Calibrating Yards for Building Community

Too often, we find ourselves in new suburban developments that are little more than a watered down model of a historic precedent. With large swaths of sub-divided into saleable parcels, the go-to combination of a windy road, ample lawns and a smattering of colonial reminiscing can get the property off the hands of a developer into the eager grasp of new tenants. But when it comes to actually fostering a sense of community, more often than not we see houses thrown up in reasonable proximity with hopes for the best. This method leaves a lot of clubs in the bag for crafting variables entirely within our collective control to produce better results. Among them is the relationship between our homes and the streetscape, with plenty of ways to promote connection rather than just proximity.

A combination of graduations and holidays drew me North Memorial Day weekend to gather with family at my mother’s home in Massachusetts. The great weather, excellent festivities and pleasant company all helped make it a great divergence from normal life, but there was one added pleasure that I’ve come to enjoy about going “home”– my mother’s front porch. Whether it’s 80 degrees or 40 degrees outside, the attire and beverage of choice may change, but the porch is still a great place to be. From the morning to the evening I can sit and take in the view along with the inevitable series of passerbies. For every transient guest, I reach up for a little wave and the vast majority end up waving back–even if I waved to them just the day before. Some smaller number end up engaging in pleasant, albeit brief, conversation. The whole thing just works, but probably not by accident.

Planners and architects often talk about the space between the street and a building as this magical zone, rife with community building opportunity as it defines the overlap of public and private space. Many a projects from students and professionals alike justify design decisions with the goal of framing and fostering social mixing between public and private forces. Some can argue that the perception and distinction of these “semi-private” spaces is an important building block for community generation and it certainly can be true, pleasantly so, when configured properly.

pedestrian community communicationThough now a city dweller very content with my surroundings, I spent most of my life growing up outside of cities across the suburbs of the American northeast. That being said, this is the first of my family’s houses that has supported this kind of neighborhood experience. For starters, it is the only house my mother has owned with a front porch, but it is also the only one where a front porch would have made any sense.

The porch at this particular Dedham, Massachusetts house wraps around corner of the building to face southeast (which sits on the corner of two streets as well).  The porch space is approximately 6 feet deep, allowing for passage in front of someone sitting in a chair. This dimension of covered space is key to usability, but perhaps even more important is its distance from the street. Both sides of the porch sit around 30 feet from the edge of the road, which is about 25 feet from the edge of the sidewalk. In 25 feet I can handily make a visual connection with anyone on any of the four corners of the intersection and easily share a conversation with anyone on our half.

architect sketch street

When speaking about public space in his book, A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander points to research noting that recognition of someone’s face can occur up to 70-80 feet with 75 feet marking the limits of the ability for two people to communicate. Fe further claims that achieving detailed recognition is possible up to 48 feet. For this Dedham street corner, these would coincidentally equate to diagonally across the intersection and perpendicularly across the street respectively. Add to this the research of cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall who studied the occurrence of non-verbal communication and coined the term “proxemics” to analyze the relationship between distance and communication. He postulated that after 25 feet you can no longer pick up the subtle nuances of facial expression and tone of voice–in our case, aptly measured to the edge of the sidewalk.

Some other variables contribute to the corner’s success. The short distance to the street results in front yard that is shallow by some standards and mirrored by the other three homes that  comprise the intersection. Add this to the tight two-lane road without shoulders and the combination is enough to make the space between the buildings closer to an outdoor room than an expansive, transitional no-man’s-land. All of these components are rarer in newer suburban developments, making it no surprise that my mother’s house and those around it are over 100 years old, still benefiting from the tighter fabric of historic town planning.

street community walkability

The house across the intersection, even better.

At this point there could be plenty of readers holding up a finger saying, “wait a second, buddy. My front porch satisfies all of these criteria and I don’t end up with the same storybook experience you’re describing here.” Fair enough, but even with a stage set perfectly one still needs two sides of a conversation to harvest this kind of streetside social capital. In other words, you need to have people walking around as well and a pedestrian environment hinges on many more variables than just well crafted housing stock. Everything from a protected walking experience, to things worth walking past and things worth walking to all play an important role–a thin line that Dedham walks precariously at times, but the historic parts of the town, closer to the center, do it better than many younger, American suburban sites. Dedham, like most of America, could use more mixed-use parcels in walking distance of residents given that density alone cannot guarantee walkability.

As a note, another nearby house performs its role even better. Sitting kitty-corner across the intersection, the historic home may have a smaller porch that is not connected to its front door, but it sits closer to the street and wastes even less front yard on lawnscape (why do we need those lawns anyway?). The fence is low and unimposing, but sits pulled back from the curb to yield more of its property back into that elusive semi-private zone.

It is one thing to copy a model that works and another to selectively pull from historic archetypes in order to paint an image that sells real estate. A number of simple changes to residential development could go a long way in promoting “places” rather than plots–locations that people can actually use rather than only reside in. A reduction of vehicle miles travels remains one of the largest areas of potential progress we can make in the goal of ecological responsibility, making walkability a key component to any sustainable culture.