Front Porches vs. American Idol


Tonight I’m sitting out on the front porch of our 100-year old rental house in a paleo-urbanistic neighborhood, and I’m quite enjoying myself. The porch light is on, my pipe is lighted, my legs are propped up on the balustrade, and a slight chill is in the air. Though dark outside, the old-fashioned street lamps allow me to see clearly up and down the street and notice the wonderful rhythm of other houses with similar front porches. Quickly, however, the charming atmosphere so much promoted by New Urbanists begins to fade as I notice that I’m the only one actually outside on my front porch. Well, you say, maybe it’s because this is the coldest night so far this fall. Not true, however. This has pretty much been the same as every other night: for all practical purposes, no one is ever out on their front porch!

So what’s the problem? Aren’t front porches supposed to encourage neighborhood interaction? Aren’t they supposed to make it easier to meet and connect with those living mere feet away? Clearly when the houses on this street were built, that seemed to be the reality. Why not now? Well, it didn’t take me more than a couple times walking up and down the block to realize the problem: instead of sitting out on the front porch, everyone is inside watching TV! Indeed, even if the street lights went out, it wouldn’t be pitch black because of the neon glare emanating from the front windows and doors!

It seems to me we can build better houses and streets and neighborhoods and cities until we’re blue in the face and never make a dent in the fragmentation and disconnectedness of society if we don’t deal with the real, underlying problems. As long as the TV is on 8.14 hours a day, no amount of front porches will ever allow neighbors to meet, let alone engage with and care for one another.

Architecture can certainly help. But it can only go so far. As much as design needs to change, behaviors and habits need to change even more if we’re ever going to experience real community.

— Scott Greider

PS – after I wrote this post, I stumbled upon this post. Well said, even if he is not as critical of TV as I am.

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  1. Your post is so true.

    I remember when I was first married we lived on a side street just to the west of the YWCA, on North Wells. My young bride and myself spent nearly every evening on the screaned in front porch. To be honest, is was our family room that we loved and enjoyed!

    Many of a time, I wish I could have spent the tens of thousands of dollars it would have taken to put in all new windows and insulated the walls. Being young and starting out the money was just not there to untake such.

    We have driven by the place many of times and now the front porch has been enclosed. The great porch to the neighbors and communty is now closed.

  2. This post reminded me of a house I lived in while in college. It had a large front porch and was close to where all the nightlife was – basically everyone going or coming from that area had to pass by our front porch.

    My roommates and I spent much more time out on that porch than we ever did inside. We met hundreds of people and some of these passers-by turned into good friends. Everyone knew that they were welcome on our porch and there were many a night an impromptu party broke out simply because we had so many people stop to hang out. I have very fond memories of that house and I hope your attempt to bring the community out of their shell pays off.

  3. Start by having a street gathering of some sort, like a cookout, or now that it is cooler out, a street party in your house. It does not have to be anything big–just enough to help the neighbors get to know each other. Then when they see each other after that, they will feel obligated to speak and maybe (gulp!) socialize.

    The next thing is for you to then invite them over informally when you see them. Have them sit on the porch and talk with you. They will start seeing how enjoyable that is.

    The hope is, of course, that they will start sitting out on their porches in the future, too.

    We did this with some success, but many have moved away from our 1/2-block street. When there are more people on our street in the future, we’ll try again.

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