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Long live the urban courtyard!

Guest Opinion: Courtyards aren't just for the wealthy - or European. Why Seattle developers should hop on the courtyard train to make private, serene urban spaces a possibility for all.
A courtyard in an Alexandria, VA townhouse.

A courtyard in an Alexandria, VA townhouse. Photo: Serge Melki

Like the revival of salsa music, martinis and Art Deco, central cities as desirable and popular places to live have taken the nation by surprise. Cities like Seattle, that began a decline in the 40s or 50s, are seeing their populations grow again. Except for some scattered buildable lots here and there, condominiums and apartment houses are behind all this growth. After all, few big cities have much developable land left.

Condos and apartment houses add to the tax base, but if you like cities and appreciate their offerings, you have to retain some interest in single-family dwellings. The best option for density-rich family homes is the townhouse. Attached to one another and typically placed close to the street, townhomes often allow for a modest space in back for outdoor enjoyment – the courtyard.

For our purposes, a courtyard is defined as a space within or adjacent to a dwelling that is confined by walls or fences in order to create privacy, intimacy and beauty. An atrium is a courtyard entirely surrounded by a dwelling. Yards – perhaps most characteristic of suburbia – are on large lots, with extensive space on all sides. A courtyard should not be confused with a veranda, deck, terrace or porch, which are attachments to the house and usually yield to a yard.

For its part, the townhouse is an ancient style: Before cars – even before horses as a means of conventional locomotion – people lived next to each other. That allowed commerce to take place readily within a walking distance of "home."

Wealthy Romans employed an atrium, an internal space, to provide relief from street noise and prying neighbors. The Spanish, with Moorish as well as Roman experience, formed patios, where water features and at least a few plants allowed a quiet retreat. Old urban quarters of Latin America today boast this style and there are no more appreciative connoisseurs of it than expatriate Norte Americanos. Various forms of courtyards are found, too, in Northern Europe, from Vienna to Copenhagen.

A courtyard in Willemstad, Curacao. Photo: Phil Comeau

In the United States, you find town houses with courtyards in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., in New Orleans and Charleston, South Carolina — the old cities that pre-date the automobile. Lately though, courtyards (and patios, atria, etc.) have found prestige in new construction too. Enough to land a recent major spread in the Wall Street Journal by Alyssa Abkowitz (subscription required).

Seattle zoning (as in other cities) long obstructed development of urban courtyards by requiring buildings to have large setbacks from the street. Since the rise of suburbia as an ideal, setback restrictions in American cities have rendered courtyard architecture an expensive add-on, if not an impossibility. The law was changed in 2011 by the City Council, but practical applications have been slow to catch up.

In addition to privacy, the Journal notes, courtyards offer a way to bring natural light into the house itself (through windows onto the courtyard). "The rising popularity of the courtyard is tied to the growing desire for indoor/outdoor transitional living," writes Abkowitz.

From experience reorganizing a small backyard into an outdoor "room" behind our own house, I can tell you that adding walls and/or fences to frame a space also gives it a new aesthetic dimension. Instead of eyesight bleeding off indiscriminately, one's attention is shaped by the limits imposed by the courtyard. Accordingly, the courtyard confers a sense of trust, contentment, intimacy. It is the world — your world — reduced to manageable space.

Some urban backyards in Seattle, like ours, are already being retrofitted. Many more single family townhouses, though, can include more efficient private spaces if the front yard is removed.

So far, most developers aren't biting. There are few examples of new infill houses or larger developments that take advantage of the new zoning’s flexibility to make traditional interior spaces of courtyards, atria and patios. Instead, we are getting endless condo and apartment developments that sport nothing more than tiny balconies. These projects create density without improving the livability of cities very much.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Mar 26, 10:23 a.m. Inappropriate

With cranes sprouting up in almost every corner of the city, we're in a real growth period right now, and I appreciate this reminder that zoning and land use regulations can nudge us in good directions during these changeable times. Courtyards, and other semi-enclosed outdoor areas can be real buffers in densely developed neighborhoods, but in Seattle, where we are so much further north than the examples in the photos above, they need to be planned carefully. Light, especially direct sunlight, is a commodity in short supply during a large part of the year -- someone designing a courtyard needs to really work with orientation and building height to make these spaces useable for more than just the high summer months.

sandik

Posted Tue, Mar 26, 4:27 p.m. Inappropriate

The "courtyard" shown in the colored drawing should be called a shared back yard. You can call it a courtyard for sales promotion purposes but it is no more private than a side yard or front yard. In fact the normal 1950s Seattle back yard is frequently more enclosed and more private. The historic idea of the courtyard house ("the atrium") tends to make more sense where there are no yards external to the dwelling and two or three property lines are party walls. sandik's comments help explain part of the reason that is not easy to do well in Seattle.

kieth

Posted Tue, Mar 26, 9:41 p.m. Inappropriate

looking forward to seeing the micro-courtyard for a micro-apartment project.

Posted Fri, Mar 29, 11:38 p.m. Inappropriate

That micro-courtyard is what grandma used to call her flower box.

Posted Wed, Mar 27, 11:36 p.m. Inappropriate

Unbelievable! This is just so typical of the real estate sharks to call a three- or four-house shared yard "private." You are the same people who call a tiny place "cozy" and a dump a "fixer upper" and no views "territorial views." Good God, does your petty chicanery know no limits, or are you angling for a cameo on Saturday Night Live?

Tell me, Bruce, when do I know you people are lying? When your developer lips are moving? Kids! It's perfect for you! Yuck! If you ever should stop to wonder why no one trusts a single word out of your so-called industry, re-read your article. What dishonest hype. The courtyard pictured is not only not "private," it actually erodes the privacy of each dwelling that fronts on it. Not that the truth of the matter would ever even occur to a sleazy land salesman.

Articles like this one remind me of just why, in the five real estate transctions I've been involved in, the only one that wasn't a cluster headache was when I bought my current Seattle house directly from the owner. I've never seen a bigger bunch of cheats than the so-called "professionals" of the self-dealing real estate sector.

Yeah, I know. I'm unreasonable, cranky, and worst of all, not very polite. But someone has to call things for what they really are. You should be embarrassed, but in my experience I've never met a real estate agent or developer who could ever be embarrassed by much of anything.

NotFan

Posted Fri, Mar 29, 11:37 p.m. Inappropriate

Courtyards are better than no yards, but some fencing and green trees would be nice.

You could hype it up even more and call them "SmartYards".

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