It’s easy to blame sprawl for thorny issues such as social alienation, obesity, global warming, and a high cost of living. But while policy debates have raged for decades about how to do things differently, Seattle architect Ross Chapin has been quietly going about it one acre at a time. Chapin is the brains behind the “pocket neighborhood,” a micro-scale development model that clusters no more than a dozen small homes or apartments around a shared common space such as a garden, courtyard, or alley, with parking at the periphery.

The brilliance of the pocket concept is its versatility. A nimble little 12-pack can offer an alternative to the conventional subdivision, but it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. Pocket neighborhoods can also serve as connective tissue in the forgotten spaces between cul-de-sacs and commercial areas, rendering walkable what was previously accessible only by car. In this role, the prototype has set new precedents for infill development and has even inspired alternative zoning codes.

Chapin, who has been the development partner in six pocket ventures and designed site plans for 40 additional projects (his latest is in Indianapolis), explains the pocket as a kind of “neighborhood within a neighborhood” that can fit easily into an urban, suburban, or rural setting. Now it’s the subject of a new book, Pocket Neighborhoods, and a website for builders: