This past Thursday, the Tampa City Council voted on some major changes to the zoning code. The change that garnered the most attention Thursday involves front porches. Under the existing code, porches cannot protrude onto the front-yard setback, which is about 20 to 25 feet, depending on the neighborhood. Under the new ordinance, porches can encroach up to eight feet into a front-yard setback and must be open.
The goal of Councilman Dingfelder is to encourage developers and builders to put real front porches on houses, and I applaud this effort.?A few people are objecting, and plan to ask the Council to reconsider, so I’ve sent the following letter via email to each Council member.
“What’s your favorite thing to do on your front porch?” Too bad so many people can no longer answer this question because they don’t have one. Can you recall a time in your life when you had one? We’ve moved the front porch to the backyard to make room for the garage. Now it looks like cars live in our houses. Many believe that television and air conditioning no doubt played a part, making the interior of the house more inviting.
Whatever the cause, in the 1950’s the front porch began disappearing. People put barbeques in the back yard, where they had more privacy. They dreamed of houses in the country, where they could neither see nor hear any neighbors. Or they turned on the television, where they could be alone and safe, watching images of other humans who were not really present.
The communities that most of us live in today reflect what I call fortress mentality. Backyards are a top-priority concern; they should be fenced in and, preferably, surrounded by hedges. We value privacy. Our homes are literally oriented away from the streets on which we live – and, by implication, from our neighbors as well.
Increasing numbers of homes even have electronic garage doors. Many people can move from their fenced-in backyards through their wired, burglarproof, fortress homes and pass directly into their garages without encountering any person outside the household. Without having to open or close the garage door, the transition from fortress home to fortress auto is complete. The result of all of this is that most of us are virtually phantoms in their own neighborhoods.
Should we be surprised that we hear so much about the lack of community spirit? How many of us know the names of the people who live on our block? Do we even know the folks who live two houses away from us? Laments about shallowness of identity are rooted in reality. Part of identity, after all, is derived from shared experiences with others.
I remember first meeting Ms. Whitmire, the older but incredibly active widow who lived next door, when I first bought the house I live in now. As she clued me in about the goings on in the neighborhood, it was apparent to me how much she missed the old coffee klatch, and how much she missed not really knowing everyone on the street. It was a different world which she knew was not as good as it could be.?
Front porches were originally made popular by the Greeks who used them as gathering spots for public discussions. Then, thousands of years later in the South, the front porch evolved into a symbol of community, hospitality and friendliness.
It was on the front porches of my grandparents’ homes that people in the community came together and arrived at some consensus of shared experience, common interests, common goals and how to get along. Is it any wonder that our society has become so polarized? As we withdraw into our fortress homes (our fortresses of solitude), we no longer have these shared experiences; we no longer get an understanding of the viewpoints of others. We no longer feel any obligation to respect our neighbors, as we no longer have neighbors. Our community consists of our house. I believe this attitude translates from the micro-view of our neighborhoods, to the macro-view of our place in the world.
Front porches may not seem to be a profound omission until we consider the ripple effects of their presence or absence. One might even suggest that our paucity of front porches reveals a great deal about the kind of people we have become, and what it is that we most value.
We all have had decades of fortress- mentality experience. Turning inward is a diminishing experience for most people, regardless of how many expensive things adorn the interior of the fortress. We will need to learn to draw our circles of involvement wider if we are to recognize the central truth of the new age – that all life is interconnected.
Front porches will not automatically resolve all of our concerns about isolation, loneliness and the dearth of community morale. But they can facilitate more caring among neighbors, and they can foster a keener sense of roots. We could rediscover the delights of neighborliness – of knowing others and being known by them. Moreover, all of this can be achieved without sacrificing privacy – a legitimate part of a good life, but not at the cost of nearly total exclusion of neighborly sociability.
Activity on front porches, in front yards and on the sidewalk is also likely to foster safer neighborhoods, especially as people get to know one another. And, as we get better acquainted, we are also likely to be helpful to each other.
Jefferson was right when he argued that our major social task is to bring out the best in each individual. Jefferson believed that people are characterized by a spirit of benevolence. We need to find ways to foster it, to create an environment conducive to the caring, humane, connectedness among people that we are all capable of.
Front porches, I am convinced, represent such a solid contribution to a reclaiming of community spirit that our government should provide whatever incentives are at its disposal to foster the construction of real front porches.
Ms. Vizzi and Mr. Johnson of THAN can come up with only weak objections to this. “A few more feet of porch will add to our run-off problem; or heaven forbid, the houses on the street might be out of line with one another. After all, if we’re to live in fortresses, they should maintain the military uniformity of being in a straight line. They have the nerve to claim that houses with real front porches will not fit in with the neighborhood. Good grief, houses with front porches will create a neighborhood not detract from it. We already allow McMansions to sit on top of beautiful old bungalows. Talk about not fitting in.
These are weak arguments, and I for one applaud the recent actions by the City Council to encourage the building of real front porches. Please stick to your guns. Give me a real neighborhood over a “development” with all the houses in a neat and tidy line any day. What a boring life Ms. Vizzi and Mr. Johnson would foist on the rest of us.
Thank you for your consideration.