Front Porches vs. American Idol
Tonight I’m sitting out on the front porch of our 100-year old rental house in a paleo-urbanistic neighborhood, and I’m quite enjoying myself. The porch light is on, my pipe is lighted, my legs are propped up on the balustrade, and a slight chill is in the air. Though dark outside, the old-fashioned street lamps allow me to see clearly up and down the street and notice the wonderful rhythm of other houses with similar front porches. Quickly, however, the charming atmosphere so much promoted by New Urbanists begins to fade as I notice that I’m the only one actually outside on my front porch. Well, you say, maybe it’s because this is the coldest night so far this fall. Not true, however. This has pretty much been the same as every other night: for all practical purposes, no one is ever out on their front porch!
So what’s the problem? Aren’t front porches supposed to encourage neighborhood interaction? Aren’t they supposed to make it easier to meet and connect with those living mere feet away? Clearly when the houses on this street were built, that seemed to be the reality. Why not now? Well, it didn’t take me more than a couple times walking up and down the block to realize the problem: instead of sitting out on the front porch, everyone is inside watching TV! Indeed, even if the street lights went out, it wouldn’t be pitch black because of the neon glare emanating from the front windows and doors!
It seems to me we can build better houses and streets and neighborhoods and cities until we’re blue in the face and never make a dent in the fragmentation and disconnectedness of society if we don’t deal with the real, underlying problems. As long as the TV is on 8.14 hours a day, no amount of front porches will ever allow neighbors to meet, let alone engage with and care for one another.
Architecture can certainly help. But it can only go so far. As much as design needs to change, behaviors and habits need to change even more if we’re ever going to experience real community.
— Scott Greider
PS – after I wrote this post, I stumbled upon this post. Well said, even if he is not as critical of TV as I am.