Today, we share a guest article from Brian Jones with some philosophical reflections on the value of the front porch.
There has been a plethora of recent literature describing what has been coined as the “loneliness epidemic.” The outstanding work done by Susan Pinker, Sherry Turkle, and Jean Twenge provide significant social scientific data contending that there is something deeply disturbing at the base of our present American culture. Each of these authors not only shares a common description with respect to the rise of loneliness rates, but likewise, a similar prescription: the need for face-to-face interaction as the necessary antidote.
While there are many avenues to achieve this personal communion with others, I want to primarily focus on the role that architectural design can play, especially with respect to what a front porch can accomplish toward revitalizing our neighborhoods. The importance of a front porch needs to be connected with its civic potency. In other words, a home with a front porch can provide the foundation for the cultivation and actualization of those virtues and habits that help citizens become more civically minded and engaged.
The potential and importance of a front porch with respect to American civic life can be understood in at least three ways. First, the very set up and orientation of the front porch is that of being ordered outside of itself. In this way, the porch is not simply a medium for drawing the nuclear family outside of the interior dwelling of the home. More than this, it is a catalyst for helping you to get to know your neighbors and those infrequent passersby. The porch is an opportunity to invite a neighbor over to your house and join you for coffee or encourage your children to play with their children. The more frequently your neighbors see you on the porch, the greater the chance of them wanting to socially interact.
Second, the porch is a condition for being able to observe the activities that are going on in one’s neighborhood. Whether it be the joy of watching children play games of tag or capture the flag, or to deter suspicious activity of someone simply up to no good, the habit of observing the streets fosters care. When we know what is going on in our communities and others know this about us, then a certain type of trust coalesces. Someone, for example, may inquire if you can watch the kids while they run a quick errand. This type of relationship among citizens can also be seen when a neighbor tells you that “your kids are playing at the end of the street, but I’ve got my eye on them.” It is not just that we can trust others to know what is going on in general, but that they are willing to watch out for your loved ones.
The previous example relates to the final point with respect to the front porch. The central idea, in fact, comes from Alexis de Tocqueville:
Feelings and ideas are renewed, the heart enlarged, and the understanding developed only by the reciprocal action of men one upon another.
Citizens that know and rely upon one another in a more intimate form of association is the cause of a mutually enlarged heart. Through shared responsibilities and collective activities, neighbors come to see that they are not alone and are truly needed. For such a lived reality to occur, the conditions for it need to be both recognized and fostered by citizens themselves.
Hopefully, through this given lens, we can come to see the real potential of a front porch. The porch is not a luxury, but one condition among many for cultivating those internal and external habits of associating with people in our communities. Without those settings and conditions where we can come to know one another and become personally involved in giving ourselves to others, we are at risk for being folded back into ourselves. We will become, as Sherry Turkle observes, “alone together.” Tocqueville saw such a frightening vision for American life absent the habits of association:
I’ve seen an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others; his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel for them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone…
Above these an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild… Thus, after taking each individual by turn in its powerful hand and kneading him as it likes,the sovereign extends its arm over society as a whole…it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd (Democracy in America, 663)
We will procure “small and vulgar pleasures,” be “withdrawn and apart,” and simply live as a “stranger to the destiny of all others.” In the end, such a condition leaves each person existing “only in himself and for himself alone.” Such a description certainly seems to align with much of our present social condition.
In his 1975 essay, “From Porch to Patio,” Richard H. Thomas observed that as more homes are built with a back patio, citizens are likely to judge themselves connected only to their nuclear family. The neighbor next door becomes a burden to be shielded from, most especially with tall fences to assist in keeping them out. Instead of searching for what Thomas calls the “closed courtyard” of the back patio, it may be fruitful to seek a home that has a front porch. For, while it is not a comprehensive answer to the reality and complexity of community, it is certainly a potential ground for calling us outside ourselves. Civic life in America could use more porches and be of service in fostering a public spiritedness that we so sorely need.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brian Jones is currently a Ph. D candidate in philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. He is originally from Cleveland, Ohio and is married with three daughters.