Building community “one front yard at a time”

A front yard trampoline attracts all the kids on a Logan Avenue block. Submitted photo

On a stretch of Logan Avenue between the Armatage and Kenny neighborhoods, 26 kids ages 15 and under run between the yards. The action is often out front. One front yard has a play set. Another front yard has a trampoline, which has become the hit of the summer.

“Chairs move around the neighborhood a lot. People come over with a drink and a chair,” said Beth Pfeifer. “It really builds a lot of camaraderie.”

Whittier resident Max Musicant hopes to build more community camaraderie by encouraging welcoming front yards. His consulting firm offers a draft Friendly Fronts Toolkit to generate ideas.

Musicant has already experimented with his own front yard. In the toolkit, he described exiting his apartment during a fire alarm and realizing he knew little about his neighbors beyond a few first names. The following weekend, he bought two bucket chairs from the hardware store and scrawled in permanent marker: “Please sit here!”

Front yard

“And then I sat down,” he writes. “That evening, I returned with a book and read in those chairs for an hour. The next afternoon I did the same thing with the newspaper, and then decided to eat my dinner there as well.”

Musicant said he started meeting people immediately, and before long, residents had added a third chair, a Weber grill and community tongs.

“The chairs transformed the social dynamics of our entire building and block,” he said. “… So, if you can do only one thing, get a few chairs, put them outside, sit down, and be present in your yard and in your community. Then you’re ready to start talking to people as they walk by.”

7082373_origThe community-building ideas go beyond single-family homes. The Whittier Alliance is reaching out to apartment properties along Blaisdell, Pillsbury and Pleasant avenues to find owners willing to try front yard improvements. The neighborhood group has set aside more than $3,000 for the pilot project.

Paul Shanafelt, Whittier Alliance community engagement manager, said many Whittier apartments do not have any community spaces for residents.

“You can walk a good eight to ten blocks without anywhere to sit,” he said. “Something as simple as placing tables and chairs goes a long way.”

Landlord Dale Howey said he’s interested in making changes. At 2440 Harriet Ave., he’s already created “foodscaping, instead of landscaping,” where residents can garden and pick fresh produce.

Pfeifer, the Logan Avenue resident, said her block could be a model case study for the front yard project.

Last summer, residents held a barbecue every Sunday night. A different host each week would provide the grill and paper products, and each family would bring something to grill and a side to share.

“Whoever is home can come and hang out,” Pfeifer said.

During the winter, Sunday night is soup night, where neighbors take turns cooking enough soup to feed the entire block.

Front yard

One summer, residents put up a volleyball net between two yards. They occasionally hang a sheet with chip clips and project movies for the kids, while the parents have a bonfire. Or they make an omelet bar, cooking together on a camping grill.

If a house is listed for sale, Pfeifer said neighbors are sure to send the kids out to play during the Open House, so there are no surprises for new homeowners.

“We picked this neighborhood because we knew this neighborhood was like this,” she said.

For a friendlier front yard, the following suggestions are listed in the toolkit:

— Add movable seating.

— Eat outside. Keep the sun in mind when placing tables and chairs.

— Consider storing games and entertainment in the front yard. Ideas include a Little Free Library, a toy-sharing box, lawn games and sidewalk chalk. Provide many things to do.

— Create a workshop area to write on a laptop or perform construction projects.

— Set up dynamic and inviting edges to the yard, perhaps through plantings or low walls for seating. If an edge doesn’t feel inviting, people are less likely to venture further into a yard.

— Take advantage of large umbrellas, tree cover or porches so people don’t feel too exposed in the front yard. People enjoy semi-enclosure, similar to cozy booths at a restaurant.

The Knight Cities Challenge awarded an $82,000 grant to The Musicant Group for its Front Lawn Placemaking Platform. The foundation invests with the goal of helping cities attract talented people, expand economic opportunity and boost engagement. The pilot is done in partnership with the Friendly Streets Initiative in St. Paul.

The group is planning a Friendly Front Yard Festival on Sunday, Sept. 18,* featuring walking tours of welcoming front yards.


*Note: New festival date