Insights from the front porch

Author:

Jim Constantine

Issue:

May/June 2000

Issue Date:

Mon, 2000-05-01

Page Number:

5

Residents in a new urbanist community say design can promote social interaction without sacrificing privacy.

When residents of Harbor Town, a traditional neighborhood development (TND) in Memphis, Tennessee, were asked what drew them to the community, the majority said the aesthetic appeal of the neighborhood was much more important than the size of their house. Compared with residents in a nearby conventional suburb, Harbor Town residents reported having larger social networks, and expressed a high level of satisfaction with the level of privacy they got from their patios and back porches.

The findings come from a post-occupancy evaluation of Harbor Town conducted by the research division of Looney Ricks Kiss (LRK), an architecture and planning firm with offices in Memphis, Nashville, and Princeton. LRK has designed buildings in Harbor Town and fine-tuned the master plan, originally designed by RTKL Architects.

The study relied on a variety of methods for gathering information, including a 46-question mail survey that also utilized visual multiple-choice questions to gauge design preferences. The mailing was sent to all 695 Harbor Town residents and all 709 residents in Riverwood Farms, the conventional subdivision. The response rate in both communities was 22 percent. More in-depth information was gathered via interviews with 21 Harbor Town residents and seven stakeholders, including builders, a grocery store owner, and representatives of the homeowners association. The study also gathered input from a children’s focus group, and from direct observation of how the community is being used.

Harbor Town sits on the Mississippi River close to downtown Memphis. All of the neighborhood’s approximately 900 housing units have been built (420 of which are apartments, condominiums and townhouses), and the town center is partly built. Riverwood Farms is located about 30 minutes from downtown Memphis and contains only single-family detached units.

Design and community
The study examined not only the design and physical impact of the community on residential satisfaction, but explored the relationship between design and the creation of any sense of community. The study as a whole, addresses four key questions: 1) What motivated residents to buy or rent at Harbor Town? 2) To what extent have residents achieved a level of satisfaction with community and home? 3) What contributes to any sense of satisfaction or dissatisfaction? 4) Does residents’ living experience and satisfaction in a new urbanist community differ from those living in a conventional suburb?

From among 19 variables tested, Harbor Town residents show a strong design-orientation, rating the overall aesthetic appeal of the community (77 percent) and pleasing architectural style of the home (52 percent) as key reasons for moving there. The size of the home (25 percent) is much less critical to Harbor Town residents. However, the size of the home is the most important reason cited by respondents for moving to the conventional suburb surveyed for comparison. The survey uncovers some surprises about Harbor Town’s residents, for whom the safe, secure feel of the community (60 percent) and a short commute to work (52 percent) far outweighs the attraction of having a front porch (15 percent).

Some Harbor Town interviewees find the connection between the community’s physical form and the feelings it evokes to be indistinguishable. Frequently, residents proclaimed that they had lived in their previous neighborhood for five to 10 years and never knew a fraction of the people they know in Harbor Town. Surveys and interviews indicate that residents have extensive social networks within the community which are larger than the networks in the conventional suburb studied. During interviews, Harbor Town residents reported that they had met other residents through community activities/events, during neighborhood walks, while shopping in the town center, and through mutual friends.

The other reasons most often given for the sociability experienced at Harbor Town were design factors (e.g., front porches and the proximity of houses to one another) and the availability of common gathering spaces (e.g., the town center and parks). Tales of five-minute neighborhood walks turning into two-hour trips with impromptu get-togethers on front porches were heard repeatedly.

Satisfaction
Harbor Town respondents were highly satisfied with the community overall, with 56 percent expressing extreme satisfaction. Less than one percent said they were extremely dissatisfied. Among 17 possible choices, three of the most frequently cited reasons given by respondents for feeling satisfied with Harbor Town were pleasing architecture (57 percent), the sense of neighborhood feeling (53 percent) and small town feel (39 percent). Only the satisfaction derived from the neighborhood’s location on the river rated higher than these community features. A different set of core values emerged among respondents in the conventional suburb, where access to nature, parks and green space, and pleasant quality of landscaping were key reasons for satisfaction.

Mail survey responses indicate that living in a pedestrian-oriented community is something residents value highly about Harbor Town. For example, 29 percent of Harbor Town respondents appreciate shops within walking distance, while this amenity is important to only 2 percent of conventional suburb respondents (who do not have a town center to walk to).

Style and privacy
Almost twice as many Harbor Town respondents were extremely satisfied with both their homes and home interiors than were conventional suburb respondents. The number of Harbor Town survey respondents who liked the architectural style of their home was significantly greater than conventional suburb respondents. In contrast, the ‘more bang for your buck’ values of respondents in the conventional suburb was expressed through their desire for quantifiable space: the majority derived satisfaction from their generous exterior yard and interior living spaces, with a significant minority wishing those spaces could be even larger.

Surprisingly, twice as many Harbor Town respondents reported that their homes contain sufficient places for privacy than did respondents in the conventional suburb. This was reinforced by significantly more Harbor Town respondents who derived satisfaction from having a private patio/porch/deck (54 percent) than the conventional suburb respondents. Not only was privacy a significant source of house satisfaction for Harbor Town respondents, having a private outdoor living space far outweighed having a front porch facing the street.

For proponents of traditional neighborhood design the study supplies documentable evidence supporting the importance and function of components of the public realm. Likewise, the study brings into perspective the role played by natural features and the livability of the home compared with people’s desire for a sense of community.

Jim Constantine is director of planning and research at the Princeton, New Jersey, office of Looney Ricks Kiss (LRK). Copies of “Insights from the Front Porch: Creating Better Communities” can be ordered from www.homeplans.com or by calling 609-683-3600.