The picturesque American Dream. A 2-3 story home in a nice friendly neighborhood, a wide backyard for barbecues with the neighbors, a great front lawn for the kids to play in and a garage for that brand new shiny car. What happened to the white picket fence? How did the transition to an open lawn suburbia come about? And without fences, what are their modern day measures for security?
The lifestyle of an average American family has changed to both parents working a full time job, with no one to give regular upkeep for the fence. It also adds to expenditures in maintenance costs and can give an unfriendly stance toward your neighbors, who in turn can help watch out for your property.
Just to clarify, this article will be speaking of fences in the setting of suburban front yards. Houses in the city (if any) may still have fences, and some suburban guidelines still require having a side or at the very least a rear/backyard fence as a form of privacy and protection.
Let’s break down the factors that led to this development:
(Image from Pinterest)
Maintenance, Repair & Time = Long Term Costs
In plain terms, this can be due to the maintenance cost it takes to upkeep, repaint and repair regular damages of the fence. Often, fences look better from the home inside than it does on the street outside. That and given in today’s society, with both parents likely working a full time job, there isn’t anyone left to monitor and maintain the fence for themselves, which would add greater cost in manual labor.
A common reason is also that fence and front lawn treatments are often standardized by the rules of the district you live in. To maintain a uniform and clean look for the area, a homeowner’s association sets guidelines for all homes to follow. One becomes part of this association automatically when buying a home. These are a group of designated residents who would be in charge of maintaining the look and character of the entire development. Houses can only be of a certain height and range of color, all front lawns must be kept tidy and possibly, no fences are allowed. As mentioned earlier, a nice looking fence can easily become difficult and costly to maintain.
There’s a high chance of an unpleasant street view if each house had fences of different styles, heights, materials, etc. especially if the development aims to achieve a certain character.
(Image from Whimsical Raindrop Cottage (tumblr.com)
Why would these people actively try to maintain these rules? To ensure the real estate value of your purchase maintains or even grows. It is an effort towards future investment that your property value will not deteriorate with your surroundings, therefore it is imperative that the look of this residential development is kept well to remain attractive to future buyers.(1)
(Image from New homes are cropping up in cities, not suburbs | Grist)
What Does Your Fence Say About You?
“Good fences make good neighbors”, Robert Frost’s famous line from his poem, “Mending Wall” is often brought up in the discussion of barriers and fences. Some argue his line could pertain to the fence materials chosen by neighbors and what message it’s trying to say. Is it permeable? Can you see through the gaps? Or is it a completely solid high fortress with the intention of intimidating anyone who tries to enter? What is the character of the fence and those living within it?
However, he continues to write:
“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense. – Frost (2)
Robert Frost explores the relationship of neighbors and how it is almost impossible to separate the physical meaning of fences from its social meaning of being isolated and detached. This seemed to also relate to the un-neighborly culture that grew in the U.S., with both parents working full time, between family and work they barely have any time for neighbors. It may be ideal to have less interaction to avoid conflict with their neighbors, which can be easily solved with some fences up. (3)
If we scale this concept up bigger, synonymous to the walls dividing nations, fences speak more of who they’re trying to keep out rather than what they’re protecting inside. Walls do not necessarily keep immigrants from crossing, but stand as more of a statement that those outside cannot enter. (4).
The “fence” has grown into an anti-social stance and message towards neighbors. Fences were initially built to define property lines and keep livestock from roaming out and into another’s land. Now that we aren’t keeping animals in our backyard (and supposedly, our neighbors aren’t our enemies waiting to attack us) the need for front fencing isn’t as critical and stands more as a statement of exclusion.
To expound that idea further, not needing fences speaks of the social class of the neighborhood you live in. The crime rates firstly, must be low. In comparison to the suburbs of other countries such as South Africa and the Philippines, even the wealthy gated communities are still individually fenced (sometimes with electronic fences, barbed wire and even broken glass).
Most areas without fences have low crime rates, are in huge plots of land and are situated far from the town. Site wise, it could be on sloping terrain and require private cars to even access. Rest assured that you’ll be living in an area with people who are of similar beliefs, “mindset” or living among those with similar income to you. (5)
(Image from The neighborhood from Edward Scissorhands : LiminalSpace (reddit.com)
Suburbs Selling a Sense of Safety
By the end of the 19th century, Andrew Jackson Downing began removing the fence from the landscape of American homes by portraying fences in a negative light. Later on, Fredrick Law Olmsted (father of landscaping architecture, designer of Central Park) strengthened the idea that the “suburbs protect family privacy and property while allowing for safe social interactions.” By the 20th century, most homes had implemented the open front yard without fences. (6)
It is not that fences were removed completely, instead they were gradually replaced with subtler forms of barriers such as a perimeter gate (gated communities), a sloping front yard, homeowner association’s rules or zoning ordinances. Physical design strategies would be locating homes uphill, making it difficult to reach on foot and for public transportation to access. Psychologically as previously pointed out, fences of income serve as a barrier of social class and status. (6)
Although their physical use for livestock had lost its purpose, societal boundaries were kept as an added “sense of security.” Looking at the U.S.’s past, suburbs used to be segregated based on the skin color of people who live in the area, and this would determine the level of safety or price. That concept is not completely gone and has just evolved to modern but milder versions of discrimination.
Another key element of safety and image of the American dream is owning a car. Living somewhere that can accommodate a private car and one can only get to by private car. Architecture towards automobiles has become a huge defining factor in American culture, and this is explicitly seen in their built environment. Roads prioritize cars and homes are built to showcase cars with the garage out front. Districts are sectioned off, limiting access to only private cars, giving the sense of seclusion being far away from the dense, busy town.
Modern Day Security Through Design
What about plain old security of property from robbery? Urban design studies actually show that a fenced property is more likely to be robbed than those without, as it connotes that the fence is protecting something valuable being that heavily guarded. The more effective security is designing for “eyes on the street”, to produce a natural surveillance. This modern study of “Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design” (CPTED), considers the sightlines between neighbors.
The feeling of “open-ness” and can easily be watched will surely make a thief second guess. Strategies include: a well lit entrance, an elevated stoop with change in material to define private property and ensuring your front yard is clearly visible by your neighbors (easier seen when fences are down). These will scare a robber more for even trying knowing how many eyes are on him ready to dial 911 and shout for help. So it turns out the best form of security and safety is in numbers and in community, which gives no feeling of exclusion while being an extended form of safety beyond the confinements of your property. (8)
(Image from Public Safety Through Environmental Design (minneapolis2040.com)
To Fence It All Up…
If we glean at America’s history, the Indian settlers’ sense of ownership was more fluidly defined and the community’s needs were put above the individual. Only later in the European colonization were actual fences put up to divide “mine and yours”, “us and others.” Therefore the American psyche is said to have this split between wanting a sense of community but with that yearning for freedom of privacy and ownership.
The simple fence echoes this divide as some perceive the front fence as an imprisonment, not having the sense of freedom in your home, while others see it as a statement of not wanting to belong to the community. (7)
What is America’s stance now? In light of the recent “black lives matter” and events concerning racial discrimination that has sprung during the pandemic, it seems the individualistic nature of Americans still beats strong. Given the subtle and inconspicuous nature of modern day “fences”, could these just be strategies to give a false perception of ownership, when the government and homeowner association still dictate the law of the land? Could it be a tactic to fuel the need for American freedom when in fact they are all fenced within a system?
Interestingly enough, American pop culture references to the fence as an imprisonment in movies, plays and songs like Garth Brooks’ “No Fences.” (3) Historically, American culture has thrived on individualism and focus on the “self.” Nowadays it seems you can only fence property if paired with a specific purpose such as “beware of dogs.” Perhaps transitioning to having the fences down is a stepping stone towards growing that relationship of “others” and community, in building that mutual trust of “I have my fences down to show you I trust you, I’m with you” in a symbolism of democracy and equality.
1. Ukrainko, A. (2019, April 11). Features of American real estate, and why there are no fences. ForumDaily. Retrieved February 2022, from https://www.forumdaily.com/en/osobennosti-amerikanskoj-nedvizhimosti-i-pochemu-zdes-net-zaborov/
2. Frost, R. (n.d.). Mending wall by Robert Frost. Poetry Foundation. Retrieved February 2022, from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44266/mending-wall
3. Baehr, V. (2018). Fences: Physical and Socio-Cultural Boundaries
4. Newman, D., & Paasi, A. (1998). Fences and neighbours in the postmodern world: boundary narratives in political geography. Progress in Human Geography, 22(2), 186–207. https://doi.org/10.1191/030913298666039113
5. Acting Colleges, n.d. (2021). Why do houses in America not have fences? Retrieved February 2022, from https://actingcolleges.org/library/acting-questions/read/171654-why-do-houses-in-america-not-have-fences
6. Bishop, L. B. (2000). A social history of the private fence in nineteenth-century America
7. Sally Engle Merry (1993) Mending Walls and Building Fences, The Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law, 25:33, 71-90, DOI: 10.1080/07329113.1993.10756443
8. International CPTED Association, . (n.d.). Primer in CPTED – What is CPTED? The International CPTED Association (ICA) – Primer in CPTED – What is CPTED? Retrieved February 5, 2022, from https://www.cpted.net/Primer-in-CPTED