Erin O’Connell is an urban planner who has worked in both the private and public sectors. She enjoys thinking about urban design, cycling to work, and wandering around her local hood.
Let’s assume that most people enjoy interacting with their neighbours, and more generally, that people enjoy watching other people. Yes, there are some people who prefer to live without interaction with their immediate community (but perhaps interact with their on-line communities) but, for most people, spontaneous daily interaction is one of the joys of living in a neighbourhood.
The last house we lived in had a front porch. It wasn’t exactly functional; its stairs were oriented towards the side of the dwelling, it served as the entrance for two separate units, and it was the storage area for a several pairs of recycling bins. But once in a while I’d find myself sitting out there on the steps watching the passers-by and waving at the others doing the same on the street. Not a lot of thought was given to this particular part of the house. Last year we moved to a new place, where there are grand renovation plans down the line, but currently no front porch. Well, to clarify, there is a small landing area between the ground and the front door, but not enough room to perch a chair or tables or do anything except enter and exit the house. In the all-too-common “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality, I can’t help but look around to my neighbours to see how they have modified their homes over the years and note the resulting patterns of use.
My block is like a cross-section of residential architecture from the past 60 years. What began as a 1950’s bungalow-dominated neighbourhood has morphed over time. Some of the bungalows have remained relatively untouched, but many have been demolished to make way for the popular replacement of the 1980s and 1990s – the two storey home with the small entrance set back and the dominant garage one or two cars wide protruding out the front. Make way for the car, these houses scream, give me room for my vehicle. No room or thought is given to the human experience of interacting with the neighbours.
In contrast, our adjacent neighbours (let’s call them Jack and Jill) have a generous front porch that extends about half the width of the house, and provides enough space for a swing, two chairs and a table. It’s not uncommon for Jack and Jill to be sitting on their porch for hours greeting those passing, reading a paper, having a wind-down drink after work, or watching their children play in the street. This porch was not an original feature to this house, but was part of a recent renovation. In chatting with these neighbours, we spoke about this particular element of their home, and we’ve come to a few conclusions.
Jack and Jill moved to this area specifically because they noticed other front porches and neighbours sitting out enjoying each other’s company. In that respect, well-designed and well-used front porches lead to what could be considered the opposite of the tragedy of the commons. There is cyclical behaviour that results from the use of the front porch space. Children are supervised, but play freely in the front yard and street space. This in turn draws more children onto the street space, leads to reclaiming it from the cars and improves safety. The front porch and front yard becomes more interactive, engaging and just more interesting than the private rear yard space.
The urban condition can be restrictive in terms of what can be accommodated in a dwelling, and therefore choices often have to be made. JThe front porch has to be a recognized priority for new construction or renovation. ack and Jill wanted to live in a neighbourhood where people spoke to one another and they placed their priority on contributing to this environment. Because of the constraints of an existing lot and building, the ability to accommodate their car was the compromise. The car is nudged into the narrow space beside the house; it’s obviously not the priority or the focal point.
Good design is crucial to the usability of a front porch. When thinking about the proposed renovation, Jack and Jill thought of their front porch as an additional room in the house, and treat it as such to this day. The space is generous and as comments indicated in the first post on this subject – the depth of the front porch is particularly important. A deep space allows for flexibility of furniture placement, the possibility of using the porch as a multi-purpose space. Future plans for my neighbours’ porch space include staining the boards the same shade as the adjacent living room, so that the space truly functions as one, partially outdoors and partially indoors. It encourages the occupant to drift from one to the other easily. The porch roof provides a sheltered outdoor space.
The front porch is the ultimate mixed-use space in a dwelling. The flexibility of the space and the transition it provides between the private and public realm means that if Jack and Jill want to read their paper in peace, they can do so, but if they want to engage in the public streetscape, that makes sense as well. A multitude of activities takes place in this space. It can function as a living room, a dining room, a breakfast nook, a games room or a reading room. The rear yard of this renovated home is also lovely and has not been ignored through design. However, the draw of watching and speaking with neighbours has meant that the front porch is a more popular choice for both Jack and Jill and their children.
Recognizing the character of the area, making the porch a priority and good design has meant that the front porch represents something for Jack and Jill’s house. It represents a commitment to be a part of their neighbourhood, to interact as much as possible in the transition between the private and public space. If we picture the home as a human and the neighbourhood as a gathering, the front porch is the equivalent of a welcome introduction of a stranger. The obvious comparison is the garage- dominant house design where the car enters and the owner moves into the house without the slightest recognition of the gathering they have been invited to.
What is interesting is that another neighbour is going through a renovation and has designed the front of their house similarly to Jack and Jill; a generous front porch is the focal point of the house. It’s becoming clear that the front porch is making a comeback as a priority, and I’m optimistic that the future of this neighbourhood is bright as a result of what this represents. I look to these recent renovations as inspiration and have dreams of creating our own front porch in the future.
Photo by Erin O’Connell