I was reminded of this work-in-progress story because of a recent Twitter excahnge between Calgary blogger Richard White and former City of Calgary team member Josh White (well, it was a few weeks ago, and I couldn't dig it up when I tried scrolling through old tweets, alas). They were just talking about the oft-forgotten merits of front lawns. Richard also recently posted a new piece along a similar theme, extolling the virtues of the underappreciated front porch.
The original post I'd written last year had been inspired by a piece from Richard White's blog, the Everyday Tourist, written in the summer of 2015 and entitled "Front Yard Fun???"
Here's an excerpt:
Front Yard Fun???
For decades, city dwellers and developers have abandoned the front yard as key element of a home’s livability, especially in new suburbs where the front porch was replaced by the two-car garage that left room for just a modest landing at the front door.
But it was not just suburbanites who turned their backs on the street. Many inner city homes with back alley garages also seemingly forgot they have a front yard.
However, more recently, we have noticed... that more and more inner city Calgarians are discovering their front yard is a great space for a diversity of uses...
My front yard, last year
The Everyday Tourist's story really struck a chord with me when I read it back in 2015, since I'd been spending what felt like the whole summer in my tiny front yard. My husband had to spend most of the summer in Edmonton helping his parents move, while, at the same time, my mom ended up spending most of the summer visiting at our house in Ramsay.
This resulted in me having two children to look after mostly on my own, and it also resulted in me needing to find things my mom and my children could do together safely. My mom has Parkinson's and although she can spray a naked grandchild with a garden hose as well as the next person (see above), she has trouble keeping her balance and falls are a constant issue. So a lot of stairs, uneven ground, and open spaces which don't have a lot of railings and walls to hang on to, are not idea places to play.
We were stuck at home a lot, since heading out for playgrounds and playdates isn't always easy when you have a one-year-old and a grandma who both need naps at different times.
A few reasons:
1. The steps from the front porch are much shallower than the steps leading down from our back deck. Better for grandmothers and children both.
2. The sight lines from inside the house are much better than we have to our back yard, which makes it easier for me to head back in... to make lunch, for example... while still keeping an ear and an eye on things.
3. But (and here's the part about front yards in particular): by staying out front, I was also inviting in all the neighbours and passers-by who wouldn't have been part of the story, had we been sitting in our fenced-in back yard.
All the folks on 23rd Avenue got used to seeing my mom and kids out there
4. Also, by staying in the front yard, I was inviting myself to the party that's 23rd Avenue (that's kind of a joke, but when you're stuck inside, even a tiny neighbourhood street inhabited by a few other front-porch-sitters can feel like a party!). When you're spending a lot of time with children, you sometimes crave conversation with other grown-ups, particularly when you're having a challenging summer like the one I was having. In the back yard, I feel more cut off from this kind of opportunity, but in the front yard, it just happens by magic! Random people strolled by, I said hi, and the next thing I knew I was getting free therapy!
Again, I'm kind of joking, but it's kind of true, too. At the risk of wandering too far from "front yard fun," I might as well mention that in the wake of a bunch of family health issues and a new baby, I struggled for almost two years with post-partum depression (I wrote a comic strip about that for the Calgary Comic & Entertainment Expo's 2016 Artbook, which you can see here). For me, this meant that I often couldn't muster the energy to get out the door to the places I knew would cheer me up - visits to friends, places my kids could play happily, etc. But sitting inside with aforementioned rambunctious kids wasn't going to cheer me up, either. That's how the front lawn became an accessible, free and easy solution to my basic need for social support, human interaction, and sunlight. I wrote a comic strip about "How the Playgroup Saved my Life," but maybe I should have called this little essay, "How the Front Yard Saved my Life." The front yard got me through the summer. And it was fun!
When I work at different events this days, I often hear about concepts like "integrated neighbourhoods" and "transit oriented development" - the idea that city planning should consider the big picture, instead of designing for a single isolated purpose. Can good planning have a tangible effect on promoting positive mental health? My experience gives that a resounding yes.
It wasn't always like this...
When the house was renovated in 2008, a new front porch was a priority. I was slightly freaked out when I arrived home one day to find that the builders had simply removed that central column - they assured me it had just been cosmetic and wasn't actually holding up the roof. (I'm still a bit nervous about that.)
Another challenge with the new porch was that the builders originally replaced the four wide, shallow steps with three steep steps up. I had to ask them to redo the work and recreate the same four steps we'd had before. Having these shallow steps has made a world of difference to the short-legged toddlers and the mobility-challenged grown-ups who have come through our door in the years since.
The place to play
In the summer of 2014, I built a "train" in the front yard for my 5-year-old train enthusiast (and the baby liked it, too).
Then, in 2015, when my mom was visiting, we built many front-yard forts and mazes with my foamcore posterboards.
At that time, I was experimenting with different portable drawing surfaces to use for graphic recording projects, and I was going through foamcore like you wouldn't believe...
Some other random front yard stuff
The "Old House Walk"
The thrilling event he's remembering (with some bemusement as to the big deal involved in gazing at so-called "OLD HOUSES") is Century Homes, a 2012 initiative that encouraged residents of 100-year-old houses in Calgary to celebrate the history of their homes. In 2014, a Jane's Walk along 23rd Avenue featured many of these homes, as seen below. Yay for OLD HOUSES and their old front lawns!
And more amazing front lawns...
Anyway, when I think about it, a few of our pop-up events really depended on front lawns.
The 23rd Avenue Artwalk & Street Celebration
I've written about this elsewhere (ok, so I made a whole website for it, which is still linked to my own website since I don't know what else to do with it!) - but I'll just add a little bit more about it, here. This street party was basically a front-lawn extravaganza, which I started dreaming about when I realized that almost all of my neighbours were artsy creative types and that we all had houses with built-in gallery spaces in our front yards. We all put things on our front lawns back in 2012, told a few people about it, and enjoyed a wonderful day of sharing arts, crafts, talents, and friendship. This was my favourite display:
Here are a few more pictures of the ways we took advantage of our front yards that day.
I know the weather's getting colder and you may not feel like putting out the lawn chairs just now... but keep it in mind and try it whenever you feel inspired. And if you're strolling by and you see me on the front lawn, please say hi and share your own front lawn story.