The design of urban neighborhoods and the buildings of which they are composed do much to determine the nature of a community. More specifically, the existence or lack of porches or front stoops in residential areas greatly impacts the types of human interactions that occur within a given place. In the U.S., porches have been an essential component to traditional neighborhood design. In many ways, the front porch arose as a fundamentally American ideal, something to aspire to have–a symbol–but also a necessity in the days prior to air conditioning. Serving as a transition space between the public and the private realms, front stoops and porches offered not only a way to escape the oppressive heat of the house in mid-summer; they also allowed for socializing with neighbors and other passers-by, and in this way facilitated close-knit communities. Since the arrival of air conditioning, TVs, and back yard patios, however, many new homes have been built without porches. If porches are built, often, they are relegated to the aesthetic realm, being constructed not for function, but simply for look.
It is this division in the function of porches in historical neighborhoods verses those in new suburban developments that interests me most. I wish to not only explore the historical impacts of porches on neighborhoods, but also to look closely at how the broader features of neighborhood design interact with porches in the present. For instance, what purpose are porches for socializing if they are built in a community lacking pedestrian infrastructure or connected streets?
I.The Porch Defined
In this section, I intend to examine the unique position that porches hold, in relation to the public and private realms. Porches span a gray area between both worlds. What does this mean and how does this set up interactions? Porches place more “eyes on the street”, as Jane Jacobs might argue.
II. Historical Background:
In this section, I will look at the reasons why porches were constructed prior to World War II. How did the concept of porches evolve to become such an American idea and symbol? How were porches used for socialization in the past?
This section can draw from many of the points briefly mentioned above. Explore more in depth the ways porches/front stoops impact communities. Is there a difference in these effects between wealthy neighborhoods and less affluent ones? Did porches allow people to develop strong attachment to a place, that is, to their homes? Perhaps, this could be used as contrast with below; do Americans today lack a sense of pride in their communities or places where they grow up? How and why has this evolved?
IV. Porches Without Function, Functions Without Porches
Explore the ways in which modern/suburban developers use porches in the construction of new homes. Are porches used to conjure up fond memories, to entice buyers, but not to actually serve a purpose? No necessity for porches exists with air conditioning, TVs, other forms of entertainment, e.g. the backyard. How do modern suburbanites use their porches, if they exist, compared to inhabitants of traditional communities?
V. Community Design and New Urbanism
How does this all fit into the bigger picture of community design? Explore New Urbanism and movements to create more sustainable neighborhoods in the future. What role will porches play?
- Planning Neighborhood Space, Hester: Looks at social consequences of urban design. For instance, the urban poor desire privacy without isolation. Porches often exist as a focal point for activity and socializing in poor areas today.
- The American Porch, Dolan: I intend to use this source to support my historical background and help answer questions of the ways in which porches shaped American society and individual neighborhoods.
- Home From Nowhere, Kunstler: Here, Kunstler offers his typical, fairly cynical, yet accurate and valuable critique of modern community planning in the U.S. I intend to use this book to supply more context, to provide some details on New Urbanism, and to critique porches in modern suburbs. Kunstler will also offer crucial supporting detail on overall community design.
- Out on the Porch: This book will allow me to explore what makes the porch so attractive. Detail on the symbolic aspect of porches and their significance might be obtained from this source.
- The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs: Jacobs offers a sharp critique of urban renewal policies of the 50s and 60s. She goes into depth on various social interactions in cities on a very close and down-to-earth fashion.
- Congress for the New Urbanism
- Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, Duany et al.: As with the Kunstler book, this work will supply important and detailed context, allowing me to place my narrow topic of porches within the broader scope of traditional community design and New Urbanism.
Other Sources (I don’t yet know where to plug these in):
- Planning Neighborhood Space With People, Randolph Hester
- The Influence of Porches on Neighborhood Activity, Teresa Mac
Basic Context/Sources that got me interested in this topic:
- Professional Porch Sitter’s Union (CBS News video link)
- “Sitting on the Porch Not a Place But a State of Mind”; NPR, July 28, 2006
- “Porches Knit Together New Urbanist Communities”; NPR, August 1, 2006