Porches: Where People's Lives Connect

"Of Porches there are two sorts: the decorative and the useful, the porch that is only a platform and the porch you can lie around on in your pajamas and read the Sunday Paper" – Garrison Keillor

Porches: Where People's Lives Connect

Long before air conditioning, stoops and porches were a major part of community life in cities and small towns, alike they served as a place to cool off and relax. As a result, they became a platform for connections among neighbors and a key part of our social infrastructure.

With something as simple as a front porch or stoop, the life inside a home is brought outside. They are transitional spaces between home life and the outside world, so by welcoming someone to our porch, we share a piece of our lives with them.

Porches are at their best when they weave blocks and streets together — along with our sidewalks and yards, they can be the places where we play, gather, and socialize.

They are the sites of countless favors between neighbors, conversations sparked by chance encounters, and special moments like holiday caroling or trick-or-treating. It is for this reason that, though porches are often an extension of one's private home, they can also provide a benefit to the community.

"Of Porches there are two sorts: the decorative and the useful, the porch that is only a platform and the porch you can lie around on in your pajamas and read the Sunday Paper"                 – Garrison Keillor

In this article, we explore examples of porches and stoops, which we think of as a stage for social life in our communities. They take many forms, but one thing that we know is that we need to protect them as a valuable part of our homes, communities, and shared spaces.

Amsterdam

Amsterdam is a gracious and embracing city that bends over backward to draw you in and make you feel comfortable. As a result, improvisation is rampant and every little nook and cranny has found a use. Porches of all kinds create a draw to the many pedestrians and cyclists passing by.

Cobble Hill, Brooklyn

In Cobble Hill, neighbors seem to redefine the porch, transforming front stoops and entry spaces into Halloween experiences for trick-or-treaters, gathering spaces for celebrations, and simply pleasant spots to sit and rest.  

Small Town Porch Life

"The House itself is of minor importance. Its relationship to the community is the thing that really counts "  – Clarence  Stein

Raleigh, NC

In many parts of the U.S., the southern states especially, porches are actively used and continue to serve an important social purpose. They are an extension of the living room and contribute greatly to the life of the street.

Raleigh, NC, in particular benefits from a downtown core of dense neighborhoods with a vibrant “porch culture.” Walking around town, it becomes clear how this partially built space, the porch, allows homeowners to express themselves and adds rich variety to the street. Each one is furnished and used in a different way, like a stage set.

In fact, it is because porches are incomplete, only half-built, that they allow homeowners to “finish” them in so many varied ways. Interior life spills out and each family chooses to inhabit the space differently, often transforming the space depending on the occasion or time of year. This is especially apparent during the holidays when the porch provides a place to “dress up” your house. The variety of holiday “costumes” homes wear in Raleigh is extraordinary.

As springtime birds and bunnies are intuitively stirred to custom build their nests this time of year, it is a reminder to us to intuitively build our own habitat, one that serves our innate human needs and allows us to thrive.

Wallingford, Connecticut

There are entire blocks in Wallingford where every house has a porch. People love their town, something that is easy to see just by walking down a residential street. The styles and configurations of porches also offer a great variety — but they all share a social function.

Other porches on the same block provide a view into the types of homes and neighborhoods that make up so much of Wallingford.

Many residential multi-family houses have porches, both shared and private.

Stowe, Vermont

In Stowe, the downtown and nearby neighborhoods are defined by porches. What is unique about Stowe is that each building has its own "personality" that creates a series of different types of spaces, and not merely a connected row of buildings. In other words, each is treated differently depending on the use and style of architecture that it represents. This gives the entire town, including residential buildings, a collection in which each porch adds to a greater and more interesting whole...

Balboa Island

In what is one of the most expensive real estate markets in North America outside of Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, Balboa Island is known as a community of porches. There, people carry on most of their lives outdoors, whether on their plaza or a porch. Often, the two blend into a series of small spaces, which together serve as a family living room.

Delray and Palm Beach - Communities in Trouble

Unfortunately, Delray Beach has gone from a city of porches to one being consumed by garages, and Palm Beach to Streets of Hedges where there is no social life

Replacing the unique character of historic neighborhoods, which were once defined by porches, new developments defined by garage doors are creeping in — creating a place where there is no sense of identity.

It seems that developers who specialize in building overpriced garages are doing so at the price of historic cottages and open neighborhood clusters that gave Delray so much social value.

All too often, the way a house connects with the street is more about the building than about the people within, for example: Houses dominated by garages; or which only have lawns without porches.

In another example of the disconnection between buildings and residential streets, nearby Palm Beach is dominated by hedges that hide everything that the community is about.

Main Street Porches

Many Main Streets have porches as main attractions. Saratoga Springs and Fremantle Australia

Sartoga Spring 

The Adelphi Hotel in Saratoga Springs has a porch/plaza as a key part of the entrance in front of their hotel.

From our post on two Buildings, Paris and Brooklyn

Two Buildings that Build Life: Fostering Sidewalk Social Life in Brooklyn and Paris
A building needs a base, At the street level, buildings with small shops that spill into the public space that has a plaza with a market or double-loaded sidewalk, buildings can come alive. What is outside becomes inside, and what is inside becomes outside.

Takeaways:

Porches allow people to be proud of their homes and businesses: People use and take care of them and in so doing, show who they are and what their values are. Porches are a place through which people express themselves, and reach out to others in an extension of their everyday lives. Even

Part of what makes a porch welcoming is the care that people put into things like holiday decorations or year-round displays. It may seem simple, but potted plants, a holiday wreath, or even a couple of rocking chairs can begin to tell a story of a space that is primed for conversations with neighbors and friends.

The resulting authentic, bottom-up variety adds life and interest to our neighborhoods, which might otherwise lie dormant within each household. It’s a win-win when this character is invited to come out.

Where there are porches, there are often sidewalks, which are frequently set back slightly from the street for safety reasons. The placement of sidewalks closer to front porches brings people in closer contact, and this proximity suggests that people are sharing their property with others.

Even beyond residential homes, buildings of all types can use porches as an opportunity to build up social life; especially when those porches are connected to other destinations and public spaces.

All of this is a lesson for us: we need porches, or porch-like spaces, not only on homes, but on other establishments and public buildings, as well. We need to literally build the places where public meets private, where individual meets community, where inside meets outside, and where identity can comfortably express itself.


Further Reading

Social Life, How Can it Help Shape the Future of our Communities?
With people today longing to bond again with friends and family, it is becoming clearer that the foundation of our happiness and fulfillment is a rich social life. Reflections of Jay Walljasper.
Porch Life: Building Social Neighborhoods
As “in-between” spaces, porches create a soft edge that mediates between individual and community, public and private, and in these times, offer a safe way to maintain our social, mental and physical health.
The Best Sidewalk in North America
Sidewalks are the foundation to making the social life of communities thrive. The best sidewalks share certain traits that make them welcoming, accessible, and socially active places.
Build Back Better, Together: 11 Transformative Agendas to Restore Social Life in Your Community
These transformative agendas can be a foundation for the future and a roadmap for communities to improve the “places” and after COVID, Build Back Better that can help us with ideas to shape our communities for the future.
Who Owns the Intersection Defines the Social Life of Neighborhoods
You can tell a great city by its corners. If the intersection is owned by the vehicles, it is a city for cars and traffic. If the community controls the intersections/corners, it is a city of neighborhoods.

More resources on the Porch Placemaking website:

PorchPlacemaking

Who we are, What we stand for and where do we think our future could be?

Discussion: Next Steps for the Global Placemaking Movement
Imagine if the places where we live were shaped for, and from, our social lives, re-imagined to make it easy for us to gather, shop, have fun, eat together, and be around people different from us. we would collectively have an impact on the health of our planet.

The mission of the Social Life Project is to incite a renaissance of community connection in public spaces around the globe. Through our online publication, presentations, campaigns, and catalytic projects, we can create transformative impact on communities everywhere. Our work grows out of more than 50 years devoted to building the global placemaking movement. It is an initiative of the Placemaking Fund, along with PlacemakingX — a global network of leaders who together accelerate placemaking as a way to create healthy, inclusive, and beloved communities. We gladly accept donations to advance our work.