Making Our Front Yard Into an Outdoor Family Room

Our front yard at our house in Menlo Park is pretty, I guess, but from our point of view, it's just wasted space now because it doesn't enhance our enjoyment of our neighborhood at all.  We plan to transform it into an 'outdoor family room' that, we hope, will become a neighborhood hangout.

We don’t have a family neighborhood hangout where we live. Chances are, you don’t either.

What do I mean by a “family neighborhood hangout?” I long for a place in our neighborhood where parents and kids can go to hang out with other parents and kids – a place for spontaneous, casual socializing. Sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls these “Third Places,” (see his book, The Great Good Place) behind the First Place, home, and the Second Place, work.

If you live in a city or a small town, you might have a “Cheers” type of local bar or cafe close to your house. However, today, most local bars and cafes have very little spontaneous social interaction. Recall the words from the TV show’s theme song, “You wanna go where everyone knows your name.” Do you know of any public place where you can just drop in and be fairly sure you’ll have a conversation with someone you know and like?
We live in the suburbs, where the closest bar is about a half a mile away, and the closest cafe is about a mile away. No retail zoning exists closer than that bar. So, there’s pretty much no chance that any retail establishment will fulfill the role of third place for our neighborhood.

So, my wife and I are going to try something pretty radical – we’re in the process of redesigning our front yard on Yale Road in the Allied Arts neighborhood of Menlo Park to be like an outdoor family room. Our goal is for multiple neighbors to be hanging out in our front yard everyday. We want to provide kids with a place to play and learn, and we want to provide parents with a place to socialize with each other and with their kids.

So, how do we do this? Because the whole idea of inviting social interaction in a front yard is so foreign in our society, this requires an awful lot of thought and planning. What will attract kids initially to check our outdoor family room out? What will attract parents initially? What will keep them coming back? How do we indicate to neighbors that it’s OK to hang out there on their own, without asking us? How do we empower them to make their own impact on it?

I definitely have lots of concrete ideas about this, but I want to hold them close to my vest for now until they’re closer to being realized. Trust me, though – we’re on the verge of doing something very exciting for neighborhood life here at Yale Road! Stay tuned…

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5 Responses to Making Our Front Yard Into an Outdoor Family Room

  1. knitmensch says:

    Why keep it a secret? If you have good ideas, others in communities across the country could join you in making them a reality.

    A couple of ideas: Include at least a couple of benches for tired parents. Maybe a sandbox for the kids to play in (with a good cover so the neighborhood cats don’t take advantage). Considered a water fountain with a friendly sign inviting use for thirsty play-outside neighbors? A couple of picnic tables could be great hangout space for neighbors to bring their dinners and socialize over them.

    To publicize it, you could have a couple of neighborhood potlucks (or bring-your-own-dinner-and-socialize times), with flyers on doorsteps to let everyone nearby know. You could invite neighbors to join an email list, to make it easy to get the word out about gatherings wherever they happen. (If you own the email list, you can — if you wish — make sure every message ends with a reminder that your front yard is a place for everyone to gather.)

    I’ve lived 3.5 years in cohousing (cohousing.org for more info), and these are some cohousing tricks that can work in any neighborhood. For more ideas, you might want to check out the book Superbia, by Dan Chiras and Dave Wann. They talk about how to make any neighborhood more like the villages we long for.

    -Deborah Mensch, Boulder, CO

  2. Mike Lanza says:

    I’ll tell you why I’m keeping my ideas a secret right now: they’re pretty different from what everyone else does with their front yards, and I don’t want any naysayers getting my city planning department anxious before I submit plans to them. Once the plans are approved and we break ground, I can be a lot more open about what we’re doing.

    Thanks for all the ideas. I *love* the Superbia book, and regarding co-housing I’ve also written a series of four articles on a great retrofit co-housing community in Davis, CA called “N Street.” Search this site for that name to find the articles.

    Lastly, Deborah, I *love* your last name. So everyone in your family is a mensch? ; )

  3. knitmensch says:

    Thanks for explaining, Mike — I guess living in cohousing-land has helped me forget some of the travails of the permitting process. But I’m moving shortly to a free-standing house in a conventional neighborhood, so I guess I’ll get mine soon. 🙂

    I’ve visited N Street. It’s a great neighborhood, even beyond the cohousing confines. Few fences, lots of greenbelt, and more.

    Best of luck with your changes, and I’ll look forward to reading more about your front-yard transformation.

  4. Zach Pine says:

    Mike-
    Great! Good luck with this!
    I’m doing something similar at my house.
    As we’ve discussed before, I suggest including a Nature Sculpture Arena, for constructing with natural materials. I’ve created a bunch of these, temporary and permanent. See this link for an example:
    http://homepage.mac.com/zpine/allages/as2007/as2007.html
    The signage shown there can be adapted to your purposes – it helps to invite people and to make it self-sustaining. I also have additional signage to do that, which I can share with you.
    -Zach

  5. carol says:

    here is an idea…..our kids scooter/bike through a PA neighborhood and love to take a pit stop at one house that has a drinking fountain and bench in their front yard
    it brings back memories of my childhood and the house in our neighborhood that had a drinking fountain outside (at the hose bib) on thier driveway for all the kids to have a drink during hide and seek games, tag, soccer etc…..it was great and helped establish a “home base”