Lynn Freehill-Maye writes:

The roots of the North American porch go back centuries, inspired by design features all over the world. In his book “The American Porch: An Informal History of an informal Place,” historian Michael Dolan asserts that slaves combined the precolonial African housefront with the native Arawak “bohio” in the Caribbean. West Africans had used an area in front of their home during the hot daytime hours, shading it with a roof supported by poles and elevating it a few feet to keep away biting insects. That kind of indoor-outdoor living, folklorists believe, was echoed in the Arawak bohio, the shaded, partially open dwellings built by one of the Caribbean’s dominant tribes. Planters then willingly mimicked the shaded housefronts on little shotgun houses, which spread north on the American mainland.

There were other cultural influences on the porch, too: Dutch settlers introduced the stoop. Spanish colonials built portals. The English brought the idea for elegant loggias like the ones they’d admired in Italy. “As [the] loggia was becoming fashionable in England, the less classical structure known variously as the piazza, the gallerie, and the veranda was insinuating itself into the vernacular architecture of the Caribbean and North America,” Dolan writes. “All these elements blended into what we know as the porch through a process folklorists call creolization.”

In the young United States, the porch became a signature of the proud new Federal architectural style. It developed a folk-mythic history from Mount Vernon and Monticello onward. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson set the trend with grand-entrance platforms to their estate houses. James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, and William McKinley were all elected president after successful front-porch campaigns, a tactic popular in the late 1800s in which candidates stayed home and asked voters to come to their homes if they wanted to hear a campaign speech. For everyone else, the porch worked as a spot to do homely chores like shuck beans, or just to catch a breeze when it got broiler-hot in the house.

But then the middle of the 20th century beckoned. Cooling porches were less needed because of A/C, and less wanted because of TV. The more secluded back deck came into favor, too. No longer strictly necessary, the country’s front-porch-building fell off.

After being considered outdated and rural, the porch has recently re-emerged as urbanized and in demand. …

The foundation for the porch-building boomlet may have been laid three decades before, when a contingent of Baby Boomers trying to fix sprawl started the New Urbanism movement. In 1990 they built a walkable model community, Seaside, Florida, and stacked it with front porches. New Urbanism drew in part on the ideas of urban theorist Jane Jacobs. She’d argued that “eyes on the street”—the ability for people to actually see the street from inside their rooms, storefronts, and front stoops—kept neighborhoods safer. Porches could enable watchful eyes, new architectural thinkers believed, and build community as well.

Other fresh-designed developments have followed the New Urbanism template, but with mixed results. They beg the question: Do people truly use porches these days, or just like the idea of them?

I grew up with a small porch. Pop, my grandfather, used to sit on the porch in summer evenings and smoke his pipe tobacco. I still remember, and in some sense can still hear, the June bugs buzzing toward the porchlight, and the cicadas calling in the nearby woods. The porch for me, as a child, was a place of encounter with the world around the home—even in a home that wasn’t yet so divorced from the natural world, since its windows were opened to let in cool air in the evenings and overnight, since it had no artificial climate controls. The porch was a place of safety, but also encounter.