Where were we? Ah yes, fences. Apparently, I’ve hit a nerve. Several of you have emailed me asking that I highlight a fence that you love to hate. Top voter-getter: the “Osama Bin Laden Compound” fence on Barton Avenue. I understand that particular fence has issues with execution, but at least there is agreement amongst the neighbors that fences are appropriate along that stretch of road. While I am sorely tempted to go through town and create a top ten list of bad fences, I will refrain.
I implied last week that once upon a time, people’s actions were heavily influenced by their need and desire to place community needs on par with their own. In other words, peer pressure, if not the desire to make a positive impact helped guide decisions making. That led me to have a funny mental image of neighbors acting as aggrieved union members, erecting massive banners on the sidewalks in front of neighbors with bad fences: “Shame on the Johnsons” (sponsored by the Jefferson Heights Local #69).
Judging by your response, it is apparent that identifying bad fences is not really a problem. Most of your comments identified the specific elements (if not the underlying concepts) that made each fence “bad” (or at least less neighborly). What, then, makes a good fence? That can be answered on a number of levels including construction quality, location, style, and function. Good fences address all of those physical concerns. Despite the fact that a fence is a physical thing, its greater impact is from a psychological perspective.
A fence is a powerful symbol. In addition to their function, they speak to us overtly and subconsciously. Some fences are territorial (this is my land dammit), others that warn (achtung dammit), and some beg for your attention (look at me dammit!!). Clearly, not all fences are offensive, and not every fence is intended to give the finger to the neighborhood. It seems, however, that we have lost the understanding that a fence is more than just a utilitarian thing- it is a nuanced interface between landowners and the community. It takes skill to create a fence that makes a positive contribution the community, but it can be done. I’m not talking about creating something that is acceptable or non-offensive, I’m talking about a fence that improves upon the built environment. It seems that the fences that accomplish this are in one way or another reinforcing a sequence of psychological spaces.
The intimacy gradient is a concept from A Pattern Language. In the book, the pattern is used to describe the ideal sequencing of spaces in a house. The general concept is one that can be found across the globe in a variety of scales and contexts. Alexander notes that spaces in a house should be sequenced in a way that respect their degrees of privacy. The gist is that there are some rooms where guests and visitors feel comfortable (the living room) and others where interaction would be awkward (the bedroom). The gradient applies to commercial places we visit as well– there are public “front of house” spaces and private “back of house” spaces.
Good fences help provide definition to the privacy gradient of the public realm. Fences can provide a cue in shift from places that are purely public (the street and sidewalk), from places that are semi-public and private. Though Tea Partiers everywhere will bristle at the thought, the front yard is a semi-public place. Front yards, and indeed the facades of houses, are part of the visual landscape and, as such, frame the public realm. How those spaces are treated impacts not only the property owner, but the community at large.
Violating socials norms in the public realm projects the image that the individual does not value the institution of community, and as such the action does harm to both the individual and the group…
I could continue, but you get the point. Plus, the Cap’n has asked that all electronic devices be stowed. Ordinarily, this would get edited, but I’m so not writing on Super Bowl Sunday. I’ll Holler at ya’ll next week and try to do better.