Thoughts on defensible spaces and private places
By Anna Daniels
…Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out, …
Robert Frost, Mending Wall
A few days ago I realized that every single piece of residential property on my City Heights block, save one, has a fence and or a gate between the residence and the street. The business at the end of the block is also completely fenced.
I only became conscious of this fact after spending a number of hours last month walking along the side streets north of University Avenue a few blocks east and west of 30th Street in North Park. This area looks in many ways like the City Heights side streets off of University Avenue, farther to the east, where I now live. There are the same generic craftsman style detached houses and two story multi-unit apartments and condos, for the most part built more recently.
But these North Park side streets look different aesthetically in terms of the colors of paints utilized and kinds of landscaping; and they look different in terms of overall appearance than the area where I live. I was really struck by the fact that so many of the residences in this part of North Park, close to a busy commercial area, still do not have fences in front of the property.
So why are there so many fences in some parts of San Diego, and less or so few in others? Why are there so many more fences in the mid-city areas than there were thirty years ago, when I moved here? Do fences make good neighbors? Do fences make good neighborhoods?
My house has a fence in front of it. I provided the simple design, Mr. Huerta built it, and then I painted it, with some paint selection assistance and much appreciated gifts of bowling balls from an artist friend. I’ve pulled out a journal entry I made on the subject in 1999:
Defensible neighborhoods? My neighbors and I have put the “fence” in defensible. When my husband and I bought a house in the densely populated, largely poor mid-city community of City Heights twelve years ago, you could count all the front yard fences on our street on one hand. Now they are everywhere–legal and illegal, wooden, cyclone, cyclone with razor wire, brick, iron and cement.
They are a visible accompaniment to the annoying ubiquitous bleats of car alarms, security bars, circling police helicopters, guard dogs and the possession of legal and illegal firearms. They take on a more tasteful guise in the tonier neighborhoods, but San Diego, like its other urban counterparts is replete with an architecture of fear.
I can still remember my resistance to building that fence. For starters, fences cost money, and money was in short supply those first years when we were struggling with our mortgage payments. The all too frequent appearance of strangers on the porch at all hours of the day and night asking for money and the theft of property on the porch started to take its toll on me. I felt anxious leaving the house to go to work and anxious returning home from work, unsure of what would await me.
Once we made the decision to build a fence, to provide a physical and psychological delineation between the private and the public, we had to decide what kind of fence. Would we live invisibly behind a barrier of greenery or wood? The community police at the time counseled us to avoid that approach because we could enter our property and be unpleasantly surprised by someone lurking inside.
We chose a fence design that was open to view while clearly establishing a physical separation of the public from the private. That separation is much more psychological than physical, but it has worked — for the most part.
Fences obviously exist as a form of limited control and crime deterrence. They can also provide a much needed privacy, a retreat from a world that is too much with us. That privacy can be a two edged sword however, isolating us from our neighbors and what is happening on the street. Fences also provide a blank canvas for the creative spirits among us, providing an unexpected source of beauty and delight.
I grew up in a working class western Pennsylvania suburb in the 50’s. All of the front yards had grass and the backyards, also grass filled, rolled into each other in a seamless carpet of green. This was simply how houses were supposed to look at the time. Today, these back yards are all separated by wooden fences, which reflect the more transient nature of residents there and how that transiency is viewed. People come and go rather than buy a house and stay there for thirty or more years.
Perhaps the fence is a manifestation of one way that we accommodate the uncertainty of who we will end up with as a neighbor. My street seems much safer to me now than it did in 1997 when we built the fence, yet I can’t imagine taking it down. Living in a house or apartment with a front fence is simply what we do now.