The joy of porches in the city

A few years ago, I had a girlfriend who lived in a house with a front porch. It was a classic — nice and deep, populated by some old furniture that was resistant or simply indifferent to the weather, scattered with old magazines. We would get together after work on nice autumn evenings, pour ourselves glasses of red wine, and chat easily or read as we watched people go by.

There is something that feels profoundly right about being on a front porch or balcony. It's kind of like the beach — it feels perfect, like it's where you belong, and you neither need nor want to leave. It has all the advantages of being in your own space, yet at the same time all the advantages of being out in the world.

But this joy of being is hard to quantify, and many people make the mistake of enclosing their porches and balconies. After all, square footage can be measured, and theoretically it makes them usable all year round.

But enclosure is a false economy. When I lived with my parents, their townhouse condo building had a series of large second-floor balconies off the main living room, overlooking nothing more than the parking lane and a screen of big weed trees. All of our neighbours had covered theirs over, but I suspect my family spent more time in that porch space than any of them, lingering over meals there on any evening that was remotely pleasant, not to mention weekend brunches and afternoon reading.

Porches and balconies can also decorate public space. There's a famous Monet painting of a street in Paris just before the annual celebration of the French Republic. The parade route is lined with typical Parisian mid-rise buildings, where every window has a balcony. All along the street, flags are waving from the balconies, private contributions to the public event, and we know they will be crowded with people as the parade goes by, elevating the parade atmosphere into a third, vertical dimension. (Inspired by this example, I tried hanging a Canadian flag from my balcony one July 1, but it got whipped around too much by the wind).

This vertical effect is one of the things missing from Toronto's parades, where tall buildings are often lined with closed-off, sterile glass, or balconies are little-used. The closest we get is the Kensington Market Festival of Lights, where some of the houses along the route decorate their upper balconies. But the potential of high-rise balconies is revealed every Christmas on Jameson Avenue. Although most of the residents are low-income, they can still create elaborate light displays to celebrate the season thanks to their balconies. I've sometimes made Jameson's exuberant patterns of lights a destination for December walks with friends.

I seriously think there should be a planning regulation that all buildings have to have porches and balconies. For one thing, they have many practical uses. They shade the harsh light of summer, helping to keep buildings cool, but let warming light in during the winter. (Some modern buildings have metal shades, but they're not especially attractive and have no other use). And porches keep snow from the door, providing a transition space so that you don't feel besieged by the winter.

But their most important benefit is that they make public space feel lived in. It becomes a little softer around the edges, porous and varied, like the way a little clutter in a living room invites you to sit down and make yourself comfortable right away. They let people be part of public life without the consequent instability. It's why it feels so right to be there — you can stay as long as you want, because you are in the security and comfort of your home, yet at the same time you are not isolated and lonely, but part of the world.

Dylan is a senior editor at Spacing and has chaired the City of Toronto’s Pedestrian Committee since 2006.