Bring Back the Front Porch

It is the kind of 'in-between' space that we need today.

Front Porch

Steve Mouzon with permission

Front porches have long been derided as "historical pastiche" with no place in modern design – but as photographer, architect, and writer Steve Mouzon noted a decade ago, the people complaining about them "have no understanding of their abilities to encourage people to walk and to bind communities together." As he wrote about the photo above:

"I got this shot in mid-2007 at the Waters near Montgomery, Alabama. After the women had finished their conversation, I walked over to the woman on the porch and asked her permission to use the image, and she agreed. I asked her 'was that lady a friend of yours?' She said 'no, I just met her right then.'"

Back then, Mouzon called porches a "Social Interaction Device." He measured them and documented them, calculating the relationship between height and distance from the sidewalk. "As the porch gets closer to the sidewalk, it must get higher above the sidewalk, otherwise people simply will not sit on the porch because they feel too vulnerable."

These days, front porches can serve a very different function; in a sense, to keep people a social distance apart. I was going to call it an "in-between zone" but Mouzon gives Treehugger a better name for the current times:

"The porch is one of the few 'magical intermediate zones' in urbanism where people can be partly-in, partly-out, able to both feel comfortable on their own turf and comfortable interacting with previously-unknown strangers. It is this intermediate space which, more than any other place in the built environment, encourages humans to act like neighbors again."

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, architect Sebastian Salvadó of RIOS sounds like he invented or discovered the "super porch" as a social space that can transform neighborhoods.

"Because the walls are transparent, you can see the street outside, watching cars and joggers go by, and saying hello to people as they pass; they can wave to you or drop over to chat. You’re not holed up inside working at a desk or exercising in a basement room – you’re out on your lawn, in public, interacting with the neighborhood.... We hit upon the idea for this space when we realized that the porch and the front yard – and even the sidewalk – are some of the greatest untapped resources in our neighborhoods. The traditional front porch is the original place of overlap, where public meets private, where diverse and flexible activities occur and where our families can socialize with our neighbors and friends."
"3 men courting a woman gathered around front porch"
"3 men courting a woman gathered around front porch".

H. Armstrong Roberts/ Getty Images

Well, yes, urbanists have been saying this forever. But these days, porches can serve additional functions; my daughter uses her porch for bike and barbecue storage. During this pandemic my other daughter often talks to people from her porch, holding her baby but keeping her distance. It is really effective for that.

Majestic Milkbox

Majestic Milkbox

The porch needs some modifications for the modern age; many deliveries of goods from online shopping are dropped on porches, and there are concerns about porch pirates. I thought the solution to that might be a smart modern version of the milk box that could be built into the wall or the porch. Sebastian Salvadó's "super porch" is full of modern conveniences including "power outlets, integrated storage, outdoor heaters, a lockup bar, and music." Please, no music, it ruins it for your neighbors. Now that marijuana is legal where I live, an air filter would be nice.

5 women and a man with a bicycle posing on front porch in 1890
5 women and a man with a bicycle posing on front porch in 1890.

H. Armstrong Roberts/ Getty Images

But more important than the gadgets and gizmos is to get the size and the height right, big enough to work as an outdoor room. As Mouzon noted:

"When you design a porch that is usable as an outdoor room, then it’s a useful part of the living space of the house. And it’s usually some of the least expensive space in the house because you don’t have to heat and cool it, and it doesn’t have walls or windows. But if it’s not useful as living space, then a porch is just very expensive decoration." 

You don't see a lot of front porches on modern houses. But these days, and possibly for quite some time, we need that "magical intermediate zone." So bring back the front porch.

And for people who do not have the luxury of a house with a front door, bring back the vestibule, even in apartments. Oh, and bring back the screened porch too.