Fans of front porches say they improve neighborhoods
Linda and Ron Woodward moved this past September from a Scottsdale subdivision into a three-story house in the 100 block of South Mt. Vernon Avenue in Prescott.
"It's the quaintness," said Linda Woodward, a nurse practitioner. "All the houses are different. The front porches. It's not the cookie-cutter (subdivision) where everything is the same."
The Woodwards and other homeowners along Mt. Vernon Avenue - an historic district with homes dating to the 1880s - believe the front porches create more of a sense of neighborliness. Woodward said she knew few of her neighbors in Scottsdale.
The homeowners sit on their front porches - at least when the weather is warmer - and strike up conversations with neighbors and other passersby. Their porches feature porch swings, rocking and wicker chairs, and other furniture.
"People walk on the street a lot," said Mary Miller, a 38-year homeowner in the 300 block of South Mt. Vernon who went for a walk on a recent afternoon. "We frequently will have strangers stopping by to look at the house from the sidewalk. If you are out on the porch, you are more apt to visit with them and socialize a little bit."
In fact, Miller's only complaint is the noise from passing cars, a nuisance that residents of any busy street experience.
Mt. Vernon Avenue offers an "excellent example" of an old-fashioned neighborhood, explained Matt Ackerman, founding partner with Catalyst Architecture LLC in downtown Prescott.
"It has sidewalks on both sides," he said. "It's got a strip of public green next to the sidewalks. It is a comfortable place for people to walk."
The front porches on Mt. Vernon and other older neighborhoods in Prescott predate a housing trend that started in the postwar era when developers began building "cookie-cutter" subdivisions throughout the country.
"The trend has been from World War II that you are isolated from your neighbors and you don't really know your neighbors, especially here in the West where we have fences," said Nancy Burgess, historical preservation specialist for the City of Prescott.
However, Tony Grahame, director of the residential building technology program at the Chino Valley campus of Yavapai College, said builders stopped putting in front porches a decade ago because of costs.
"They were not getting the appraisal for it," Grahame said, meaning porches did not increase the value of the home. He said covered porches with a nice rail "and some kind of wood or synthetic decking" easily cost 50 percent of the house's square footage.
Each year, his Construction Technology students build a custom home with a front porch and put it on the market.
Grahame said "consumer demand and appraisers giving a fair value" will encourage the return to front porches.
"It also depends on the society where you were born," Grahame said.
Some tri-city area residents who grew up with front porches are calling for their revival.
The revival of front porches is part of a design trend called "new urbanism," Ackerman said.
"It is related to smart growth" that calls for pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods with sidewalks and strips of green public space, Ackerman explained.
"The older neighborhoods did contain these concepts," Ackerman said, adding that new urbanism is based on how people used to live.
He said the new urbanism trend is "very scattered" throughout the country, with developers more likely to embrace it back East. Homeowners who see the limits of "car-dominated" suburbs welcome new urbanism.
Ackerman, who lives within a four-minute walk from his office, said he incorporated new urbanism in designing Manzanita Village, a 36-home clustered development on Bradshaw Drive in Prescott. All the homes have front porches.
In Prescott Valley, Town Councilwoman Lora Lee Nye is a vocal advocate of front porches in a relatively young community where they are scarce.
"There is just not enough focus on (new urbanism)," Nye said. "I have been working on this idea for 20 years."
Nye, who lived in Phoenix for 60 years before moving to Prescott Valley about nine years ago, said she has not lived in a home with a front porch since 1950. She has a front patio that substitutes for a porch at her home.
"When we stopped building porches and built fences around our property and moved into our backyards, we did not get to know our neighbors," she said. "When you don't know your neighbors, you disconnect."
Nye draws support on the council from Fran Schumacher, who had a front porch during her youth in Chicago. She agrees with Nye that fences isolate neighbors.
Nye recalls walking in the historic district of Savannah, Ga., this past September.
"I'm out walking at night," she said. "We were treated like friends. Everybody is out on their front porch. That was what my old childhood was like. That is what I missed."
Nye said people who lack front porches sacrifice safety in their search for privacy. She quoted former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson as saying crime increased with the demise of the porch swing. "The planners and designers are indirectly responsible for increasing the crime rate," Nye said. "Of course, that was not their intent. That is the result."
Streets with front porches can be safer, Ackerman and Prescott Police Lt. Andy Reinhardt said.
Ackerman said neighborhoods can be safer "because you have your eyes on the streets day and night. It is not like a bedroom community where during a large part of the day you have nobody there."
While he did not produce crime statistics, Reinhardt said the presence of front porches might deter some criminals.
"It is more inviting to be outside on a nice day on your porch, and that is what community policing is about," he said.
Nye, who once headed the block watch program citywide in Phoenix, said she learned about the need for a "little old biddy. I was my block's little old biddy."
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