by Peter Franklin
Tuesday, 25
August 2020
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07:00

In defence of the garden fence

The things we value most flourish behind borders
by Peter Franklin
Whatever happened to ‘good fences make good neighbours?’ Credit: Getty

Last week, Britain experienced powerful winds on a sunny summer’s day — a gift from Storm Ellen. This week, comes another blast of hot air, this one from the architecture profession.

In a bid to build better houses it seems that some architects want to abolish the garden fence. Instead of our own private back gardens they want us to share communal outdoor spaces.


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The intention is, of course, a good one (who do you think designed the road to hell?) If we’re to build the new homes we need, then it’s vital that we don’t keep on making the same old planning mistakes. Hence the Government’s Home of 2030 contest — whose purpose is to “find the leading design for the low carbon, age-friendly homes of the future.”

Great, but what’s wrong with a spot of outdoor privacy?

The Guardian quotes Patrick Usborne of Perpendicular, one of the competition winners: “There’s an English perception that owning your castle needs its own land. But if we are to improve community cohesion we need to remove the ubiquitous rear garden and bring together external spaces for the community.”

Really? Whatever happened to ‘good fences make good neighbours’?

If modernist architecture had any room for ancient wisdom it wouldn’t exist. Still, modernists ought to pay more attention to the present. There’s a lot to be learned just from walking around and observing the way that people actually use the spaces that architects design for them.

Consider the ‘desire line’ — i.e. the worn-out bits of lawn that show where people actually want to walk instead of the paths provided. You can either blame pedestrians for not keeping off the grass — or the planners for failing to anticipate public demand.

Fences are the vertical equivalent of the desire line. Only in this case the desire is not for a shortcut but for privacy. If they’re not properly provided at the outset, then people will erect and maintain their own fences. In fact, they’ll even do this up in the air — apartment block dwellers fencing off their minimalist steel balconies with pot plants, willow screening and other materials.

Just as telling is the outdoor space that can’t be fenced off because residents have no right to do so. How much of it looks like, or is enjoyed like, a garden? Very little. For the most part, it’s a lifeless green void between buildings.

The exceptions — like the private communal gardens of the classic Georgian square — are exclusive and expensive. Public parks, memorial gardens and allotments — though important — are not exceptions because they are not residential.

Regardless of intellectual fashion, the fact is that the things we value most — safety, belonging, happiness and freedom — flourish behind borders. So don’t dispense with fences without understanding why they exist.

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chrisjwmartin
chrisjwmartin
2 years ago

Regardless of intellectual fashion, the fact is that the things we value most ” safety, belonging, happiness and freedom ” flourish behind borders.

And this is true of nations as much as of gardens. Only an enforced, fenced-off border allows for the secure cultivation of prosperity, be that protection from chavs camping on your lawn, or from so-called “refugees” taking advantage of your generous welfare system.

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago

As we’ve seen, communal spaces can be arbitrarily and unnecessarily closed by government diktat. That’s why private ‘defensible space’ is more prized than ever

johntshea2
johntshea2
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

True! The real Tragedy of the Commons was the Enclosure of the Commons.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Gated communities are the answer. Rather like Legionary Fortresses, 50 acres in area strategically placed across the country, in the scenic and defensible locations if possible.

They have tried it in South Africa, and it seems to work well.

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Have you been to South Africa? Can’t think of anything more ghastly

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Yes, and I foresee it as the future here, although fortunately not in my lifetime.

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Indeed

Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
2 years ago

One of the reasons that communal spaces are such a disaster is that everybody (or, in practise, nobody) is responsible for them.
When you have a fence, you know who is responsible for the area.

Most people wish to live in a cared for environment and if their area is fenced then they will look after it.

Dave H
Dave H
2 years ago

One of the reasons that communal spaces in the UK are a disaster perhaps.

Some nations, Australia springs to mind, treat common spaces and common facilities with a level of respect seldom seen here. Park facilities are left un-vandalised, they have communal barbecues in city parks and remote wilderness areas, people use them and then leave them clean and functional for the next visitor. I was amazed.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago
Reply to  Dave H

That may be because they have large private spaces at home so have a feeling of security

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
2 years ago

Quite. The ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ springs to mind.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
2 years ago

Patrick Usborne needs to get out more. It’s not just an English perception. Anyone who’s ever holidayed at a French campsite will have observed German and Dutch campers arriving with picket fencing to erect around their tent or caravan.
I learnt the Robert Frost poem, “Good Fences make Good Neighbors” at school. It struck me then that this was good advice and nothing has happened to change my mind in the decades that have followed.

Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
2 years ago

The last thing we need is a neighbourhood assembly over the Commons Dilemma.

Fences make life simple and are essential to demarcate space.

Fences have also become popular at my allotment site, despite being prohibited by the rules. Now we have fenced off ethnic minority enclaves to replicated the balkanisation outside. In this instance, fences seem to be erected to segregate themselves apart from the wider allotment community.

Clearly social integration and cohesion is the last thing on their minds but these are the people Marxist architects are supposedly trying to reach and protect.

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
2 years ago

Was it Chesterton who said something like: The difference between a liberal and a conservative is that a liberal sees a fence blocking a road and immediately starts to tear it down, whereas a conservative stands back and thinks: “I wonder why that fence is there?”. “Good fences make good neighbours” has endured as a wise saying for good reasons.

phillip.yeadon
phillip.yeadon
2 years ago

For me, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs springs to mind, specifically the tier of ‘safety and security’. The garden fence is more ‘metaphor’ than ‘material’ but a useful example nevertheless.