“Building bridges” has failed to unite us. America needs to embrace the front porch instead

United we stand; divided we sit.
United we stand; divided we sit.
Image: David Goldman/AP Photo
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In an increasingly divisive American society, it’s become a common trope to say we need to reach out to each other and build bridges. But it’s not a bridge we should build—it’s a porch.

Front porches unite divisions: us and other, inside and outside, private and public. They encourage us to engage in trust-building and face-to-face conversations with our neighbors. They give us a sense of security, but they also increase our willingness to engage with others. The lessons from the front porch are waiting to be reinterpreted and scaled-up in the fabric of our increasingly dense suburban and urban futures.

Extending ourselves to understand the other is inherently challenging; being open to outside ideas means we also take on more uncertainty.  Front porches (or verandahs, as they are called in some cultures) allow homeowners some sense of control over their environment while also being ready to entertain new circumstances. These sheltered spaces tap into our primal desire to reside at an elevated surveillance point in order to spot nearby threats or opportunities: This concept is called “prospect and refuge,” and it’s often cited within landscape-design theory.

The front porch’s ability to encourage interaction from a position of physical and personal safety is explored by Richard Thomas’s article “From Porch to Patio”:

When a family member was on the porch, it was possible to invite the passerby to stop and come onto the porch for extended conversation. The person on the porch was very much in control of this interaction, as the porch was seen as an extension of the living quarters of the family. Often, a hedge or fence separated the porch from the street or board sidewalk, providing a physical barrier for privacy, yet low enough to permit conversation.

We need to apply this mode of thought to the task of rekindling civility and unity in our day-to-day discourse.  Whether between neighbors at home, colleagues at work, or even between opposing political parties, we can make more progress by situating ourselves within a safe spot as we reach out to build relationships with others (pitchers of iced tea optional). In an article written for Front Porch Republic, author Patrick Deneen summarizes that a front porch is exactly what is needed for even the largest political bodies:

“For those who would stand and defend the future of the republic, a good place to start would be to revive our tradition of building and owning homes with front porches, and to be upon them where we can both see our neighbors and be seen by them, speak and listen to one another, and, above all, be in a place between, but firmly in place.”

Though porches are a simple, cost-effective solution for community building on the neighborhood level, the concepts they embody haven’t gained traction in the larger urban-design sphere. This is because they have questionable utility in our busy lives. The people on the sidewalk whom you might hope to chat with are now cruising in their cars instead of strolling with their kids. In the American South, porches as places to cool off have been supplanted by air conditioning in living rooms. Avi Friedman, who rethinks home and community design in his book A View From the Porch, writes, “If the telephone reduced the need for face-to-face contact and contributed to the erosion of the front porch, computers and smart phones became the porch.”

But this lack of modern utility is surmountable. To reintroduce the front porch’s importance into contemporary life, we need make it the most indispensable “room” in the house. Turn it into your “front-yard office” with a desk and an outdoors electrical cord. Weather-proof it with solar- or wind-powered heating and cooling equipment. Blur it with the edge of your garden using a “green wall.” And, of course, make sure there’s a permanent place for a pitcher of tea to offer any passersby.

No room for a wrap-around? Urban dwellers can devise porch-like vistas of their own. Whether it’s a brick stoop in Brooklyn or a sidewalk bench in Chicago, the same principles of safety-within-vulnerability can be applied to existing structures. Or, you could redesign new ones. Apartment tenants could lobby for street-level parking spaces in front of their buildings to be re-zoned as “parklets,” as we have seen happen in San Francisco. These small spaces could be greenified and have porches added for both residential and public use. Yet-to-be-constructed buildings could also designate a section of their street-facing spaces for micro-porches for exploratory engagement with public. This is often seen with bar-height stools in the front windows of coffee shops that face out to pedestrians, allowing for spontaneous, eye-to-eye interactions.

We can build community from places of personal security. But it’s not just literal front porches we need more of—we need metaphysical ones, too. Brene Brown is an author and expert on feeling secure from the inside out. She suggests that if we want to feel more self-assured and comfortable reaching out to connect with others, we need to find the courage to be imperfect and practice gratitude. She argues that our self-acceptance leads to empathy, which is the strongest vehicle to connect with others.

That seems very porch-like: a place or way of being where you can relax and enjoy what is, while turning strangers into friends whose differences we can celebrate.