Do you ever dream about the next place where you want to live? Sometimes, I will turn to my husband and ask him, "When we ever move, would you be open to trading in the garage and the pain-in-the-ass lawn for a nice front porch? Huh, what do you think?" He will shrug his shoulders quizzically or if he is in a good mood, he will humor me and retort, "I will go anywhere as long as you are there, my love!"
Front porches bring an image of lazy times watching dramas unfold, spontaneous, short conversations with neighbors walking on sidewalks, relaxing spaces where it is possible just to sit and feel the outside breeze on your skin. Even though I'm a confirmed introvert who avoids small talk as much as possible, I'm in love with the idea of front porches! Every morning on my two mile neighborhood walk, I see the same man reading his newspaper on his front porch. We smile, nod to each other in acknowledgment and I move along.
In his book, Bowling Alone:The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam documented a decline in social capital, the network of reciprocal relationships that promote trust and cooperation in a society. Since the 1970s in the United States, indicators of a robust civic culture have dwindled. We are voting less. We are volunteering less. We are less likely to be members of churches or labor unions or baking cookies for the school parent-teacher associations. In an age of sprawling suburbs and mind-numbing media, we are living in our own small castles, disconnected from others in a network of road-rage inducing streets and highways. Putnam even noted the decrease of civic engagement in the patterns of how people bowl. At one time, we used to bowl in leagues but now, there is a tendency to bowl alone. He based all these conclusions on data gleaned from the national General Social Survey. These are generalized trends in this country.
So, if Putnam's research is correct, what does a decline in social capital have to do with front porches? On my daily long walks in my Worcester neighborhood, I've been thinking of how this rise of individualism and fall of community ties and civic commitment is strongly correlated to the favoring of private back decks and side patios over the public life of front porches. So, I am wondering if we could somehow shift back to kindness, neighborliness and trust if we returned to sit on front porches. What if we slowed down, sat with chilled glasses of iced tea and a stack of books to greet the outside? Could our streets where we live, the city, even the world become a gentler place? What do you think?