Bringing Community to Your Front Yard and/or Sidewalk

Here's the 'Kids' Klubhouse' at Portland's Share-It Square.  What do you have to do to put one of these in your front yard?

In two recent articles I described how people are putting things in their front yards and sidewalks to promote community. First, I described my initial thoughts for an “outdoor family room” for my front yard in Menlo Park, California. Then, I described how numerous residents of Portland are putting facilities in their front yards and sidewalks to stimulate community activity.

In this article I want to discuss the logistics of making something like this happen.

You’d have three possible hurdles to clear to put any of these facilities in your front yard: 1) local government approval, 2) neighbor approval, and 3) building and installing the facility.Local Governmental Approval
It’s not clear to me why local governments should care about what we put in our front yards, but, well, they usually do care. Sidewalks are a different matter, because they are government-built and maintained, and serve a public purpose.

In the case of my front yard in Menlo Park, first I, and then my landscape architect, have met with Menlo Park City officials (in the planning and transportation departments) many times to get preliminary approval for our draft design. This has taken a couple of months so far, not because these officials are not responsive, but because we’re proposing things they’ve never considered before. This process is going well, and I expect that we’ll get that preliminary approval very soon.

I stress the word preliminary because we haven’t submitted plans for exactly what we want to build yet. By asking what sorts of things would get approved before submitting final plans, we save a lot of time and money because creating final plans is time-consuming. Also, city planners usually prefer to have a chance to give feedback on elements of a preliminary design prior to considering a design for final approval.

Notwithstanding all this discussion of local government approval, I do not always believe that asking for approval is a good idea. Often, it may make sense to “just do it” and hope that you fly under the radar of local government bureaucrats. This is particularly the case if you believe that no neighbors will complain and if you suspect that the answer from the government might be “no” if you ask.

The history of the efforts in Portland I mentioned at the top of this article is relevant here. Mark Lakeman, one of the leaders of the first efforts at Share-it Square, told me he and his neighbors “just did it” at first, but in pushing forward, they found a sympathetic advocate in Portland city government. It was quite helpful that were able to show that a large majority of neighbors approved of what they were doing.

In fact, Lakeman and his colleagues were able to get a new law passed in Portland that allows for the kinds of changes to streets, sidewalks, and front yards in an area if at least 80% of nearby residents approve.

Neighbor Approval
Ultimately, the logic behind governments getting involved in what you put in front of your house is that they are representing the collective interests of neighbors. So, if your neighbors approve of what you have put there, it’s difficult for the government to argue against it.

In addition, you have to live with your neighbors, so doing things that they oppose would seem to be a bad idea, particularly since the whole point of the facilities I’m describing here are to promote good neighbor relations. In fact, the more neighbors see what you are placing in front of your house as theirs, the greater the likelihood that they will adopt it and even help you maintain it.

Certainly, Lakeman and his colleagues in Portland have done a masterful job in garnering community support for all their projects. The Share-It Square experience described above is but one example of the great work that the non-profit that Lakeman helped found, City Repair has done there to build grassroots support for community projects.

However, there are two primary reasons why you may delay trying to win neighbors’ approval until you have erected the new facility, or why you may want to avoid certain neighbors entirely. First, some ideas, especially very new and strange ones, are best communicated in concrete, tangible form. In other words, you may believe that, “once they see it, they’ll get it.” Of course, waiting until you have created the facility before showing it to neighbors risks the possibility that they’ll hate it and oppose it after you’ve expended a lot of time and money.

Second, asking neighbors “permission” makes them feel like they have veto power over what you’re doing. To mitigate this problem and still get a feel for what they think about your plan before you build it, you could mention it as something you’re doing, not something you need their permission for.

In the case of my front yard family room, I’m having casual conversations about what I’m doing (not asking for permission!) with selected individual neighbors, one at a time, as I’m working on getting official approval from the City.

Building and Installing the Facility
The facilities at Portland’s Share-It Square include a kids’ playhouse made out of tree branches, a stone & concrete couch, a wooden message board, a wooden tea stand, a wooden book exchange stand, and a wooden general item exchange stand. (You can view pictures here.)

These appear to be non-professionally made, yet quite functional. My guess is that neighbors created each of these in their garages from a combination of used parts and new materials.

If you have the time and inclination, creating things like this with your kids can be a very engaging weekend activity.

On the other hand, I’ve engaged a professional landscape design and build firm to design our outdoor living room and build all its components. I chose to hire a professional designer and builder because we’re creating an entire environment, not one individual item, so the task is more complex. I want everything to work together well and look aesthetically pleasing, too.

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