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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