Protect the porch
As a young black man growing up dually in the urban oasis of Memphis and the countryside of Bells, Tennessee, I repeatedly encountered an architectural element in both places: the porch. My maternal grandmother was a front porch person; she enjoyed the street-watching (she didn't know who Jane Jacobs was), the conversations, and the activity. Most important, however, is the sense of safety she enjoyed that comes with having a place on her property where she can relax and be engaged simultaneously. My paternal grandmother was a back porch person; She enjoyed watching the children in the five abutting backyards play sports and board games, seeing families host cookouts, and comparing her shrubs, trees, and plants to others around her to see what else she could add to her beautiful array of gardens and greenery. As they were both black women and grew up in predominantly black neighborhoods, the porch was an essential urban design element to their regular routines, and it provided a sense of safety and connectivity for them and those around them. From this culturally and historically sacred vein, I pen this writing today to encourage us, as new urbanists, to protect the porch.
New Urbanism, among other things, places a big priority on placemaking to create natural human activity. An avenue placemaking enacts more intimately through urban design is the porch. How a physical space or place is formed and used can be based on cultural context. Although it may masquerade as a European invention, the porch traces its roots back to Western and Central Africa, hundreds of years before European involvement. Dr. Joseph Holloway, in his article "African American Architecture: A Hidden Heritage", identifies that the attached porch design style came from the Yoruba Tribe and was transplanted to the Americas via Haiti. Although there’s historical evidence of porches from Ancient Greece, to say the modern era of attached porches was not strongly influenced by the African architectural style is disingenuous. This revelation of historical knowledge consequently points to a natural proclivity of Black Americans to desire a front porch as part of their house; it shows a deep intrinsic connection to past traditions. The porch should serve as a model of how the design of homes in our neighborhoods is critical to what culture(s) we consider essential.
For the African-American community, the porch first represents the original gathering space. The design of the porch provides a guided access point for others in the neighborhood to come to a single end at a neighbor's home and discuss current events and activities in the area or to vent about life's happenings. In Black Culture, it's common for young kids with bikes to gather around a porch and talk about school, sports, and music. The back porch provides a central place for families to grill and cook food while hanging out in the backyard during family gatherings and reunions. Secondly, the porch represents the impromptu communing of neighbors. If people are sitting on a porch and while there are also others passing by said structure, it's not uncommon for neighbors to strike up a conversation, creating social interaction on the street. With people's lives now, it can be challenging to schedule intentional time within the community. However, the porch presents a viable option for the neighborhood to feel connected inwardly, even on a whim or during a fleeting moment. Lastly, the porch provides a natural deterrence of crime. Jane Jacobs crafted the idea of "eyes on the street," which involves people being the police of their neighborhoods by always watching what's happening on the street. Although Jacobs crafted the language, the idea has long been a standard practice in African-American communities. Like my grandmothers, having several individuals come and go from their porch throughout the day makes it difficult for criminals to commit nefarious acts without being caught. Having any number of people pay attention to neighborhood activity is made possible because there's a porch present to make it possible.
According to the Association of Homebuilders, in 2018, 65 percent of all new single-family homes had front porches: the second time it's exceeded 65 percent in the last 20 years. Although no data was available on new home construction relative to porch additions, specifically in Black neighborhoods, one can speculate that those homes built with porches are at a similar or lower rate. In an era where cars dominate the streets and housing design is in a global reinventive age, the porch must remain a part of the home. The National Museum of African American History and Culture even has a porch along the south entrance, a symbol of the importance of this architectural feature to the Black Community. To take away the porch in Black Communities is to take away culture. Just urban design means preserving characteristics of homes in minority neighborhoods that keep the culture of that said minority group alive and well. In our journey with New Urbanism, may we continue to protect the porch.
Editor's note: This article addresses CNU’s Strategic Plan goal of growing the supply of neighborhoods that are both walkable and affordable.