This article was originally published in 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.
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