A couple years ago, outdoor spaces were largely a “nice to have” on home wishlists. Sure, it would be lovely to clink glasses on a balcony, or spill out onto the patio on a summer night, but other features often won out. Most of us have come to realize that an outdoor space—particularly one that’s attached to your house—can be hugely impactful on mental health, our ability to socialize, and creating a home base that really ticks all the most important boxes.
It’s no wonder, then, that landscape and outdoor design firms have been inundated with projects, transforming once-neglected yards into oases for relaxing, gathering with loved ones, and simply living in—much like we do inside our homes. While chatting about this idea of creating outdoor living spaces with Kevin Lenhart, landscape architect and design director at Yardzen, he mentioned that “social front yards,” were an emerging trend among their clients—and I was intrigued.
So, What is a Social Front Yard?
The name sort of speaks for itself here, as it’s a front yard intended not just for ornamentation and showing off the greenest grass in the neighborhood, but also making it clear from the sidewalk that you’re not closed off to friendly conversation. Most backyards in the U.S. serve the purpose of a private gathering space, while our front yards remain pretty strictly decorative, but the pandemic opened up the idea of expanding outdoor living spaces into the front yard, too.
“People were getting cabin fever in their houses during quarantine,” Lenhart says, and “this put a lot of pressure on backyards, so naturally, some of it overflowed into the front yard. People were craving interaction and wanted to talk to new people without going to public spaces, and front yards became a safe semi-neutral territory for neighbors to interact.” Plus, because our homes had to operate as offices, classrooms, gyms, and living spaces, things started feeling quite cramped very quickly. “We needed outdoor spaces where we could try to maintain some semblance of social contact while also staying safe.” And so the social front yard was born.
Since its inception, Yardzen has actually seen a 150 percent increase year-over-year in requests for functional front yards, so much so that Lenhart has actually lost count of all the social front yard projects he’s worked on. Luckily, he broke down the most important elements for creating one yourself.
The Key Elements for a Friendly Front Yard
Various seating areas: As with a backyard (or interior project, for that matter), the intention is always to create vignettes and living spaces within a larger space. Yardzen’s clients most often request seating areas like fire pits, bistro tables for casual eating, porch swings, and general lounge zones. Lenhart also recommends bordering adult seating areas with children’s play areas, so there are easy sightlines for adults, and “from the kids’ perspective, this creates a seamless, integrated relationship between family and play.”
Fencing to keep kids safe: While it’s nice for kids to be able to play in the front yard, it also poses the risk of the street, so Lenhart often finds their clients requesting some sort of fencing to keep kids safe. “When fences are required,” Lenhart says, “we encourage clients to opt for semi-transparent options like hog wire or board fences with moderate gaps.”
Light, airy plants: “If you’re looking to create a front-yard social space,” Lenhart says, “remove barriers between you and the street like tall hedges and opaque fencing. Paths should appear welcoming.”
The Best Plants to Plant
When it comes to creating a bit of privacy, Lenhart prefers planting to structural solutions, and emphasizes that “social front yards don’t need to be completely exposed to the outside world,” and instead, are “actually best when they play around in the middle of the privacy spectrum.” Every region and climate will have varying planting needs and restrictions, but there are some general rules of thumb Yardzen uses for these projects.
Allow sightlines from street to yard: Possibly the most important thing to consider here is ensuring the home doesn’t feel closed-off or imposing, so planting should allow views from the street to create an inviting feel. In addition, Lenhart advises that clients with smaller yards should avoid massive shrubs, “which tend to gobble up space.” Instead, he recommends “focal plantings near the edges to encourage long, unimpeded sight lines,” which create the illusion of a larger yard.
Employ tall grasses: Tall grasses, with their height and airy texture, are “excellent for partially obscuring views to create semi-private zones that still feel welcoming to passers-by.”
Add small canopy trees: Lenhart also likes to make use of smaller canopy trees or tall ornamental shrubs like redbuds, dogwoods, or desert willow “to punctuate the edges of social spaces.”
Opt for native plants where you can: Outside of plants for privacy, Lenhart points out that you can really select any plants you want, but he always tries to encourage clients toward “low-water native or climate-adapted species, especially for clients in areas experiencing drought conditions. Natives in particular are an excellent choice, both for the superior habitat value they offer to local ecosystems, and for their promise of minimal maintenance.”
How to Create Outdoor “Rooms”
With all of Yardzen’s social front yards, any function (play, rest, entertaining) is fair game, as long as the homeowner is on board. “The design can be perfect,” Lenhart says, “but if it isn’t activated by actual use, it’s not a success.” The strongest designs, he points out, are ones that make social or functional spaces feel like integral parts of the design, instead of disconnected fragments within the front yard.
Lenhart and Yardzen accomplish this sense of oneness with cohesive planting and by sticking to material palettes, as well as keeping edges open with limited obstacles that would impede sightlines and circulation. Lenhart also likes to create outdoor "rooms" by clustering potted plants and larger planters to frame out separate seating areas, so the implication of a room is there, but the yard still feels very much connected. Lastly, prefab seating (instead of built-in custom seating) is a great option for front yards, as they can easily be moved around for multiple functions.
Would you replicate this trend in your own front yard? Tell us in the comments.