Last Wednesday was a sad day at my house as arborists had to remove a giant old maple tree from our front yard. The gap in our landscape that remains has left me pondering what to put in its place to liven up our street frontage.
Front yards are important spaces in residential blocks as they have both a notable impact on the residents and the public neighborhood street. It serves as what environmental psychologists would call defensible space.
According to Jan Gehl - probably the best blend of designer and environmental psychologist of the last 50 years - people need exactly 10.6 feet of front yard depth to ensure an ideal mix of defensible space between their private abode and the public street. Too much setback and you end up with a gap in the conviviality between residents and the public realm. Too little gap and you feel like the weekly trash pickup is occurring in your living room.
Now that our great old maple is gone, the question becomes what to do in our front yard that is both a contribution to the street and to our own house. Large trees frame streets and shade sidewalks. Alone, they serve multiple purposes that benefit both residents and neighborhoods at large. But what can be done in the meantime - in those 50 years before a tree grows?
My wife suggested an interesting intermediate solution - a landscape berm. The berm - on a grander scale a haw haw wall uses a change in the ground plane to provide shelter, division or protection on one side while creating an elevated landscape on the other.
Another idea comes from one of the unique design features of many of the houses in my mid-mod neighborhood - subdividing a portion of our front yard space with a low, decorative fence. When the original architect for our homes, Cliff May approached our otherwise suburban lots, he did so with a mindset of designing for a much broader landscape. Traditional ranches of the American Southwest create a oasis of livable space within often arid and sprawling acres of ranch land. Here the division of public and private space is quite extreme - although you might call it the division of wild and domesticated space. A home in this landscape needs modulating outdoor space such as courtyards separated with outbuildings, U- and L-shaped house footprints and low, decorative fences to create a medium between the wild and the domesticated.
In our neighborhood, our house configurations mimic these traditional ranch typologies and decorative fences, in particular have become a highly-detailed, intricate expression of personality for many homes. The fence is less a hard barrier as it is a sign of a resident’s personality and, conversely, a piece of art at the street level.
To go a step even farther, detached home residents can also think about what role their semi-public spaces play in the neighborhood. For instance, there are examples of people creating common kitchens and shared amenities such as saunas - what if our detached garage space had a public face where weekend coffee was served and neighbors came to sit and talk? This is a more significant front yard change, but it a progressive way of looking at how residential neighborhoods can function as communities in and of themselves.
Whatever the direction we head for our front yard (though from the passages above, I’m clearly talking myself into some kind of berm/decorative fence combo), it’s interesting to go through the mental exercise of how to correctly address the space between public and private realms. If more people in urban or detached housing begin to understand this relationship, we can begin to understand our daily relationship with what in most cities is our largest - but arguably most under-utilized - publicly funded land asset, our streets.