How to Design a Shared Backyard

Article and images cross-posted from Modern Farmer. Written by Virginia C. McGuire. Photography by Wendy Hitch.

When you live in the city or the suburbs, it can be hard to fit everything you want into a small or mid-sized yard. Perhaps you want a large vegetable garden and even a couple of fruit trees. You’d love to have chickens, and the patio has to be big enough for your friends to comfortably sit around the fire pit.

Even though grass is unpopular these days, there’s nothing like it for running through sprinklers or having an epic sword fight. And the playhouse has to be big enough to withstand a siege that lasts all afternoon. Swings are great but require a lot of clearance, and the picnic table should fit all the neighborhood kids.

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With this kind of wish list, you’d be looking at a two-acre yard, at the least.

If you’re fortunate, you don’t need to fit all these things into one yard. Perhaps your neighbor has a sandbox and a trampoline, but lacks the sunshine to grow vegetables. Maybe another household has a big storage shed. Would they let you store your bicycles in exchange for the use of your leaf shredder?

If you’re ready to sit down and plan a potential shared outdoor space with your neighbors, here are some things to keep in mind.

1. Reduce duplication of tools

Does every household really need their own set of lawn equipment? Working out a plan for sharing large or costly tools can save everyone money, and free up space for more important things. My neighbor inherited a fancy electric lawnmower, but his yard is all shade plants and brick courtyards, so he doesn’t have any grass. I agreed to store the mower in my shed, and it’s now shared between several households.

2. Map out the play areas

A group of neighbors I know in Northwest Philadelphia pitched in to buy a playground-sized climbing structure that straddled two back yards. Ten years later, it’s still in active use by neighborhood children.

But don’t forget to think beyond traditional play structures. A friend of mine keeps a corner of her back yard wild. Her sons and their friends have an endlessly evolving fort built around the sawed-off stump of an old yew tree. Leave some of the yard undefined so the kids can figure out their own ways of adapting the space to their games.

3. A semi-private community garden

One of the biggest frustrations for would-be gardeners in the city and suburbs is the lack of light. Where houses are built close together and trees have had generations to mature, it can be hard to find enough full sun to grow a flourishing vegetable garden. You can content yourself with lettuces and other shade-loving food plants, but pretty much every gardener out there wants to be able to grow a really killer tomato now and again.

That’s why sharing space with your neighbors can be ideal. Busy people often don’t need very much gardening space to be completely satisfied. Watch the light for a season or two, and approach your neighbors about putting a few shared beds in the ideal spot. If somebody is going to give up space to the community’s garden, offer them the use of your patio and grill, or think of something else their yard lacks that can be provided by sharing.

Make sure you leave one garden bed available for the kids. My four-year-old neighbor Eliot has re-named himself “Bob” because he’s so in love with Bob the Builder. He spends a lot of time digging with his backhoes, so his parents have wisely left a bed unplanted for him.

4. Shared waste disposal systems

It’s possible to compost effectively with a single-bin system, but it’s much easier to have multiple bins. Larger quantities of compost heat up faster, and it’s nice to be able to set aside the nearly-finished compost and add fresh scraps to a different container. On our corner, two households were composting separately and two more households wanted to give it a try. We decided to combine our efforts. Now we have a tumbler, two stationary black plastic composters, and an open bin made of old packing crates.

We have four households contributing kitchen and yard scraps, and we’re producing finished compost much faster than when we were each working without our own separate bins.

5. Think creatively about money

Money can cause tension in even good relationships, so tread cautiously. If you want to get your neighbors to pitch in for your pet project, you’re going to have to start by finding out what their pet projects are, and supporting those. It might be simpler to keep ownership separated along family lines. Perhaps you’ll buy a larger-than-necessary storage shed so your neighbors can store their tools, and perhaps your neighbor will buy the deluxe aboveground swimming pool and let you use it.

If you do decide to share the cost of some higher-end items, be clear about the budget ahead of time. Offer a range of prices, and see how much people are comfortable spending. If you’re meeting a lot of resistance, it may be that your neighbors can’t afford the same things you can, or have different priorities for their money. And don’t forget to have an exit strategy, such as deciding whether the group will buy out a family who moves away.

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6. Pets are people, too

Even if you get along with your human neighbors, their chickens might not appreciate your bulldog very much.

Depending on how many animals live in your small community, it can be wiser to leave up the fences and just share tools and other resources. My neighborhood was moving toward taking down all the fences until one household started free-ranging chickens in their back yard. The rest of the neighbors were happy to have the chickens nearby, but didn’t want them eating beloved plants or pooping on the picnic tables. As a result, some of the fences had to stay up. Those of us who prefer to keep our yards fenced have made a commitment to add extra gates for easy flow between the properties.

7. Protect private space

Deciding to share space doesn’t mean you have to share all the space. In our intermingled back yards, many of the fences have come down and permission has been granted to use play equipment and garden tools. But each household maintains a small patio that isn’t really shared.

There’s an unspoken agreement that if someone is eating a meal in the back yard or visiting with a friend, they can do so without being interrupted.

Sharing space with neighbors can give everyone a little more of what they need — a versatile and spacious outdoor living area that encourages us to get off our couches, and a closer community of friends who can help us care for our homes, our yards, our children and our animals.

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