Emily Articulated: The front porch effect

By Emily Erickson
Reader Columnist

Emily Erickson.

When you date someone, you’re inevitably exposed to their interests, their way of thinking and, generally, a perspective that’s outside of your own. 

When you date an architect, you’re exposed to a certain detailed way of seeing the world — while you thought you knew the curves and edges, you realize you’ve never quite looked at them. 

Dating an architect means regularly confronting things like a roof’s “pitch” and the nuances of ADA compliance, and being stopped in the middle of a sunny afternoon stroll to look at the way a beam connects to its column and the column to its foundation.

Vacations become a succession of iPhone photos, not of beaches or mountain vistas, but of front doors, window decorations, roof overhangs and the little things that most people — including yourself — normally pass by.

This drastically different perspective makes for interesting conversations about the little, intentional things that have effects far greater than we might think. As I’m learning, through my own relationship with an architect, the little details we’re prone to missing shape the community and how we interact with the things around us.

For instance, in our latest architecturally themed conversation, my partner introduced me to the notion of “interstitial spaces,” or the spaces between the buildings and structures that we inhabit on a daily basis. 

Interstitial spaces, like streets, alleyways, parks and sidewalks, while seemingly inconspicuous have the potential to cultivate community or contribute to isolation, depending on how they’re designed.

The design of this infrastructure coincides with the design of neighborhoods, buildings and even the details of our homes, having far greater implications than aesthetics or organization.

Consider the concept of a front porch. When we draw property lines, we’re sectioning off a portion of land to be rightfully ours, designating it and the home we build within its lines as a private space.

By adding a front porch into the design, we’re opening up an interface between our designated private space and the public realm. The porch acts as a bridge between what is ours as individuals and the interstitial spaces in which all are welcome.

Practically, if the closest thing to the sidewalk from our home is a porch, we’re more likely to wave at people passing by, watch our neighbor play with her dog, see the kids on bikes building a jump on the curb and, generally, become active participants in our community. There is a definite “front porch effect.”

In contrast, if the closest thing to the interstitial space in front of our home is a two-stall garage, with our front door set back into the property, that community participation is limited. We’re prioritizing privacy above community through something as seemingly simple as forgoing a front porch.

Despite the potential for isolation, we often opt for privacy over easy access to community, for reasons like security, a sense of ownership and perceived safety. We put up a garage, or plant trees between our home and the street, because it makes us feel protected.

Jane Jacobs, author and acclaimed American influencer of the fields of urban planning and sociology, debunked these rationales for isolation, asserting the “Eyes on the Street” theory in 1961.

In this theory, she contended that the way to greater security and safety was through strategic design and planning that encourages people to interact with their interstitial spaces, and consequently, one another.

Because when neighborhoods are actively engaged in cultivating community, they’re invested in the well-being of one another, taking notice of the norms and irregularities within their surroundings. The man planting flowers in his front yard or the two ladies playing cribbage by their kitchen window will more readily take note of what’s going on around them than someone who is closed off to the outside world.

When we have more front porches than garages, we quite literally have more “eyes on the street,” making our spaces — both private and public — safer. When we organize our neighborhoods, plan our cities and have code requirements that encourage interaction, we have stronger connections and a sense of ownership within our place. 

By considering these details, and the intentionality behind them, we can learn a bit more about each other, ourselves and what it means to be a member of a society. 

Next time you take a stroll, pause, not to smell the roses, but to examine the interaction of interstitial spaces and think of the many architects who made their girlfriends wait while they snapped another damn picture of a building.

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