Front porches build neighbourliness

'Scan through any children’s book and you’ll notice mostly two-storey houses with front porches on tree-lined streets. Paintings and photos of Revelstoke feature those same house designs. These are indications of what people love about their neighbourhoods.'

Heritage home porches on Sixth Street East. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer

This article first appeared in print in the June issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.

For decades, the front porch was an integral part of many houses in Revelstoke. It has become a part of our community’s cultural identity. Neighbourhood and house design has changed over the last 60-70 years with more emphasis now on private backyard and garage space. And while practical for many reasons, this design shift has meant the loss of these effective neighbourliness-building features. They don’t work everywhere, but they can improve the overall character of a neighbourhood.

This image of neighbourhoods people love isn’t just held by me and other urban designers. It’s pretty engrained in our culture. Scan through any children’s book and you’ll notice mostly two-storey houses with front porches on tree-lined streets. Paintings and photos of Revelstoke feature those same house designs. These are indications of what people love about their neighbourhoods. Ironically though, these are not often the kinds of places that we build. If we want Revelstoke to continue to have places people love, planning a front porch can go a long way.

Heritage home porches on Second Street East. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer

Porches and decks are great features for any house. They provide outdoor living space that can be used through most of the year when they’re covered. Cheaper to build than fully insulated walled rooms, covered backyard decks and front porches can dramatically increase your three-season outdoor time. They may also allow you to build smaller homes, lowering your overall build cost.

Both a back deck and front porch serve similar purposes, but are different. The back deck is, obviously more private, and meant to accommodate your more personal activities, like dining and socializing. The front porch is a more public space, that provides more opportunities to get to know your neighbours while doing relatively boring things like reading the paper or watching the rain fall. As humans, we love to people watch. It’s why we sit on patios and benches downtown.

While not often on people’s “must have” list, front porches provide a community-building dynamic that few other components of a house can offer. And the best part is, you don’t have to put in much effort to build your neighbourhood relationships. Just by sitting out there, you increase your potential ‘social collisions’ and have more opportunities to meet your neighbours. It’s these opportunities for more chance encounters with neighbours that can help build comfort, facilitate conversations, and help you get to know your neighbours.

I wrote about the importance of knowing your neighbours in a previous article, but as a recap, they include: better social and emergency networks, less isolation, more neighbourhood parties (and free babysitting), and reduced crime. Front porch neighbourhoods are typically more walkable, and you will see more people walking/biking in them then you will see in typical big city suburban neighbourhoods, where the design aesthetic is more geared towards large garages along the streetfront.

The front porch is more than just a place to spark up a conversation with someone in your neighbourhood. It also provides a valuable aesthetic function on a house. On a two-storey house it helps to break up the height of the building, making it not feel so tall. Psychologically, it creates an inviting frontage to your house, by providing a covered space to escape the elements when approaching your front door.

Perhaps most interesting thing about them is the flexible space they create. They’re essentially a blank canvas for creative endeavours. In several cities and towns throughout North America, front porches have been reclaimed by artists, and community groups to host a variety of neighbourhood-scale community events. My favourite is the front porch concert series that have been held in many neighbourhoods in the US. In it, the front porch becomes a stage for local musicians. The musicians put on a short concert in a neighbourhood front yard. You’d be hard to find a better neighbourhood-building event than that.

So if you’re sold on porches, here are a few key considerations:

  1. Make them big enough to spend time on – Generally an eight-foot minimum depth.
  2. Cover them — you’ll get way more use out of them in the shoulder seasons and some protection from the rain while fumbling with your door keys if they’re covered.
  3. Worried about bugs? Screen them in to keep those pesky pests out.
  4. Make the colour, materials, and detailing match your houses style.
  5. Corner lot? Wrap that right around the corner.
  6. Want a bit more privacy? Raise the height of the floor and/or build a solid railing. Check out Revelstoke’s heritage district for some great examples.
  7. Wide lot, but no alley? Build a wider house with room for a garage and a porch.