In this series from Seven Generations Architecture + Engineering, we are going to take a deep, research-based dive into pocket neighborhoods. More than just a trendy buzzword, pocket neighborhoods can add real value to communities – especially tribal communities. In the fourth part of this five-part series, we will examine the health and wellness benefits of pocket neighborhoods
Improving Health and Wellness Through Pocket Neighborhoods
The term pocket neighborhood was coined by Ross Chapin to mean “a cohesive cluster of homes gathered around some kind of common ground within a larger surrounding neighborhood” (Chapin, 2011, p.8). A pocket neighborhood offers many benefits to residents, many of which revolve around health and wellness. In addition to physical health benefits, close community ties can improve mental, emotional, and psychological health – particularly for tribal citizens.
Humans have a need to belong. Membership in a tribe inherently signifies belonging, but that connection needs to be reinforced on a regular basis in a myriad of ways. If a person’s belonging can be reflected in their built environment multiple times each day, it is easier to feel connected to others. A sense of belonging is a vital mental health concept (Hagerty, et al., 1992), and one that is ranked third in Maslow’s hierarchy of basic human needs (1954). Belonging is defined by Anant as “a sense of personal involvement in a social system so that persons feel themselves to be an indispensable and integral part of the system” (1966, p. 21). Pocket neighborhoods can be designed to offer that sense of belonging. The neighborhood is just large enough to provide plenty of support, but small enough so that each resident recognizes that they are a significant and integral part of the community.
Socializing for Improved Mental Health
Participation in leisure activities like gardening and walking with neighbors improves psychological well-being, reduces loneliness and anxiety, and minimizes feelings of loneliness (Bailey & McLaren, 2005). In a typical neighborhood of single-family homes, it is easy to feel isolated. Although a person might be just a few hundred feet away from their closest neighbor, there are few organic ways to say hello out of the blue or work on a project together. In the shared common space of a pocket neighborhood, residents can socialize and reduce rates of isolation, which in turn improves mental health for many.
Among older people, “a high sense of belonging to the community and physical activity are associated with improved mental health” (Bailey & McLaren, 2005, p. 82). Mental health concerns are prevalent among retirees, but feeling strong ties to the community and the tribe can make a positive difference. Traveling to meet similar individuals can be challenging for older people but living in a tight-knit community like a pocket neighborhood helps facilitate activity, conversation, and mental stimulation among seniors.
Pocket neighborhoods also make it more convenient for elders to offer help within their community. One in four seniors volunteer on a regular basis (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015). While volunteering certainly adds value to the community, it is also beneficial for the volunteers. Volunteering is proven to improve both mental and physical health, and it further reinforces the all-important sense of belonging (Morrow-Howell, et al., 2003). In pocket neighborhoods, elders can volunteer to babysit, lead language classes, and otherwise help out in their community with no need for travel. Similarly, residents can conveniently check-in with elders to ensure safety and provide companionship.
Human-powered travel, which includes walking and cycling rather than driving in a car, can improve public health, increase quality of life, and even make communities appear more desirable (Chen & Chancellor, 2019). Since pocket neighborhoods are set up in such a way that human-powered travel is frequently the most convenient option for residents, staying active becomes a routine. A pocket neighborhood provides opportunities to walk to meet friends and neighbors and outdoor meeting spaces that offer fresh air and encourage movement. This is especially true for young people, who are far more likely to use recreation sites if they are within walking distance of their homes (Grow, et al., 2008).
In a setting that is clean and offers open spaces, residents are more likely to walk outside, and they are even more likely to “feel friendly or trusting” (Cohen, Inagami, & Finch, 2007, p. 200). When individuals live in environments that place a priority on open space, greenery, and community engagement, it is little wonder that many of them begin to spend more time outdoors and enjoy themselves in the process.
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