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Porches Knit Together New Urbanist Communities

After World War II, the front porch took a back seat to the backyard. As the suburbs grew, families began to favor socializing in more private settings on a rear patio or deck.

As a result, fewer new homes -- especially in the suburbs -- featured front porches.

That began to change in the early 1980s, when the husband-and-wife architectural team of Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk designed a community in northwest Florida that was based on a concept later known as New Urbanism.

The town, called Seaside, is a modern development laid out like a small town: Businesses, parks and schools are all located near homes to encourage foot or bike traffic -- and decrease the need for cars. (It also was the setting for the Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show.)

In order to decrease the use of air conditioning, each home in Seaside had to have a front porch. But Plater-Zyberk explains that planners quickly realized that the porch had other benefits as well.

"People would sit on the front porch instead of in the backyard because they could see people coming and going, say hello to their neighbors and have short conversations," says Plater-Zyberk. "The bonds of community were being formed through that brief interaction."

Seaside became the catalyst for the New Urbanism movement. The guiding principle is to replace car-dependent, strip-mall suburbia with compact, carefully laid-out neighborhoods where design creates a greater sense of community.

Douglas Kelbaugh, professor of urban planning and dean of the University of Michigan's Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, is a proponent of New Urbanism -- and of porches.

In a world highly mediated by technology, face-to-face, Kelbaugh says that live interaction between people is "important glue in building community and sustaining it." Porches help facilitate these exchanges.

Today, there are hundreds of New Urbanist communities around the country, including Kentlands in Gaithersburg, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C.

Lakelands resident Lennie Gladstone says the development's front porches are a key selling point.

"You always see people outside enjoying their porches," she says. "I didn't get a porch, and that was very disappointing to me. On the other hand, I took the house that I could get when I could get it because I really wanted to be in the community."

But building all those porches doesn't mean people are necessarily using them. Kelbaugh says those beautiful but empty porches are fodder for critics who claim that New Urbanism works better in theory than in practice.

"A lot of these New Urbanist developments don't have the sort of active street life they might espouse," he admits. "But I think they're trying to build community, and in general it's far more positive than negative."

Kelbaugh says these types of communities are "infinitely better" than what he calls cul de sac sprawl, where houses are located on dead-end streets and high fences are common. He says that that type of development creates a sense that the residences are "disengaged" from the community.

Either way, Americans are building more porches.

According to the National Association of Homebuilders, 42 percent of new single-family homes had porches 14 years ago. Now, it's up to 53 percent.

But does adding a porch to a home increase its value?

The Homebuilders Association says it depends. In most cases, homeowners recover the cost of the porch when they sell their home.

Ultimately, though, a front porch is an investment in pleasure, not one for the pocketbook.

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Michele Norris