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FEATURE: Back to the Front

reclaiming your front yard and you sense of community

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by Trevor Kupfer photos by Andrea Paulseth, Nick Meyer, Trevor Kupfer

For decades, the public interest in community involvement, neighborhood building, and placemaking the nation over was in decline. Quite simply, our sense of community was dying. So a bunch of experts got together and decided to track down the reasons why. And one of them, believe it or not, is the simple choice of where we relax at home. Our societal flight from the front porch to the back yard has had big effects on our neighborhoods. Thankfully, the articles and research done in recent years has made an impact, and people are making conscious efforts to switch back. With this guide to changing the way you look at your yard, the hope of Volume One is to help spread that shift throughout the Chippewa Valley. So get out front, and help lead the charge to reclaim our neighborhoods.
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REDISCOVERING THE PORCH
a historical hangout is lost and then found 

There was a time when the front porch was the place to be. When nearly every home on every block had a porch the length of their house, complete with comfortable seating and end tables like you’d see in a living room setting. And – get this – they were a popular hangout. People routinely relaxed on their front porches for hours. They’d have a cold beer or pitcher of lemonade and do some reading, eat meals, listen to music, basically take part in any kind of hobby. The point wasn’t what they were doing, but where they were doing it. From their front porch they were able to stay plugged in to their neighborhood or community as the parade of life passed by. They could start conversations with passing acquaintances, or merely notice some behavior patterns and thus glean a little more from the place they live.

By the time cookie-cutter subdivision developments came into style in the 50s (think Leave it to Beaver), front porches gave way to “sun porches,” “breezeways,” “enclosures,” and eventually, just the plain old façade of a garage. What happened? People moved to their backyards. The familial lifestyle had switched to a protective, hermetically sealed atmosphere in which people tried to replicate the safe and “normal” settings of their neighbors and what they saw on TV. What they saw as “conventional” eventually boiled down to a bland, shut-in way of living. People stayed indoors, and when they relaxed outside, it was in a backyard with bushes or fences dotting the property line where they can control who comes in.

Not to demonize the 50s (after all, those people experienced the Great Depression and two world wars), but we’ve realized their generational folly and the proverbial fence gate is now swinging the other direction. Front porches and stoops are now back in fashion, but not as a status symbol so much as a hangout. Many new homes and urban structures are adding them back on as people reclaim their interest in the world around them, specifically their neighborhood and community. 

In the Project for Public Spaces’ Great Neighborhood Book, they credit Minneapolis as one of the places making this progressive move. Author Jay Walljasper talked with a family that built a second-story patio that they liked, but made them feel cut off from the neighborhood. So they built a front deck and put out a fire pit, moves they would later say changed their lives. The book also mentions an arts organization that built green Adirondack chairs and gave them away to people who promised to put them in their front yards and lounge in them. Also, the puppetry performance group Open Eye Figure Theatre did a summer tour that involved front yard performances in neighborhoods where all the kids in the area could gather and watch a show.

In short, people are realizing the placemaking potential of a simple thing like a yard. 

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