“Porches have the ability to be interaction hubs among neighbors”

Help The Porch Project raise $5,000 by October 31 to improve Flint residents' porches
FLINT, Michigan -- Longtime residents of Flint neighborhoods often talk about the concept of knowing and checking in on neighbors. That philosophy has become particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic, as chance connections to passersby and neighbors were, for some people, the only social interactions available during months of quarantine.


Front porches have always been a vital part of life in Flint, and The Porch Project, a nonprofit organization founded in 2018, has been a driving force in helping neighbors make improvements to their outdoor spaces as a way to foster neighborliness and connections.


The Porch Project’s founder and director, Megan Heyza, spoke with Flintside about the role porches play in the community, the heightened importance of her organization’s work during the pandemic, and, simply, what front porches mean to the Flint community.


Flintside: At a community forum in Flint in September, one of the speakers described Flint as "a front porch community." I loved that description of the city. How does that fit with your vision for The Porch Project and just the role front porches play in creating vibrant communities?


Megan Heyza: “The Porch Project’s primary goal is to use beautification efforts, porch repairs, and increased lighting to promote neighborliness in the community through increased use of front yard spaces. Our hope is to activate sidewalks and meet neighbors in an authentic and engaging way that can produce block level impacts. The role of our project is to come to a home and meet the neighbor, enhance the view of their home, and encourage them to reproduce that engagement with their neighbors. Not every home we go to has people inside that don’t know their neighbors but we are always working to encourage that behavior.


“If you think about the context of a porch, it connects you to the outside world. When you wake up in the morning and leave for whatever reason, you open the door and step on your porch to see the world around you. The context of a front porch will change depending on its occupants and users as well as the environment in which it is located. When you walk outside and see burnt homes, blight, or trash outside that internalizes in your subconscious or conscious self. Porches have the ability to be interaction hubs among neighbors.


“A front porch is a space that often is overlooked but holds so much power to cultivate communities. A porch is an extension of your home. It provides this space of comfortability but is a public facing space that allows for people to define the way they see their community and create it. A porch has this power to bring together neighbors in a personal and impactful way.”


Flintside: During the COVID-19 pandemic, the role of yards and outdoor spaces have become particularly vital -- they're one of the few safe ways that people can still have daily interactions with neighbors and passersby in the community. How powerful have some of your experiences been this summer, helping people revitalize their front yard spaces in that context, where outdoor living space is of even greater significance during the pandemic?


Megan Heyza: “I have been lucky to have many moments this year that felt powerful. One of the beneficial things for me during quarantine was that I had the time to sit outside on my own porch and meet my neighbors in a special way. I spend a lot of time working during the spring and summer months so oftentimes I don't have the ability to utilize my home space in the way that I do for others. It was great to see the importance that porches bring and conceptualize it in a personal manner.


“In terms of the community, one of the most powerful things for me to see this summer was the connectedness of neighborhoods that we've worked in. In the beginning of this pandemic we all had our lives put at a standstill. The importance of our neighbors came out during the pandemic and the quarantine. Neighborhoods that were connected relied on each other whether that was just saying hello from the sidewalk when somebody was sitting outside or somebody bringing over a meal or shopping for neighbors who were high risk. It was a visual representation of what we advocate for as a project. It showed that in order to create vibrant communities we really have to have neighborliness and connectivity among the people in a community and their immediate spaces.”


Flintside: You founded The Porch Project in 2018. What are some of the coolest or most creative ways you have seen people use their front yard or front porch spaces in the community during that time?


Megan Heyza: “I've had the opportunity to witness porches being utilized in a lot of different ways. One way that comes to mind is this summer we were able to host PorchFest in my own neighborhood. It was a collaboration of my neighbors that focused on bringing to life the special elements of who we are as a neighborhood whether that be through the creatives that live here or the houses that we consider special.


“Also, I've witnessed people hosting BBQs at their homes for neighbors, people bringing out a table and hosting a dinner on their front porch, or even neighborhood planning meetings happening on front porches. I want to add that utilizing your front porch doesn't have to be creative. It doesn't have to be a new idea or some huge project. It can be as simple as sitting outside and drinking coffee on your porch as opposed to at your dinner table. It can be anything that makes you visible to the people that surround you.


“Our goal is not to encourage neighbors to be creative or put on a huge event. It is to connect neighbors and make them feel comfortable in each other's spaces. That can be done by simply walking outside for 30 minutes.”


Flintside: In what ways has creating these vibrant spaces throughout neighborhoods created more opportunities for neighbors or organizations to connect during the time you've been doing this work?


Megan Heyza: “There is a unique impact that's made through focusing on the ‘people’ element of beautification and neighborhood clean-ups. For starters, we have activated about 220 front yards since we started. This has been done by planting flowers that people water, completing repairs so people can now sit on their front porches, and walking daily to say hello. The impact of the beautification efforts have spread far beyond those front yards, though. Since TPP has drawn people outside of their homes, people are now starting to notice their surroundings and paying attention to them. We have completed 23 vacant lot clean-ups that have been requested by the neighbors we serve or someone on their block. We have walked them through getting dumpsters, tools, and leaf bags so that they are confident enough to do it on their own. We have witnessed people around us improving their houses or picking up garbage because their neighbor is now doing it.


“This year, I had many people call to tell me they voted for the first time because they felt heard on a platform they had given up on. We have seen neighbors host BBQs, and witnessed people working on homes around them to give back to the city they love. There are more people watching city council meetings because they see a new importance of civic engagement. The thing I love seeing the most is this sense of community or neighborliness that comes from creating spaces that bring a sense of community to people's front yards. There is no limitation of how people will choose to utilize their personal property to enhance the community around them.”


Flintside: What are the best ways for people who want to get involved with or support The Porch Project to connect with the organization?

Megan Heyza: “There are several ways to get involved. We have a website, Theporchproject.org. You can contact us or look at the work we do. Also, a Facebook page, The Porch Project. This is updated more and shows the day to day work of what we do.”
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Read more articles by Patrick Hayes.