The original boundary markers claimed land with a stick forced into the ground. The desire for mastery compels people to define the edges of personal territories, and fences stake the limit of ownership. Within the fenced enclosure is control of clearing, protection, and privacy.
Domains were once cleared and set aside with practical fences, often circular in geometry to enclose the greatest area within the least perimeter. Livestock were held within, the wilderness without. The materials at hand were fashioned into barriers—the brush scythed and woven into limbs and saplings culled from the garden, with rocks and clay blocks piled for support, mud plaster applied to keep the whole mess together. J.B. Jackson wrote of its necessity:
“there could be no legal protection for the life and property of the family unless it built such a hedge or fence or wall; there could be no guarantee of privacy, no self-rule by the family unless that boundary was established, made visible, and carefully maintained.”
Fences (literally) stake a claim. They divide public from private, and their material and form determines the relationship between the divided grounds. The hostile fence rejects forays and turns away visitors. The spikiness or mute violence of its high walls extends their vituperative malice beyond the property line to quench activity along the street. The sociable fence also transforms the public frontage, but makes it more appealing for exchanges and common pursuits.
In the United States, the Homestead Acts (1862) allowed anyone 21 years or older or the head of a household to claim 160 acres of federal lands. They were required to make improvements and live there for five years. In the early days, these improvements consisted of a one-room cabin and a fence—the fence built first. Once the fence was raised, authorities recognized the occupation and acknowledged the autonomy of the owner. . . and other would-be settlers continued to look for their piece of land.
In the agrarian country of the central and western United States are miles of fencing defining fields and croplands. Farmers send a clear signal of their boundary control, with a blatant warning against trespass. “Fence-in” states (Tennessee and others) require property owners to fence lands to keep livestock out, or run the risk of damage.
Fences intercept the undesirable things and people that might otherwise land on our doorstep. While a 3’ high picket fence will not actually deter a criminal intent on mischief, the fence implies a level of attention that carries with it a deterrent. A serious fence designed to keep people out demands concrete, razor wire, sensors. In the catalog of hostile edges are many kinds of perimeter security measures: cable arm gates, vehicle wedges, tire teeth, and sweep nets. In urban areas options include reinforced concrete planters, bollards, retaining walls, and hardened site furniture. Armed attacks made up over 3,700 of the terrorist crimes in 2010, worldwide (slightly less than the number of bombings). Attacks can’t be stopped by a fence, but they may delay a criminal long enough for detection and capture. Effective fences devalue a target, and make it clear the bad guys should try somewhere else instead.
Fences walls effectively disengage public activity from the street and create an inhospitable environment. Las Vegas, Southern California, Phoenix. . . the cities of the American Southwest offer particularly oppressive examples of block-walled suburban canyons that trap heat and repel pedestrians. Property walls prevent casual passersby from any contact with those who live inside. This has an unexpected result–as neighbors become detached from one another’s daily routines and schedules, from the knowledge of who belongs and who doesn’t, and from visual contact with windows and doors, the friendly neighborhood snoop can no longer register the anomalies. The outcome is a decline in safety. . . a direct result of the walls built for security.
Sociable fences support neighborly exchanges, whether the topic is ancient history or brand-new gossip. The classic picket fence allows air movement and visibility but keeps the lazy dogs of summertime from the street. A wooden fence signals the presence of an active homeowner by the edging, landscaping, replacement of pickets, and painting necessary to preserve it in acceptable condition. . . acceptable to the neighbors, that is.
Picket fences were made with dimensional lumber planed smooth, an urban improvement on the split-rail fences of the prairie. In cities, metal workers were available to cast and wright iron fences with a longer lifespan and lower maintenance by the man of the house, often busy with civic engagements.
Picket fences became iconic features of the suburban landscape in the post-war years. Levittown wasn’t built with divisions between the common lawns, but they appeared almost immediately. From children’s readers to The Andy Griffith Show, the repetitive screen of white pickets identified a desirable community, one that was safe and friendly. The low fence is one of the devices of transition along with porches, arcades, awnings, lawns, gardens, steps and stoops, softening the edge between the private domain and public life. It is a modest physical barrier, effective at keeping only toddlers from escaping or preventing dogs on leashes from trampling the roses. Still, they serve as a reminder that the zone between the sidewalk and the front door remains off-limits to pedestrians.
Fences are among the most regulated elements of the private realm. Zoning ordinances establish maximum heights, and historic districts define narrow limits on every possible parameter: material, spacing, height, geometry, and setbacks. This rigid conformity produces formal and coherent neighborhoods. In less regulated environments, the ad hoc quality of the property line incorporates the passage of time and accretions built by many hands.
Design of the transitional area between the curb and building determines the character of the street, with as much influence as the buildings facing the street. Details for the curb and gutter, landscape planter, sidewalk, lighting, and street trees recommend uses of the public frontage, with wider sidewalks and brighter lights for commercial areas and nightlife zones, and narrow footpaths along residential streets.
It is easy to trace the roots of the modern fence from the pedigree of the ancient enclosure. They create an expressive, articulated edge which discourages unwelcome visitors and invites guests to pass through the gates. They provide a convenient perch for people to talk over, lean on, and perhaps even use as a bench. They preserve the identity of the house. In select cases (swimming pools, bad dogs) fences protect the public from the private, instead of the other way around. The property line boundary provides comfort, seclusion, privacy, and security, protection from animals, intruders, and other threats. They contribute substantive benefits, such as edible landscapes, shade, storm protection, and visual privacy. Fences do not relieve new homesteaders of their responsibility to the public realm, but they provide a focal point for interaction with the wider world. . . and a glimpse of the attitudes of the people who dwell within.