Energy and Environmental Building Association, 1999
The Living Court functions like a big outdoor living room. Actually, it functions even more like a big outdoor great room - each family has its own gathering place around the edges and all the families share a larger gathering place near the middle where several families can sit and talk. The common gathering place has two benches at right angles to each other. This encourages informal, friendly conversation. The gathering place has a southerly exposure so people can sit in the sun.
The entry to the Living Court is defined by a "gateway" - a trellis or some shrubbery. This psychological gateway clearly defines the transition from the public sidewalk and street to the semi-public Living Court. It is a very effective passageway and transition. Strangers do not feel comfortable entering it unless they have business there because they know they are on someone else's turf and they are probably being watched.
The wide 5-foot sidewalk functions as the "main street" of the Living Court and as a "kids street." In most other condominium developments, this main sidewalk is only 3' wide which is so narrow that 2 people cannot walk side-by-side - nor can kids pass each other on their big wheels and tricycles. The front door of each home is highly visible from this sidewalk, and the sidewalk is highly visible from the kitchen and several other rooms in every home. This makes the entire Living Court much safer and more secure.
Maximum visual access to the Living Court from inside the house is crucial to casual surveillance and spontaneous neighborliness. Most Living Court homes have a living room and dining area with large windows overlooking the Living Court. In most homes the Owner's Suite also overlooks the Living Court. Finally and even more importantly, most homes have an "interior window" over the kitchen sink that looks out across the dining area or living room through large windows into the Living Court.
Outside the front entry is the semi-private garden patio or porch. This quick access to the front garden patio makes it easy to "pop in and out" many times a day. The semi-private seating area on the garden patio or porch increases opportunities for casual, spontaneous socializing. On nice evenings people relax for hours in this comfortable place as they enjoy nature and just watch the world go by. A study of courtyard homes has found that when there is a comfortable garden patio or porch in the front on the courtyard, people will spend more than two-thirds of their outdoor time there - and they will more than double the amount of time they spend outdoors.
HomeTown's Living Courts are especially important places for small children. Children cannot sense that something is "arriving" until it hits them - this is why children are so vulnerable to speeding cars. Their sense of motion and movement is so very limited. This is why children intuitively feel so safe in a Living Court - there are no cars at all. A Living Court has a hierarchy of spaces that children intuitively relate to. First, there's the private garden patio or porch on the front of the house. Because it is attached to the house, and separated from the Living Court, the patio or porch is an emotionally safe zone from which children can venture forth. The "gateway" at the entry to the Living Court is a natural emotional barrier that small children usually won't go beyond because they can no longer see the front door of their house. The entire Living Court thus becomes a safe playground.
Children prefer hard surfaces (concrete sidewalks, patios, etc.) to grass for 65% to 80% of their play - the oversized walks, patios, porches, and gathering places meet these needs. The 5' wide sidewalk is a "kid's street" - it's wide enough for tricycles and big wheels to pass each other. The kids draw a lot of chalk art on the common patio and sidewalk. Easter egg hunts, birthday parties and sunny days are all celebrated in the Living Courts.
The outside spaces around the home are most important to small children. Research has shown that children under 5 feel safer and more secure if they are within eyesight of the front door of their home and within 30' of the front door. For children to develop their interpersonal skills they need to be able to play freely with other children where parents can observe them without interrupting them. For children to develop motor skills and to satisfy their inquisitiveness, they need areas close to home they can use casually and for brief spurts of time without relying on adults, because adults do not have as much time as children need to meet their intermittent, random developmental time needs. The porch with its railing or the garden patio with its landscaping provide an intimate outdoor room where kids quickly imagine a "house" for play. There is a wide range of play around the front door involving the structure and the landscape and critters - ants, ladybugs, caterpillars, etc.
Toddlers love to just run up and down the front walk and sit on the steps. Preschoolers love to ride their tricycles and big wheels up and down the "kids street." A HomeTown Living Court is a special place for families with small children. The Living Court is truly a child-friendly environment that offers more opportunities for play and spontaneous interaction than any other housing type.
VII LIVING LANES
The other archetypal Mini Neighborhood is a group of 10-14 homes on a private Living Lane. The most desired house location in suburbia is a cul-de-sac. A Living Lane is a cul-de-sac that ends with a hammerhead instead of a huge paved 90' circle. As a result no one will drive on the Living Lane unless they are visiting someone who lives on it. It is too laborious to stop, back up, turn around and drive back out!
Why do people want cul-de-sacs? They're the only streets in suburbia without high speed traffic: and, because outside cars don't influence them so much, people feel like they are more in control of them and they feel safer.
Because HomeTown Living Lanes are private the city did not object to them. The Living Lane is a curved, winding street whose view is terminated with a house at the end. A Living Lane shares all the other features that are common to livable, neighborly Mini-Neighborhoods:
- Gateway landscaping
- A gathering place
- Safe places for children to play without constant adult supervision
- And front livable porches or garden patios.
The garages are on the side of the house. They are set back beyond the plane of the front house façade to minimize their impact.
You are probably wondering how we got this hammerhead cul-de-sac past the fire department? This Living Lane is connected to another Living Lane to the West via a Fire Lane that is also a driveway; so the fire truck can drive through. This fire lane/driveway also serves as a pedestrian and bikeway connection to the next Living Lane.
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More by Perry Bigelow
- The Spirituality of Sustainability
- Building and Development Philosophy: Cultural and Environmental Sustainability
- Energy and Environmental Building Association, 1999
- Think Differently - Think Creatively
- Bibliography - Neighborhood Planning, Community & Ecology