Porches Knit Together New Urbanist Communities New Urbanism advocates communities with small-town-like layouts that encourage walking and decrease reliance on cars. The front porch, which had gone out of vogue after World War II, has played a key role in fostering community in such developments.

Porches Knit Together New Urbanist Communities

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From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Depending on where you live, you may notice a lot of people outside tonight. Maybe your neighbors are getting together for barbeque and beer or maybe the entire street is closed to traffic for a twilight block party. August 1st is National Night Out, a yearly event designed to foster community and help combat crime. It's sponsored by national neighborhood watch groups, law enforcement agencies and others. The idea is to draw people out in front of their homes, and with that in mind we return to our occasional late summer series on the role of the American porch.

NORRIS: After World War II the front porch took a back seat to the back yard. As the suburbs grew, families socialized in more private settings on the rear patio or deck, and new homes, especially in the suburbs, were often built without porches.

That began to change in the early eighties. Husband and wife architects Andres Duany and Liz Plater-Zyberk designed a northwest Florida community based on a concept that later became known as New Urbanism. The town is called Seaside. You might remember it from the Jim Carey movie The Truman Show. It's a modern development laid out like an old fashioned small town, with businesses, parks and schools placed close. All the better to encourage walking or bike riding and decrease the use of cars. And to cut down on the use of air conditioning, each home in Seaside had to have a porch. Liz Plater-Zyberk explains.

LIZ PLATER: I think Seaside revived the front porch. In the design of Seaside, we thought that the front porch would have an environmental reason to exist, that it would cool the sea breezes before they entered the house. And then it was noticed that it was having a social effect, that people would sit on the front porch instead of the back yard because they could see people coming and going and say hello to their neighbors and have short conversations. And the bonds of community were being formed through that sort of brief interaction.

NORRIS: Seaside became a catalyst for New Urbanism and the porch. Douglas Kelbaugh is professor of urban planning and he's dean of the architecture school at the University of Michigan. He's a strong proponent of New Urbanism and he understands the allure of the porch.

DOUGLAS KELBAUGH: It's a pleasant place to spend a cool evening in the summer reading a book or swinging in a love seat, sneaking a kiss on a sultry night.

NORRIS: So if you put the porch on the front of the house, what's supposed to happen on the porch that will help build a sense of community?

KELBAUGH: Well, it depends a little bit on its geometry and configuration. Depending on far it's set back and how high it is above the street makes a difference, and obviously some porches are more open than others. So ideally it provides a range of possibilities depending on where you're sitting, your posture, which sort of signals whether you're open for business. Whether you want to chat or not. But that's the idea, that there can be face to face live interaction in real time.

NORRIS: And not just within the family, but interaction with other people in the community.

KELBAUGH: Absolutely. That's essential. I mean it's important that the community know about other members, that a community know about itself. We live in a very privatized world, a highly mediated world by all sorts of technology, so this sort of face to face interaction between people that you know and perhaps people that you don't know is important glue in building community and sustaining it.

NORRIS: Now there are people that would say, porches, smorches. What's up with all these porches? What is their criticism? Why don't they like this idea?

KELBAUGH: Well I think they believe it's from an era that is bygone. That with air conditioning we don't need porches for environmental or climatological reasons. I happen to debate that. I actually think there is a deeper psychological need met by porches. Anthropologists and psychologists tell us that human beings need refuge in prospect. That that's is the way we evolve, living in a cave on the edge of a forest looking out over the savannah. It's a combination of a safe haven, with our back protected, and a view outward to survey for dangerous animals or for game to hunt, for that matter. It was an advantageous place to be, it actually played a role in our biological evolution. Gave us certain advantages. So refuge and prospect is probably deeply programmed into our psyches.

NORRIS: Today there are hundreds of New Urbanist communities around the country, including one called Lakelands in Gaithersburg, Maryland, a Washington suburb. Porches are a staple there, says Lennie Gladstone. She was out walking her poodle, Nicky, last night.

LENNIE GLADSTONE: It's white picket fences, it's beautiful porches. All the homes look a lot alike, but they all have little touches that are different, and you can hear the ice cream man in the background. You always see people outside enjoying their porches. I didn't get a porch and that was very disappointing to me. On the other hand, I took the house that I could get when I could get it because I really wanted to be in the community.

NORRIS: Artimas Agritellis(ph) is a teacher who was splashing at the Lakelands pool with her children. She told us about her house.

ARTIMAS AGRITELLLIS: It has a beautiful wrap-around porch and I always thought that when I bought my house I would throw a party on my front porch because its got French doors that go into the house and out and I'd have a big party. And all of my parties are out on my back deck and I don't know why. I don't know why I haven't done one yet, but maybe I will now after this interview. I think it might inspire me to do that.

NORRIS: So building all those porches doesn't mean people are necessarily using them, and Douglas Kelbaugh at the University of Michigan says that's fodder for those who say New Urbanism works better in theory than in practice.

KELBAUGH: I think that's a legitimate criticism. Many of the New Urbanist developments don't have the sort of active street life that they might espouse, but I think they're trying to build community, and in general it's far more positive than negative.

It's infinitely better than what passes for community in cul de sac sprawl, where houses are doing their best to disengage with the community. Putting the porch on the back and having large yards, maybe even high fences. Picket fences may be a little cute and a little sentimental, that's a legitimate gripe. But I think you have to look beyond the form and the style and realize there are social, environmental and architectural roles being played by these porches and these fences.

NORRIS: Either way, Americans are building more porches. According to the National Association of Home Builders, 42% of new single family homes had porches 14 years ago. Now it's up to 53%. This is no surprise. Porches are most popular in the South and the West.

And one more thing we wondered about. Does adding a porch to your home increase its value? The National Association of Home Builders says, well, it depends. In most cases, homeowners recover the cost of a porch when they sell their home. So build it because you want it. It's an investment in your pleasure, not necessarily in your pocketbook.

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