From our dining room table* I can look out across our back yard to a common area and a playground alive with children. The land on which our seventeen home community lies is the former site of city school that burned down some years ago. The lots are platted so that most of our back yards adjoin a common playground. We designed this common area to be the social focal point of the development, a shady inviting place for children to play and parents to socialize on warm summer evenings. It's a joy to look out through my sliding glass patio door and see the little ones laughing and squealing as their parents swing them high into the air. The common play area does have its down side, however. Sometimes older kids from surrounding blocks show up, requiring adult intervention. Frequently balls bounce into our back yard and children chase freely across our grass in pursuit. Peggy and I have talked about planting a row of shrubs around the back edge of our property to delineate its boundaryshared while preserving the open feel of the area. That way the children could still come into our yard but it would not be assumed to be part of a ball field. The openness is important. It lends itself to spontaneous backyard fellowship, watchful eyes over the play ground and ready lawnmower access to the common area.
Not long ago, our next door neighbors put their house on the market. Their leaving was a significant loss since they had invested much to promote a friendly family atmosphere in the neighborhood. Their house sold quickly and a new neighbor soon moved in. He seemed like a real nice person and, we were pleased to learn, had an eye for keeping an attractive home. There was one value, however, that he had aparently not bought into. The first clue was when he erected a six-foot high solid board fence that enclosed his entire back and side yard.
In a way, I couldn't blame him. The most efficient way to keep kids from cutting across your yard is to fence it in. It establishes immediate control. A fence makes it very clear whose property it is. It eliminates unwanted intrusions. A six-foot board fence takes care of all of this. Decisively.
But a fence does something else, too. It walls one off from interactions that make community work - the pleasant backyard conversations as well as the not-so-pleasant confrontations. It distances one from the responsibility of looking after the children of others. Flowers and shrubs are planted for one's own private enjoyment rather than for beauty shared that enhances the entire community and stimulates ideas in others. A fence communicates the opposite of community. It expresses individualism, not interdependence. It shouts: This is my space - stay out!
"Good fences make good neighbours", poet Robert Frost reflected on conventional wisdom. The clarity of a fence is attractive. It defines where the domain of others ends and mine begins. It eliminates messy ambiguities and the unspoken annoyances of uncertain social boundaries. A fence makes life cleaner.
Conventional "fence wisdom" certainly has its appeal. The temptation to independence is very strong indeed. To control the unpredictable, to block out the unsightly, to avoid interruption, inconvenience, intrusion - who has not felt these urges? And when one can afford the conveniences of his own private security patrol, watering system, lawn care service - the things that neighbors used to depend upon each other for - the temptation is almost irresistible.
"Something there is that doesn't love a wall", the poet finally concludes. While fences clarify boundaries, they also create barriers between people. They may secure against trespassers, but they also deprive neighbors of the security in being looked after by each other. They may offer controlled access to one's private world, but they cut off the spontaneous, dynamic flow of life that is the richness of community.
Independent living is in the end sterile living.
* As seen from our Gress Ave home where we lived for one year.