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A Growing Sense of Community – Front Porches Make a Comeback

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By Mary Beth Breckenridge

front-porch-homespunRISMEDIA, June 1, 2009-(MCT)-A front porch is more than a shelter from the elements. It’s a friendly face on a home, a comfortable bridge between our private lives and our public selves. And almost by its very presence, it conveys neighborliness.

Is it any wonder, then, that in a country where families are often scattered and relocations common, we’d crave a return to the community-building powers of the porch?

That’s a big part of the reason housing experts believe the front porch is regaining its importance in home construction.

Increasing demand for front porches in new homes was projected by most of the 60 builders, architects, designers and other specialists who were surveyed for the National Association of Home Builders’ Home of the Future study in 2007.

Among the panelists, 70% predicted front porches would become popular in new homes of about 2,400 square feet, while 79% expected it to be a desired feature in upscale homes of 3,000 feet or more. The experts aren’t talking about porches intended primarily for decoration, noted Steve Melman, the association’s director of economic services.

“This is something where you could actually sit out,” a covered space big enough to accommodate a swing or a table and chairs. Melman thinks the movement has several roots.

Front porches fit with the trend toward traditional home design, and they meet homeowners’ desire for a more casual lifestyle, he said. What’s more, Melman said, porches feed people’s desire to belong. A front porch is an icon of the American neighborhood, and its presence helps create a sense of community almost instantly, he said.

The orientation of porch to sidewalk encourages interaction-for example, close together but with the porch a few feet higher-without setting up the expectation of a long encounter, unless that’s what you want. A porch’s ability to promote that sort of casual exchange is the reason the architectural feature is often used in new urbanist developments, which strive to give new neighborhoods the feel and livability of older small towns.

New urbanism-also called new traditional development-de-emphasizes cars and encourages people to walk places, spend time outdoors and interact with their neighbors, fostering a sense of belonging.

“You get a feel that, OK, I’m in a neighborhood,” said Tony Troppe, who is developing Hickory, a new urbanist neighborhood near Cascade Locks Park in Akron, Ohio.

The front porch may be an American icon, but it’s hardly an American invention. Its origins lie in the protected walkways that edged ancient Greek temples, the porticos of ancient Rome, the covered outdoor living areas of equatorial Africa and the Indian huts called barandas, Michael Dolan writes in “The American Porch: An Informal History of an Informal Place.”

Dolan said the porch was common in 19th century America but started falling out of fashion early in the 20th century as indoor plumbing came into use. Porches, like outhouses, became symbols of houses that were outdated, he said.

The demise of the front porch accelerated after World War II as ranch houses sprang up to accommodate the returning GIs and their burgeoning families. The houses’ simple construction meant they could be built quickly and affordably, and “those little houses didn’t lend themselves to any complicated carpentry,” he said. The neighborhoods where those houses were built also emphasized the automobile over walking, and the orientation of homes moved to the more private space in the backyard.

Nevertheless, Dolan said, movies and TV shows continued to portray the front porch as a symbol of hearth and home, and the kids who grew up seeing those images now want to make those idyllic settings their own.

A front porch feels good, Dolan said, and to him, it just looks like it belongs – sort of like eyebrows on a depiction of a face. “It’s detail that the eye wants,” he said.

What makes a good front porch?
-Size, for one thing, porch aficionados agree. A porch needs to be at least 8 feet deep to be comfortable, inviting and usable. Otherwise “it’s like a really handsome pair of shoes that don’t fit,” says Dolan.
-A porch should also be proportionate to the house, for aesthetics’ sake, Dolan said. Pay attention to the height of the railing, he suggested.
-Materials are important, too, developer Tony Troppe said. Natural materials like wood and stone, or those that have a more natural feel, are more pleasing to be near than their artificial counterparts.

(c) 2009, Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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