Durable Growth

Having a place from which to watch and to entertain the world

My front porchMy wife and I bought our home a little longer than a decade ago.  We loved the house from the day we first saw it, but have continued to tinker with it, making it fit our needs even better and fixing the construction defects that the seller somehow forget to mention.

Ten years, a major remodel, many gallons of paints, and a wealth of handyman and landscaping projects later, the house is almost exactly what we want.  And yet we still find ourselves doodling with how to make one final change.

We’d like to make our front porch more useful.

It’s not a bad porch as it is.  It’s a secure place for the dogs to lounge in the afternoon sun, waiting for the mailman in hopes he has treats in his pockets.  And it has room for a rocking chair in which to peruse urbanist tomes.

But we’d like it to have room for two rocking chairs and a perhaps a table on which to set down wine glasses.

It seems unlikely we’ll ever find a solution for our dream porch.  The roof over the porch resists easy expansion.  The gas and electric meters are awkwardly located.  And even the driveway would be a conflict for an expanded porch.  It seems likely that we’ll have to settle for solitary, wineless enjoyment of our porch.

It’s odd that my wife and I are focused on the deficiencies in our porch.  Neither of us grew up in homes that had porches nor have we lived with porches for most of our adult lives.  We may have had raised concrete slabs or wood decks for the final steps to our front doors, but those elements were nothing more than an indifferent nod from the homebuilding industry to a bit of American architecture that seemed to slipping away forever.  What we had were called “porches” only for lack of a better word.

But we’re not alone in longing for a return to porches that truly function like the porches on which our great-grandparents lived their lives.  The homebuilding industry is taking a renewed look at how to build useful porches.

And folks are beginning to recognize the social value of porches, such as this inspiring tale of community spirit bolstered by a day-long Porchfest of music and other art on more than a hundred porches in a Georgia community.  (Disclaimer: As inspiring as I find Porchfest, my bucket of community involvement is filled to overflowing.  But if someone else wants to fiddle with the idea of a Porchfest somewhere in the North Bay, I’d been happy to serve as a sounding board.)

It’s as if there is something instinctual in the need for a porch from which one can observe the world, and be observed, while chatting with friends and family.

I’ve begun reading “The American Porch” by Michael Dolan.   A review will follow at another time, but I will share that Dolan believes there is something primeval in how we respond to porches.  He argues that early humans adopted porches long before they began to build houses.

He contends that the openings of cliffside caves, with their vantage points from which the surrounding terrain could be surveyed before retreating into the secure space behind, were the first porches and that the survival advantages those cave entrances provided have been coded into our DNA.

So in our desire for a more functional porch, my wife and I may be responding to something our Cro-Magnon ancestors understood.

I know that porches can fill a key role in walkable urban places.  Harkening back, as I often do, to Jeff Speck’s four essential elements of walkability, safety, comfort, interest, and usefulness, porches fit securely into the interest niche.

The interest standard for walkability is easily met in downtown cores with storefront windows, sidewalk cafes, and the panoply of life.  But the walk into surrounding single family neighborhoods can be less interesting, thereby inducing car travel, especially if the homes are snout houses with a blank wall of garage doors as the defining street view.

Homes with functional and well-used porches are the antithesis and antidote to snout houses.  And that’s true even when the porches are unused.  If a family is enjoying a summer evening on a porch, allowing greetings to be exchanged with walkers, the level of walkability interest is even higher.

I often walk the eldest dog in our household around the block in the evening hours.  Although the homes in our neighborhood are architecturally varied, there are only a handful of useful porches.  And only one of those is regularly occupied.  But that one is used well, with the homeowner enjoying many summer evenings with a glass of wine, his tablet, or his girlfriend.  (I’ve yet to discern which he prefers.)  I look forward to a casual exchange of neighborhood news with him.  It’s a nice capstone to my day.

As I’ve often written before, effective urbanism isn’t a simple equation; it’s a complex and subtle integration of many elements.  Porches may be among the more modest of the elements, but can complement good urbanism in surprisingly effective and comfortable ways.

It makes me disappointed that my wife and I can’t find a way to make our porch a little better.  But we’ll keep playing with it.

In my next post, I’ll look at the connections between urbanism and the on-going Paris climate change talks.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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