Thursday, November 5, 2015

Porches, front yards and the (North) American way of life

So last weekend was my favorite holiday: Halloween. The well-known celebration of Halloween originated in the United States, a combination of many different influences, and it has migrated to Québec by the time I was born. As a kid, I loved going trick-or-treating, walking the streets, looking at houses with fake graveyards in front of them and the like. It got me thinking about the intersection between the celebration of Halloween and the built environment of North America.

Traditional North American residential practices

If there is one thing that defines North American architecture, especially in single-family areas, it is an openness of design. Traditional urban houses in much of North America is open to the street, with plenty of wide windows, porches and details to make the house look good to the street. Front yards have also been common for a century or more, and these are rarely fenced-in, and even when they are, they remain largely visible from the street or sidewalk. These front yards used to be of moderate depth before cars came around, but they have gotten deeper as time has gone on.

Traditional American duplexes in Albany, New York: Note the two large porches, one for each unit
Early 20th century houses (maybe duplexes) in Detroit
Another example of traditional American architecture, note the porch, the big windows in front, the attention to detail

4-plex kit sold by Sears in the early 20th century, once again, note that each apartment has a porch or a balcony (source)

Sears home duplex

Sears single-family home, made to fit a 32-ft wide lot
This is a duplex from Mont-Tremblant in Québec, like the American examples, it has big porches, but also the traditional exterior staircase common to Québec traditional housing design (which makes the ground floor porch exclusive to the ground floor unit)

Traditional homes and duplexes in Saint-Jérôme, Québec

Other examples of single-family homes and duplexes in Mont-Tremblant, Québec
Duplex in Boucherville
A few houses in the old section of Boucherville

Traditional European practices

This openness of design can be contrasted with many European countries who have buildings with plain façades built right on the property line (note: the apparent density may be deceptive, in many cases, houses have huge back yards so that overall density may be only 20-40% higher than traditional single-family areas in North America)...
I call this architectural style, common in France, "Castle under siege"

Example in France with small, fenced in, yards in front

Another example in France

Here is an example in Spain
An example in Manchester, UK
...or even if they have significant front yards, they often use fences to hide the front yard from the street.
A case of hedges used as fences, though these houses evoke ranch-style or bungalow-style houses common in North America, they are visually isolated by hedges and they do not even face the street

Two examples in France of single-family areas with small or medium front yards, largely hidden from the public by fences of some type

An example in Spain, with outright walls blocking the view on the big houses on big lots on either side of the street
(Note that some countries in Europe have more of an intermediate position like the Netherlands or England and that newer suburban areas often have front yards, even if they're usually fenced-off, or walled-off)

Public vs private realm

Where am I going with this? Well, first, I think it's important to talk about the public realm and the private realm. The public realm is any part of a city that is publicly accessible: street, sidewalk, park, plaza. The public realm also includes the visual elements visible from publicly accessible places. On the other hand, the private realm is everything that is not open to the public: people's homes and back yards are the typical example of it, as are offices and workplaces not open to the public.

If you look at the images contrasting the North American and European cities, you can notice one major difference: in the European cases, there is a very clear break between public and private realm, the public realm is the street and sidewalk, owned and administrated by the city, and just outside it, walls, either the façade of the buildings or walls built at the limit of the property to make the front yard more part of the private realm than of the public realm.
In much of Europe, the public realm is often mostly limited to the street and sidewalk, with walls clearly marking a break between the publicly-owned public realm and the private realm
In North America, the openness of housing design and the presence of unfenced/clearly visible front yards introduces an entirely other part of the public realm: privately owned land that is nevertheless designed to complement the public realm, to serve as a public display of the owner's personality. This means that shaping the public realm is not just the duty of the public authority through the city, but also of the community, of the individual residents who take care of their front yards, porches and other publicly visible elements of their dwelling.

North American areas add an intermediate buffer between the public realm and the private realm, that can be called a communal realm, made up of privately-owned land and house front that is nevertheless put to public display
This specific communal space in the public realm in North American societies can have a strong impact on community life and on the manifestations of cultural events. Indeed, without that space allowing a public showcase of each household, it is hard to imagine Halloween and Christmas proceeding as they do currently, with decorations that reshape the public realm temporarily for the duration of these holidays, all without involving the city.

People in urbanist circles sometimes look down upon front yards as meaningless space wasters, reducing density while not providing a larger private area like a back yard. But I think that this front setback does serve a purpose, even more than merely providing a buffer to protect residents' privacy, and that it defines a certain North American way of life to which many people are emotionally attached. I'm not saying this particular way of life is really superior, it has its good points (fostering a certain community spirit and involving people into contributing to shape the public realm) but also its drawbacks (inciting people to consider other resident's front yards as being semi-public, legitimating by-laws to control what one may or may not do with it or inciting them to build social pressure to conform to certain standards).

But if we want to get people to accept a drive for more walkable, urban areas, I think we have to account for this preference and try to conceive of ways to reconcile higher densities with this approach to communal construction of the public realm through front yards and setbacks. That is not necessarily impossible to achieve, traditional American cities, even today, frequently have residential densities of 50 to 100 people per hectare (20 to 40 per acre) with single-family homes and duplexes, and Montréal has some neighborhoods where residential blocks have densities of 150 to 200 people per hectare (60 to 80 per acre) while still having small front yards and balconies for units above ground.

By providing a private space on display with a private entry point, the exterior staircases and balconies of traditional Québec multiplexes allows residents to participate in North American celebrations like Halloween, as the resident of the upper unit of this duplex demonstrates (though at the time these were built, Halloween was not celebrated in Québec)

Another example of an upper unit resident decorating for Halloween and allowing kids to trick-or-treat there

On this commercial street in Verdun, commercial buildings have no setbacks, but residential buildings have small setbacks, plus the famous exterior stairs and balconies
In Reading, Pennsylvania, private porches on townhouses provide a small public display area for residents, achieving a density of 150 people per hectare (60 per acre)


  1. In Pittsburgh, covered porches were very popular, and used at all times of year.

    In Boston, I did notice that most inner suburban neighborhoods had fences around 99% of the yards (my building being one of the few exceptions, for whatever reason). I suspect that part of the fence building mania was about keeping people's dogs off the lawn (and the lack of fence where I lived seem to make it popular with passing dog walkers).

  2. What's interesting is that in the North American examples you can divide up the "communal realm" into even more zones going from the street to the front door.

    In the diagrammed image above, the grassy area between the curb and sidewalk (sometimes called a parkway) is the first part of the public realm that starts to migrate into the private because the homeowner has to take care of it. Yes it's entirely public technically, but because of the maintenance component there is some level of possessiveness attached to it, which may even extend in some cases onto the roadway itself where there's street parking, especially if there's a break in materials from the main driving surface (such as gravel or pavers that may be lined with railroad ties or other makeshift curb stones that the homeowner installed at their own behest at some point).

    The sidewalk is certainly public, but there's still some ownership of that as well, at least for sweeping and maintenance, whether that's the responsibility of the city or not. Kids for example tend to only do chalk drawings on the sidewalk in front of their own house.

    Beyond the sidewalk, if the front lawn is elevated a few feet (something fairly typical here in Cincinnati, which I don't have a good explanation for other than possibly the way the streets were originally constructed and the spoils of the street and house foundation excavations disposed of and ), that transition zone is more public than the flat lawn proper, such that you regularly see the public sitting on the steps or low retaining wall if there is one. It's something of a visual barrier that "protects" the lawn from interlopers, but the barrier itself can be an inviting edge for the public to use.

    The porch is certainly more private than the front yard, but again if there's steps it creates yet another zone of transition and something of a barrier. If you're walking down the street and chat up someone who's on their porch, most people will just shout from the sidewalk. Some may venture up the front walk into the yard, but you pretty much need an invitation to go up on the porch, though you can sit on the steps or straddle them. It's all very subtle and fascinating with something like six different discreet zones in the transition from 100% public to 100% private.

    1. That is an interesting break down of the transition space.

      It does seem like in some areas the soil removed while constructing the foundation and basement of the house was simply put on the front yard, elevating it, which can provide additional privacy to the ground floor and was an affordable solution to the problem of soil disposal in an era where there weren't big dump trucks to carry the soil miles away. That actually reminds me of an article I want to write about basements, especially in urban areas, about how so many people have the desire to put everything underground, but how building basements in dense areas is time-consuming and expensive.

    2. Obviously the value of a basement is dependent on the required depth of the foundation and footings to be below frost level. The other issue is getting down to soil of adequate bearing capacity. Half of the US only has a frost depth of 30" or less, which is crawl space territory. That said, if you have to dig out 18" of topsoil and muck to get good bearing, then you pile all that up around the house, you've likely met the frost depth requirement and more just from that alone. Dig down another foot or so, and elevate the first floor a couple feet as well, and then you have privacy for the first floor, a full basement, and minimal excavation. Certainly worth considering in the days of hand digging by teams of men and mules, and even today where hauling away soil is still pretty expensive.

  3. One common pattern around here, at least in relatively old towns, is that residential houses were built like you show here, with pretty generous setbacks in what was then a relatively rural area, and as it densified, the houses on the main streets gained commercial storefronts. Rather than replacing the old house with a new commercial building, though, the store part was just built in the front yard, flush with the sidewalk, keeping the old house behind it. So in a way, the setback was a provision for future expansion.

    Unrelatedly, I also have to wonder to what extent urban form in France and the like was affected by things like tax policies, with buildings being taxed on things like street frontage or number of windows, which resulted in changes to building design for tax-optimization.

    1. I have seen examples of stores being built at the property line even while residential properties can be significantly set back, but I'd be curious to see examples where commercial add-ons have been built in front of existing houses. Where is it you're talking about exactly? Can you provide a Google Maps link to one example?

    2. There's a number of examples in Cincinnati (where else?). What does tend to happen is that the house may be demolished in time in order for the commercial area to expand, or to provide parking, or just from deterioration, so you don't always know that was the first iteration. This particular restaurant started off as a remodel of a house with an added storefront, then the house was demolished to expand the restaurant, then the house next door was demolished to expand it again and add parking: I'll concede that these usually aren't architecturally compatible with the house, nor are they usually that aesthetically pleasing in their own right either, but that's more a function of the time when they were built (the 1940s through 1970s as best as I can tell) than anything. Here's some more typical examples:

    3. In Toronto the houses seem to be closer to the street and close together so there's often no front addition, just a widened sidewalk or outdoor goods display or restaurant patio. There are still examples though, this one includes 2 storey front additions, probably early 20th century.

      This would be an example with a larger setback.

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  5. Do you mean units per hectare? People per hectare would not be a static figure...

  6. Yes, you have hit on the optimal 4 step entry procession. 1) Public 2) Public-Private 3) Private-Public 4) Private. From sidewalk to yard to porch to inside.