercial use [1], and Sala Diaz was founded — a gallery that is still running today and is central to the identity of this little community. 

At some point, the couple who had rented the house with the large backyard asked if they could tear down their fence to create a commons between the house and the duplexes. Casey agreed to this as well. This central courtyard became a vital social space, hosting outdoor dinner parties, informal discussions following openings at the gallery, and the occasional concert or fundraiser. 

Whenever someone moves out of the compound, all the remaining tenants come to an agreement on the new resident before the space is rented. There are of course arguments about the use and upkeep of the commons, but for the people who choose to live here, the regular vital social interactions and caring neighbors are worth the inevitable friction. 

The history of the compound at Sala Diaz points both to the potential of the pocket neighborhood concept and to the real difficulties in implementing it effectively. The New Urbanist developers are making tangible progress toward building more livable neighborhoods. But they are still often large developers who almost never have the time or the connection to the place to build strong communities. Many of these planners and developers have too much faith in the transformative power of design. 

Certainly the way we build our transit systems and our neighborhoods creates barriers to healthy social interaction. But those aren’t the only barriers, not even the most substantial ones. When there are stable, trusting communities built around common values, people will find ways to share their spaces regardless of the street configuration or the orientation of the front door. As long as developers keep building huge communities in one fell swoop, and try to attract residents only through physical design — whether it is large yards in the front and tall fences in the back, or open public space and bike lanes — there will be a disconnect in the community. 

That’s not to say that design isn’t important. To the extent that urbanists design places that get people to talk about what our built environment says about the strength of our communities, and how to build stronger communities, they can be agents of change. But for strong communities to develop, each neighborhood should be a little subculture, built around common values as well as aesthetic choices.

Unique businesses like Sala Diaz are fundamental to the development of these subcultures. The only other development of this nature that I know of in San Antonio is the Clay Street Compound (aka Tunaville), near the popular neighborhood bar La Tuna (and developed by one of the bar’s owners). This bar is a hub that draws like-minded people together, and the Clay Street Compound is an extension of this community. 

On the scale that most developers work, they cannot be a part of of the process of nurturing a subculture, building ties between residents and businesses, and making places that reflect shared values. The developer needs to know the community, and be responsive to its actual needs, not to simply impose a design that should theoretically bring people together. The problem resides more with the scale of the developer than the scale of the neighborhood; and ultimately, with the sense of agency that each resident has. 

[1] A quick note here about zoning. Had this lot been zoned residential, this unique space likely would not have developed in the way it did. The importance of Sala Diaz in attracting creative, intelligent people to this compound — both as guests and residents — is key to the project’s success. In San Antonio’s current Uniform Development Code, a design pattern for “Cottage Homes” follows the basic idea of the pocket neighborhood, but does not allow for mixed-use development, if I’m reading the code correctly (admittedly a big “if”).

This column was updated and corrected January 2, 2011. It originally identified the cottages’ construction date as 1950. Thanks to Beth Standifird at the San Antonio Conservation Society, who forwarded this information, as well as the development’s original name, Grayson Courts, “which featured 8 beautiful Normandy cottages.”