Front yard, back yard, and housing policies

This description of civic discussion and decision-making uses the imagery of front yards and back yards:

Photo by Chris F on

This dynamic—front-yard proclamations contradicted by backyard policies—extends well beyond refugee policy, and helps explain American 21st-century dysfunction.

The front yard is the realm of language. It is the space for messaging and talking to be seen. Social media and the internet are a kind of global front lawn, where we get to know a thousand strangers by their signage, even when we don’t know a thing about their private lives and virtues. The backyard is the seat of private behavior. This is where the real action lives, where the values of the family—and by extension, the nation—make contact with the real world.

Let’s stick with housing for a moment to see the front yard/backyard divide play out. The 2020 Democratic Party platform called housing a “right and not a privilege” and a “basic need … at the center of the American Dream.” Right on. But the U.S. has a severe housing-affordability crisis that is worst in blue states, where lawmakers have erected obstacle courses of zoning rules and regulations to block construction. In an interview with Slate, Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, a Democrat, took aim at his own side, saying progressives are “living in the contradiction that they are nominally liberal [but they] do not want other people to live next to them” if their neighbors are low-income workers. The five states with the highest rates of homelessness are New York, Hawaii, California, Oregon, and Washington; all are run by Democrats. Something very strange is going on when the zip codes with the best housing signs have some of the worst housing outcomes.

Housing scarcity pinches other Democratic priorities. Some people convincingly argue that it constricts all of them. High housing costs pervert “just about every facet of American life,” as The Atlantic’s Annie Lowrey has written, including what we eat, how many friends we keep, how many children we bear. “In much of San Francisco, you can’t walk 20 feet without seeing a multicolored sign declaring that Black lives matter, kindness is everything and no human being is illegal,” the New York Times columnist Ezra Klein wrote. But in part because those signs sit in front yards “zoned for single families, in communities that organize against efforts to add the new homes,” the city has built just one home for every eight new jobs in the past decade.

The image here is from a single-family home, a familiar symbol and sight in the United States. The front yard is visible to others. Homeowners put certain things in the front yard and do certain things in the front yards. Meanwhile, the back yard is a more private space, often out of sight from the front and even from others with fencing, plantings, and more blocking possibly blocking views.

Is the front yard just performative? For American homes, people put a lot of effort into a lawn, a facade, signs, and more to present a particular image to the world. It is not necessarily fake or inauthentic; it is just one angle available to the public. It can affect perceptions, interactions, conversations.

Perhaps this is similar to front-stage and back-stage from sociologist Erving Goffman? In public settings, we practice impression management and we play particular roles. We perform in ways that align with or resist social conventions. Back-stage allows for less of this.

In the area of housing, I have seen what is described above: when communities have opportunities to discuss and plan for affordable housing or denser housing or cheaper housing, they often throw up obstacles. They are not necessarily opposed to the need for such housing; they just do not want it near them. Housing as an issue ends up being a hyper-local concern as community by community debates development.

Perhaps it is less about front-yard, back-yard and more about general/national versus local. It is one thing to support policies at a national level or for others to follow. It is another to commit to one’s own actions as well. Could a growing YIMBY movement supersede all the NIMBY activity?

California, other places moving forward with bans or restrictions on gas-powered leaf blowers

More communities across the United States are banning or restricting gas-powered leaf blowers:

Photo by Pixabay on

But addressing the noise pollution they cause wasn’t the main reason behind the legislation. Small off-road engines, or SOREs, are a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, causing spikes in asthma in workers who operate them.

“Today, operating the best-selling commercial lawn mower for one hour emits as much smog-forming pollution as driving the best-selling 2017 passenger car, a Toyota Camry, about 300 miles — approximately the distance from Los Angeles to Las Vegas,” the California Air Resources Board said in a recent fact sheet. “For the best-selling commercial leaf blower, one hour of operation emits smog-forming pollution comparable to driving a 2017 Toyota Camry about 1,100 miles, or approximately the distance from Los Angeles to Denver.”…

Hundreds of cities and towns in the U.S., including Washington, D.C.; Burlington, Vt.; Houston; Palm Beach, Fla.; Aspen, Colo.; and Highland Park, Ill., have enacted restrictions on the use of leaf blowers. Among those restrictions: forbidding gas-powered units, imposing decibel limits and limiting what days one can use them…

On Wednesday, the Boston City Council agreed to consider a resolution that would outlaw gas-powered SOREs. Kenzie Block, a city councilor representing the Fenway, Mission Hill, Back Bay, Bay Village and Beacon Hill neighborhoods, said the main impetus for the ban was health-related.

Noise, health, pollution, and gas use and I could see why this shift toward equipment with other power sources would appeal to many places.

Where is the power equipment lobby with a response? As noted elsewhere in the article, gas-powered equipment could provide power and other opportunities. Or, do companies who manufacture equipment still see enough of a market in other communities and/or are excited to sell lots of people new equipment that they would not otherwise have to buy?

The ripple effects of this on American lawns are interesting to consider. Would battery or electricity powered equipment encourage people to tend to their yards more or not?

High fences indicative of a lack of community in suburbs?

Suburbs are often criticized for a lack of community: residents drive in and out of garages with little interaction. In searching for a missing girl in Cairns, Australia, several people suggest that the search is made harder by the high fences that separate suburban yards:

Cairns is losing its sense of community and neighbourhood spirit, with residents only finding time to help each other in times of natural disasters.

That’s the verdict of sociologists, politicians and police, who believe people in the Far North are living more isolated lives than ever before.

Fewer people know much about residents in their street, which potentially leads to an increased risk of crime.

And they say this trend can be most clearly demonstrated in, of all places, the proliferation of high fences in the suburbs.

At no time has this been more apparent than with the dilemma facing authorities as they seek information on the disappearance for teenager Declan Crouch and the murder of Erica Liddy.

Despite many pleas for help, vital clues from the public – the eyes and ears of Cairns – are yet to come.

A few decades ago, high fences in the suburbs were extremely rare, with neighbours often the best of friends, talking regularly over small mesh wire side fences in the backyard.

But experts say the fast pace of modern life mixed with a blend of fear, apathy and population growth is keeping residents hidden away from each other, behind those all-pervasive six-foot high fences.

I would suspect that the problem involves more than just fences. The fences are just a symptom of bigger issues – get rid of the fences and neighbors won’t necessarily know each other any better. And if there is a lot of media attention about these sort of stories (abductions, murder, etc.), why wouldn’t more suburbanites build fences to keep their yards and kids safe?

This story itself is illustrative of a larger question regarding suburbs: if they were simply designed a little differently, would there be stronger communities? This is a key claim of New Urbanists: moving cars and garages to a back alley, making streets more pedestrian friendly, and reintroducing porches to the front of houses will lead to more community. And with recent data suggesting that Americans do want to live in more walkable communities but still want to remain private, the verdict is still out on such design changes.