Traditional North American residential practicesIf there is one thing that defines North American architecture, especially in single-family areas, it is an openness of design. Traditional urban houses in much of North America is open to the street, with plenty of wide windows, porches and details to make the house look good to the street. Front yards have also been common for a century or more, and these are rarely fenced-in, and even when they are, they remain largely visible from the street or sidewalk. These front yards used to be of moderate depth before cars came around, but they have gotten deeper as time has gone on.
|Traditional American duplexes in Albany, New York: Note the two large porches, one for each unit|
|Early 20th century houses (maybe duplexes) in Detroit|
|Another example of traditional American architecture, note the porch, the big windows in front, the attention to detail|
|4-plex kit sold by Sears in the early 20th century, once again, note that each apartment has a porch or a balcony (source)|
|Sears home duplex|
|Sears single-family home, made to fit a 32-ft wide lot|
|Traditional homes and duplexes in Saint-Jérôme, Québec|
|Other examples of single-family homes and duplexes in Mont-Tremblant, Québec|
|Duplex in Boucherville|
|A few houses in the old section of Boucherville|
Traditional European practices
|I call this architectural style, common in France, "Castle under siege"|
|Example in France with small, fenced in, yards in front|
|Another example in France|
|Here is an example in Spain|
|An example in Manchester, UK|
|A case of hedges used as fences, though these houses evoke ranch-style or bungalow-style houses common in North America, they are visually isolated by hedges and they do not even face the street|
|Two examples in France of single-family areas with small or medium front yards, largely hidden from the public by fences of some type|
|An example in Spain, with outright walls blocking the view on the big houses on big lots on either side of the street|
Public vs private realm
If you look at the images contrasting the North American and European cities, you can notice one major difference: in the European cases, there is a very clear break between public and private realm, the public realm is the street and sidewalk, owned and administrated by the city, and just outside it, walls, either the façade of the buildings or walls built at the limit of the property to make the front yard more part of the private realm than of the public realm.
|In much of Europe, the public realm is often mostly limited to the street and sidewalk, with walls clearly marking a break between the publicly-owned public realm and the private realm|
|North American areas add an intermediate buffer between the public realm and the private realm, that can be called a communal realm, made up of privately-owned land and house front that is nevertheless put to public display|
People in urbanist circles sometimes look down upon front yards as meaningless space wasters, reducing density while not providing a larger private area like a back yard. But I think that this front setback does serve a purpose, even more than merely providing a buffer to protect residents' privacy, and that it defines a certain North American way of life to which many people are emotionally attached. I'm not saying this particular way of life is really superior, it has its good points (fostering a certain community spirit and involving people into contributing to shape the public realm) but also its drawbacks (inciting people to consider other resident's front yards as being semi-public, legitimating by-laws to control what one may or may not do with it or inciting them to build social pressure to conform to certain standards).
But if we want to get people to accept a drive for more walkable, urban areas, I think we have to account for this preference and try to conceive of ways to reconcile higher densities with this approach to communal construction of the public realm through front yards and setbacks. That is not necessarily impossible to achieve, traditional American cities, even today, frequently have residential densities of 50 to 100 people per hectare (20 to 40 per acre) with single-family homes and duplexes, and Montréal has some neighborhoods where residential blocks have densities of 150 to 200 people per hectare (60 to 80 per acre) while still having small front yards and balconies for units above ground.
|Another example of an upper unit resident decorating for Halloween and allowing kids to trick-or-treat there|
|On this commercial street in Verdun, commercial buildings have no setbacks, but residential buildings have small setbacks, plus the famous exterior stairs and balconies|
|In Reading, Pennsylvania, private porches on townhouses provide a small public display area for residents, achieving a density of 150 people per hectare (60 per acre)|