A drive or walk through almost any residential neighborhood in the United States reveals a number of commonalities among the houses and sites surrounding them. What is usually seen (Figure 1—1) is a one – or two-story house surrounded by an expanse of lawn and various plantings. Regardless of the size of the site, the house is usually placed near the middle of the site, thus creating front yards and backyards of similar sizes and narrow side yards.
The front yard is most often thought of as a public setting for the house. A lawn, often manicured to create a lush green carpet, occupies most of this area with a driveway situated along one side of the site. In arid areas of the country, the lawn
area may be replaced with gravel or decomposed granite. The front yard is often dotted with trees, shading various parts of the yard. Typically, a row of plants extends along the entire base of the house. This foundation planting often consists only of coniferous or broad-leaved evergreens that provide a year-round wall of green color. Finally, a narrow walk extends from the driveway and/or street to the front door of the house.
The backyard is the most varied area of the typical residential site. In older neighborhoods, or those found in western states of the country, the backyard is usually enclosed with walls, fences, or plantings. In these situations, the backyard is apt to be the most private area on the site. In newer neighborhoods, especially in the eastern and midwestern regions of the country, the backyard is often very open, with little or no definition of where one property ends and another begins. In these conditions, there is little privacy in the backyard. On most residential sites, the backyard is a more utilitarian area than the front yard and is the location of the outdoor terrace, work space, garden, and open lawn for recreation. It is usually the location for outdoor living activities. On other sites, the backyard provides little or no use to the residents; it is just leftover outdoor space that must be maintained.
The side yards are normally narrow leftover spaces with little use except to provide access between the front and back of the house. Consequently, there are few elements occupying this space except perhaps for scattered plantings, air conditioners or heat pumps, and stored objects such as wood, trailers, and other items that do not conveniently fit in the garage or basement.
Although this generalized description of the typical residential site does not apply to every site, it does summarize common characteristics of residential sites throughout the United States. What is particularly surprising and disturbing is that this “typical site” can be seen in all regions of the country from New England to Arizona, and from Florida to California. True, there are regional variations in use of materials (especially plant materials), construction techniques, and attitudes toward the use and style of the residential site. Still, many similarities prevail in terms of size, function, organization, and general appearance of residential sites.
Let us turn to a more critical analysis of the three major areas of the residential site: (1) front yard (often referred to as the public space), (2) backyard (commonly referred to as the private space), and (3) side yards (usually not thought of as space at all). The conditions cited in the following paragraphs are summaries of observations of single-family residential sites in the United States.