How attached garages changed traditional neighborhoods

The front porch was an anchor of social activity within the neighborhood and created social capital. Garages have replaced them as the primary design element of houses.

When planned communities first appeared, they had several design features that were focused on improving social interaction. They had storage facilities for those new-fangled cars called garages. These garages were originally converted carriage houses, and carriage houses were located to the rear of the property. So it was natural to store one’s motorcar away from the house. As neighborhoods were designed to accommodate the motorcar, garages were often accessed by a rear lane or alley so as to not interfere with the aesthetics and functions of the front of the house.

Originally, the front of the house was a porch designed as a gathering place for people and a point of interaction with people on the sidewalk. It also allowed you to observe what was happening at other houses. It served as the transition between the private space inside the house and the public space of the street where people were. The porch was the anchor of neighborhood activities. These porches were designed as outside rooms being the width of the house and at least eight feet deep. They were designed to allow for a seating area as well as movement within the porch.

The porch is a distinctly American form of architecture. It has its roots in African dwellings where a large covered space in front of the dwelling served as the interaction space where social and commercial interactions took place. They were first seen in American houses in the early 19th century and reached their peak at the turn of the 20th century.

As streets became more dominated by the automobile and less hospitable to people, a change began in how houses were designed. New developments that were built around commuting by automobile and streets to support that turned to having smaller porches that were less designed as a social place and more a place of shelter while entering the house. As the automobile became more accessible to the middle class, convenient access to the garage became more important. The first attached garages began appearing in the 1920s, and became more popular a decade later. These garages were often still located to the rear of the house. During the post war period, automobiles gained even more popularity and garages were discovered to have an additional benefit- storage.

Also during this period, street design was focused even more on making traffic flow smoother and more convenient. Housing developments no longer had a rear alley for access and garages moved up to be an adjacent façade with the house. Driveways were shorter as a result and the backyard was now isolated from the noise and pollution of the street. During this period, activities were focused into the backyard instead of the front of the house where the dangerous street was located. Family recreation turned its back on the street and focused on the activities on the back porch or deck.

The suburban tract development of the 1970s and 80s had turned the focus of the house completely around and now focused all activities toward the rear of the house and away from the street and neighborhood. The garage now fronted the street and the house was located behind the garage. The idea of the street and the front of the house as a social place had completely disappeared. This was a result of production efficiencies and changes to the purpose of suburban streets. Zoning standards also had an impact in the orientation of houses by using standard suburban setbacks for housing that were not reflective of walkable streets.

The good news with the rise of a return to walkable neighborhoods in new urban communities, porches have made a comeback. Street standards are changing to a more pedestrian focus and houses are being built with porches again. Some communities are using codes or pattern books to encourage or require porches. Market data shows a clear preference for walkable communities. These are all indicators or a return of the social place known as the porch.

For more information on how a community can code for social places in walkable neighborhoods and assistance in it contact Michigan State University Extension or contact a Land Use Educator for more information on these issues facing communities.

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