Sitting and Watching the World Go By … From Someone Else’s Frontyard

A frontyard bench has proven to be a surprisingly effective way to bind a neighborhood together. And StrongTowns continues to make a strong case for a new way of looking at land use.

I have a friend who I came to know because of this blog. He has a vision of putting a bench in his frontyard, immediately behind the sidewalk. The bench wouldn’t be for himself or his wife, but for others to sit and to enjoy the street life, the trees, and the occasional squirrel. Use of the bench wouldn’t be limited to his friends either. It would be available to anyone walking on the street who feels moved to sit for awhile and to watch the world.

I’ve encouraged him in his dream, but was unsure how many folks would feel comfortable using a bench that seemed to be in someone else’s yard.

I underestimated the appeal of a well-located bench.  As described in On the Commons, a homeowner had the same idea as my friend. He installed the bench and hosted a party to introduce it to the neighborhood. And the neighborhood fell in love with the bench. Seniors used it for breaks during their strolls.  Schoolchildren sat on it while waiting for the school bus.

Over a half decade later, the bench is going strong. There has been no vandalism. And another neighbor has built a similar bench. It’s an urbanism/neighborhood success story that makes my day.

Could similar benches work in the North Bay? I see no reason why not. The bench described above is in Mississauga, Ontario. For much of the year, our weather is more amenable for walking.

The frontyard of the home my wife and I own isn’t well-configured to add a bench. But if anyone else might be willing to consider this idea, I’d be eager to lend a hand. It’d be a small but meaningful step toward a more urbanist world.

Follow-Ups and Schedule Notes

StrongTowns: I’ve mentioned StrongTowns a couple of times in recent weeks.  I’ve introduced their argument that that prevailing paradigm of post-World War II development is akin to a Ponzi scheme. I’ve also noted that their Curbside Chat booklet is the first reading selection of Petaluma Urban Chat. (A pdf can be downloaded here for free.)

To be prepared for the Urban Chat, I’ve finished my reading of the booklet. It’s a summary of the Strong Towns philosophy that hits the high points of their hypothesis. It’s short on rigorous supporting data, but that information is more completely provided on the StrongTowns website.

But even without the backup, the StrongTowns argument is a stirring and frequently persuasive condemnation of how we’ve built our communities for the past seventy years. It’s also a startling introduction to the changes that they believe are required. Many will want to dismiss the arguments as overwrought. It would truly be an inconvenient truth for many who rely for their livelihoods on the drivable suburban paradigm. But it’s hard to ignore how well the hypothesis fits the land-use facts since World War II.

To give a flavor of the hypothesis, consider the opening paragraph of the Introduction, "We often forget that the post-World War II American pattern of development is an experiment. We assume it is the natural order because it is what we see all around us, but our own history - let alone a tour of other parts of the world – tells a different story."

After arguing that the sprawling suburban experiment has failed, the booklet finishes with three conclusions. "1. The current path cities are on is not financially stable. 2. The future for most cities is not going to resemble the recent past. 3. The main determinant of future prosperity for cities will be the ability of local leaders to transform their communities."

It’s strong stuff. Perhaps it will eventually turn out to have been overstated. But it demands our attention now.

I highly recommend reading the relatively short booklet. And then following up by reading the more in-depth materials on the StrongTowns website.

Petaluma Urban Chat: The next Petaluma Urban Chat will be Tuesday, December 11, 5:30pm at Aqus Café. All are welcome, with particular encouragement to newcomers.This is the meeting at which we’ll begin discussing the Curbside Chat booklet. The founder of Urban Chat, Charles Marohn, is tentatively scheduled to join us via Skype for the January meeting, so we should begin thinking about questions we can pose to him.

Also at next week’s chat, we can talk about the direction of Urban Chat. Perhaps we can focus on advocacy through reading books such as the Curbside Chat booklet and talking with public leaders. Or maybe action, such as the installation of frontyard benches, is the preferred path. Your thoughts would be appreciated.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. He has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and three dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com. He can also be followed on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

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Wire December 09, 2012 at 03:56 PM
Your lucky that our Petaluma hasn't ticketed you you expressing your property right of a new bench out front for others.(do you need a permit)? Other cities have fined vegetable garden in the front yard, a tree house, and even a solar cloths line. Oh the ugly things. Don't forget to rake up those leaves that belong to your trees and evergreen bushes. We don't want those leaves flowing down to our Petaluma River. Those dangerous leaves to kill the fish and wildlife..
Dave Alden December 10, 2012 at 07:10 PM
Wire, I doubt that a building permit would be required for a bench. However, I can envision a situation in which a homeowner is unhappy with the folks making use of a neighbor's bench and objecting to the city. And I have no idea how a city would handle a situation like that. And perhaps the bigger concern with a frontyard bench is insurance coverage. If a child was playing on a bench and fell, would your homeowners insurance cover the risk? And would it result on future policies banning frontyard benches? I'd like to think that "good samaritan" rules would cover the possibility, but I'm not sure. Regarding leaf raking, for most trees the issue isn't danger to fish if the debris reaches the river. It's plugging the stormdrains enroute to the river. On my street, unraked leaves often cause driveway culverts to become blocked, resulting in flow over sidewalks, deposting mud for future pedestrians to traverse.
Wire December 11, 2012 at 01:11 AM
Dave I'm sure the liability is one problem, we as homeowners. Now do we really own the home and property rights if it's even paid for? I could be wrong but to do anything on your so called property needs a permit these days if there's any kind improvement, they need the tax money. Even cutting down a tree could cause a problem. Now those leaves that make it into the water way do decompose taking the oxygen away from the wild life. I see it daily the damage the oak trees do to fish in creeks, but the government won't confirm the damage as they will blame the water supply not enough water flowing. That is right the stagnate water is killing the fish. So the high schools are doing creek clean up, I see it daily the fish die off. Went to Spring Lake after the Pacific River of Storms, one of the jewels of Sonoma county park system all the dead oak trees in the lake from Santa Rosa Creek over flow. It's nice it ended up there instead plugging up some important area down stream. Take a ride over there and check it out.
Wire December 15, 2012 at 04:01 AM
When ever you think you have a RIGHT, you need to file for a permit. Outlawing Rain Water collecting. I'm sure if you build something you just might need that permit. It just doesn’t get any crazier than this. What’s next charging us for the air that we breathe? How we ended up in a place that allows the government to tell us what we can or can’t do on our own land is crazy in and of itself, but for the government to claim they now own the water that falls from the sky is almost beyond belief. LET THE WATER WARS BEGIN As unreal as it may sound, at least 9 states have made it illegal to collect rainwater on your own land. Utah, Oregon, Colorado and a number of other states have passed rainwater laws that either limit or all out ban the collection of rainwater. Apparently, it’s alright for mega corporations to take it, bottle it and then sell it to the public for profit; but if you should try to collect any for yourself – You might need a lawyer!


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