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boxhill sept 2014 issue

Every issue, landscape designer Darbi Davis digs deep to bring you stories for your outdoor space. This month: why porches are in full swing again. Plus: cool product picks from Boxhill.


Porches, once the eyes and ears of a neighborhood, are back in full swing. Photo by Darbi Davis

As summer ever…so…slowly…slips into fall, we emerge from our chilled dens and happily dust off our porches – a special place where we can once again embrace the drier, cooler air.  The shift is undeniably subtle, but eagerly embraced by all who call the desert home.

When the fourth Tucson Porchfest hits at the end of this month, it will be a chance for residents to celebrate something that’s back in full swing as a center for community events, learning, coffee and cocktails.

The History


A typical Tucson porch, this one in the city’s Menlo Park area. Photo by Darbi Davis

Historically, front porches served as cool, covered outdoor spaces where life rolled by at a slower pace.  Porches were the eyes and ears of street life happenings.  They were silent, transitional spaces that merged the inside with the outside.  They were confidants of secrets, witnesses to chaos, shelter from the sun, support for tired feet, a breezy space, a meeting place, a musical bodega.  They were places of retreat and rest. A culture of idle ease and nostalgic ambience. A theater of pure Americana.


A porch in Tucson’s Armory Park neighborhood. Photo by Darbi Davis

And then the car whirled into town and air conditioners cooled interiors, making the front porch less appealing on hot summer afternoons.  Emerging architectural styles around the middle of the last century eliminated the front porch. History shifted to the  inside.

It wasn’t until shortly after the turn of the millennium that the trend towards a walkable, less auto-dependent life caught on.

Porchfest is born

In 2007, a group out of Ithaca, New York, decided that their community needed more casual, outdoor, family-friendly events, and Porchfest was born.  Communities across the country took notice and Porchfest Festivals popped up all over – including in Tucson, where it travels to different neighborhoods a couple times a year.

A typical Tucson Porchfest includes musicians playing on porches,  Food Trucks, and kids’ activities.  The streets come to life as everyone strolls around to stop and listen at intermittent porches or grab a bite. All are invited and it’s free to attend.


Barbara and Alan O’Brien, far left and second from left, entertain neighbors on their front porch in Tucson. Photo by Gillian Drummond

Barbara and Alan O’Brien live in the Broadmoor neighborhood of Tucson, host to this month’s Porchfest on September 28th. Their back patio hosted their morning coffee rituals until a few years ago, when they moved to the front porch.  Since then, their lives have been enriched by daily stop-ins from friends and neighbors, and their porch earned the name, ‘Cawffee Tawk” Cafe, after a Saturday Night Live skit. A friend made a sign for them, which is proudly displayed on the front windowsill.

porchobrien1 “If you have coffee,  they will come,” says Barbara, a retired librarian. “Most of the regulars, I don’t even serve them any more. They just go in the kitchen and help themselves. This way we get to see the neighborhood and we’ve made so many friends.”

Why porches matter

Full-time Menlo Park resident Deb Dale, partner in Smith & Dale Philanthropic Counsel, doesn’t miss a morning on her porch – even in the sweltering summer. “Sipping coffee, doing morning crossword puzzles, and playing with Stan, the beloved cat” are just a few of her mentioned porch rituals. “We also used [the front porch] as the cupcake decorating locale to wrangle tots during our 4th of July party,” says Deb.

Speaking of tots, porch-for-play is a brilliant modern day use of the space.  Kids thrive in fresh air.  They don’t mind extreme temperatures as long as they are outdoors.  Seasonal shifts, bugs, lizards, carpenter bees, wind, water, sand, and mud provide endless learning opportunities.  If they spill, splat, or dump – no problem. Grab a hose or a broom, or leave it and watch the mess evolve.


The porch at the Khalsa Montessori school is used for school enrichment programs. Photo by Darbi Davis

Khalsa Montessori School, a Tucson elementary school, provides “Porch” as an enrichment program for their students.  Nirvair Khalsa, founder and director of the school, says: “The Camden porch is an outdoor classroom. The teacher is a master gardener, certified Montessori teacher and artist who designs a beautiful space and engaging projects for the students where they can apply their classroom skills in new ways. On the porch they practice reading, writing, science and art as they demonstrate their new knowledge in the books, posters, journals and art objects they create.”

The kids work on the front porch of the schoolhouse cultivating gardens and learning how to dry herbs, which then get transformed into sachets.  Third grader Iliana says: “Porch is so fun because you get to be outside, and learn about animals and work with clay.”

It’s a cherished and inspiring break from indoor school life, and it’s outside time that will certainly inspire a moment of relaxation, regardless of your age.  If you’re a regular backporch sitter, try moving to the front for a different view. And who knows? Maybe you’ll meet a neighbor or two, make new friends, or feel a cooler breeze.

* The next Tucson Porchfest (with food trucks!)  is 4 pm to 7 pm, Sunday September 28th in the Broadmoor-Broadway Village neighborhood in midtown Tucson.


Darbi’s Plant of the Month: Devil’s Claw
plantofmonthsept2014Devil's Claw This sprawling native annual has light lavender, tubular flowers that mature into long horned-like fruit.  Once dry, the pod splits and forms a woody claw that contains seeds.  Historically, the dried pod is used in Native American basket weaving.  A fun monsoon loving plant!

* Find Darbi Davis at Red Bark Design.

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  1. my mid-town house is the only one on the street with a front porch! It’s probably what initially drew me to the house over all the other ones located outside of the downtown area when I was house-hunting…

  2. What a lovely idea! wish I too had a porch so I could meet my neighbors more easily. s.o.

  3. I love this description of porch for kids as a justification for the hula hoops, scooters, chalkboard etc that litter our front porch. Thanks Darbi. I love the idea of building neighborhood community through porch lounging.