Calgary Herald, August 18, 2017: I have a secret parking place in Kensington. I can’t tell you where, obvs, but I can tell you why I love it so much. One, I don’t have to drive around looking for a parking spot because there’s always room. Two, it’s free. Three, and best of all, it’s a few blocks from the action on Kensington Road and I get to walk down a quiet street gawking at all the pretty houses.
They’re decades old and brand new. As small as a shoe box and as big as a Jimmy Choo warehouse. Many have gardens out front and one has a welcoming bench by the curb. Kids are everywhere and you get the sense that everyone knows everybody because those kids are forever running in and out of each other’s houses. Every day is a block party on this little street and while I didn’t get an invitation, I feel welcome as I wander along smiling at people hanging out on their front porches.
Back around 1910 when families first started moving into Kensington, one of Calgary’s first residential neighbourhoods, a front porch was as standard in a new house as a dishwasher is today. “A house without a front porch is as incomplete as a book without a title page,” wrote Andrew Jackson Downing, a 19th century American landscape architect who is credited with making the front porch popular (although the first porches in the U.S. were built by African slaves in the south).
A front porch made a lot of sense. You could cool off at the end of the day and keep yourself entertained chit chatting with the neighbours about the weather and inept politicians. Eventually air conditioning and Ed Sullivan showed up inside the house and cars started blocking the view outside, and by the Swinging Sixties, the front porch had just gone away.
I didn’t know any of this when we got our version of a front porch a few months ago. All I knew was the stairs leading to the front door were falling apart and that likely wasn’t going to end well. Almost on a whim we decided to replace the crumbling steps with a little deck along the front of our bungalow, a place to sit and enjoy the afternoon sun.
“When there are more eyes on the street, people feel safer walking through a community,” says Gavin McCormack, an associate professor at the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary and one of the organizers of Walk21, an international conference about walking that’s strolling into town in a few weeks.
“We know from the research that passive surveillance has an impact in regard to making people safe,” he says. When people feel a street is safe they are more likely to walk it themselves and let their kids run around outside. And conveniently, the more people ambling along a street, the slower the drivers go.
“Walking is a natural behaviour and it doesn’t require any special equipment. It’s no cost or low cost for the most part and it can be done part of normal daily living,” says McCormack. “It’s funny that we don’t do enough of it. We are built to walk but there are not enough opportunities or too many barriers to walk and many of those barriers are based on the design of the communities or neighbourhoods in which we live.”
When you sit out front of your house, in that sweet spot between private and public space, you have a chance to chat with people sauntering by about the weather or start a pool about when impeachment proceedings will begin (I’m in for December, if we haven’t been nuked). These social interactions are good for our mental health. Even people in the much maligned suburbs enjoy talking with each other and have been known to fling open their garage doors, move lawn chairs and BBQs onto the driveway and hang out.
As the leaves start to turn and we start thinking about digging out our woollies, we’ll spend less time out front of our houses. But I, for one, am happy to add a layer or two to sit out and watch the leaves fall and snowflakes begin (hopefully not at the same time). I like the idea of encouraging people to get out walking on my street, just by sitting on my butt.