Imagine There’s No Fences, It’s Easy if You Try…

Allow me to introduce you to my next-door neighbors. Below you see what my son Marco and I see of them when we play baseball or hockey in our side yard adjoining their property.

There's a high fence behind those hedges.  Fort Knox, baby...

And here’s what we see when we play bouncy-ball on the sidewalk next to their house.

You'd think this was a busy street, with that high fence and shrubs.  It isn't...

Gee, they look pretty boring, don’t they? Well, actually, they aren’t. From the shrieks of laughter we hear over there from time to time, I believe two elementary school-aged kids live there. And I think they even have a play structure in their back yard…

However, from our point of view, they’re total zeroes. They might as well be a commune of 85-year-old hermits.Imagine, if you will, if they didn’t have that fence and those hedges. From our point of view, it would be *great*. Our son Marco loves playing with kids of all ages. As of now, he has no neighborhood playmates, period. We’ve tried to reach out to kids around here, but it hasn’t worked out.

Besides having playmates, Marco would have access to a play structure. When I was a kid, other kids all over the neighborhood would come to our back yard when they saw my sister and me on our swing set because we had no fence, so they could all see us instantly. Kids love playing with each other on play structures.

But would tearing down the fence and hedges benefit our next-door neighbors? With the fence and hedges, their yard is dark. It’s claustrophobic. Without the fence, their yard would be much more bright and open.

In addition, I believe that those older kids would enjoy 3-1/2 year-old Marco as much as he would enjoy them, maybe even more. Marco’s 9-, 11-, and 13-year-old cousins are crazy about him. Age-matching for play is way overrated. At any rate, they don’t have to be the world’s best bosom-buddies – they would just hang out together and play.

OK, OK, so what about privacy? What about it? Are these folks sunbathing nude in their back yard? Having wild sex? Committing heinous murders? I don’t think so. Neither are we.

So what about this privacy thing? In my opinion, the “benefits” of privacy are wayyyy over-estimated relative to the costs of shutting others out. The members of the N Street co-housing community, which I wrote about recently, have a very rich community life due in part to the lack of fences there.

American president asks Soviet president to 'tear down this wall' so West Berliners and East Berliners can play with each other.

So, should we blame the architects and builders and city planners? Well, yes, but that’s not going to get us anywhere. We need to look long and hard at the fences we have around our yards today and start talking to our neighbors about them. Then, we need to tear them down. That’s what some Berkeley, CA residents have done, and they’re very happy with the results.

You may hesitate to tear them down because you’re worried that you may not like your back yard after a few months. Or, you may worry that tearing down fences will decrease the resale value of your home. If these are concerns for you, you can preserve the wood from the fence so you can re-install it later. That’s what the folks at N Street have done, and they’ve never reinstalled one board. The wood just lies there.

Imagine how much more fun your kids and your neighbors’ kids would have if nobody had fences separating your houses.

Then, do something about it! Unfortunately, we’re renters and our lease runs out in a few months, so I’ll have to wait until our next house – one we own, I hope – to start tearing down those fences.

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12 Responses to Imagine There’s No Fences, It’s Easy if You Try…

  1. Heather Wang says:

    Before we had our son, we lived in Buffalo Grove (outside Chicago) Very few of the houses had fences. The kids ran everywhere, and played in large groups. Several of the parent chipped in to buy some great play sets. I wish we had a neighborhood like that here. There is a child near us who is the same age as Kai, but she is never allowed out of the house. My son plays with the kids across the street. Three younger, two older. I pray they don’t move because they are the only kids we see.

  2. Suzanne Miller says:

    We have fences around here mainly because everyone is paranoid about dogs. I don’t want to get into a dog debate b/c they get ugly, but when I was a kid, dogs roamed the neighborhood with the kids and somehow no one seemed to mind. People get really upset these days if dogs are out loose so folks build fences to they can let Rover out to play with the kids. Otherwise the poor beast would never get off the leash.

    Now… those two story hedges in the photos…. seems like that’s not necessary. Four to six foot picket will do the trick and you can still see your neighbor’s yards.

    Remember the Ramona books? Remember Henry and Mudge?

    Shoot we even have coyotes around here – but that’s for another blog.

  3. Perla Ni says:

    I spent most of my elementary school years growing up in Vancouver, Canada and there were very few fences in my neighborhood. We used to play badminton across our next door neighbor’s yard all the time. And we used to play hide and seek on our street and would be running around people’s houses, under their stairs, hiding behind their sheds, and behind their cars. Kids ruled the neighborhood.

    I like what N Street folks have done – I wonder how we can encourage more families who live on the same block or behind each other to tear down their fences?

  4. Lupine says:

    I think one of the issues might be the fear of litigation. If a kid fell off your play structure, who would be liable? You, probably. I don’t agree with this, but I think it’s a factor.

    And by the way, we had fences growing up but all the neighbor kids played in the street anyway. From our apartment, we can see the neighbors’ play structure, but I have never once seen a kid play on it. Come to think of it, I have never seen the kid (kids?) who live there. I have never seen the kids that live next door either, although I know they are there because I hear them.

  5. Matthew says:

    I’m going to have to agree with Lupine on this one. When I hear the description of a great play structure that all of the neighborhood kids love to play on, I think attractive nuisance. Sure, it’s great in theory, but wait until someone gets hurt…

  6. Mike Lanza says:

    Huh??? The remote possibility of a lawsuit from a neighbor is more important than a great deal of certain fun for your kids and your neighbors’ kids.

    How sad…

  7. Ed Prentice says:

    The lawyer issue is a sad fact but I agree that it cannot run our lives (a bit of a parallel to terrorism– even sadder). One of the core issues hiding behind fences is that we have become an adult-oriented society which is what this whole site is addressing. More than the legal issue is protecting home values and making a neighborhood somehow pristine. I would never live where there were covenants controlling property, but I see this relating to the fence question and host of others raised in Playborhood. California is generally a friendly place, but there is an underlying fear about creating the very logical community values that are espoused here. When a neighborhood is seen as MORE attractive in recognizing neighborhood community, this will be alleviated. Block parties are the one way I see this happening. We need tear down some physical and non-physical walls very close to home.

  8. ktmama says:

    The biggest problem with lack of fences comes from poor parenting and lack of supervision. Even without the all too real paranoia of potential kidnappers or molesters, there are very real concerns about who will come play in your yard — and whether your child is welcome (or well-treated) in someone else’s.
    Want to make friends with the neighbors? Make a pitcher of lemonade and go introduce yourselves. While you’re there, offer to host a play date.
    If you want a play structure so badly, build/buy one yourself (or take the poor kid to a public park!), but don’t push for an invitation to someone else’s… (Hey, cool blog, mind if I come use it for a while?)
    Now if you want a big community playground, either rent/buy a home where there’s one already established, or get a neighborhood movement going to build one.
    Try to think about fences from the other side for moment. Let’s say you build the playground in your yard… Do you really want all the neighborhood kids in your yard? How do you politely ask them to go home if they are mean to your kid or you worked all night and simply need some peace and quiet? How do you handle all of the inevitable bumps and bruises? What about something more serious (even without worrying over a lawsuit there are major issues involved). And you can’t forget about little Billy who pees in your vegetable garden or Sally who just threw up after jumping too long on the trampoline. So who is going to responsible while the kids run rampant in your yard? What if you want to go somewhere — who supervises them then?
    If you and your neighbors really like and respect each other enough to tear down your fences, fabulous! But don’t push people to tear down their fences — they may like their privacy no matter how kind and innocent they may be… At the very least they may not want nosy neighbors pounding down their door to use their play equipment.

  9. Mike Lanza says:

    Yes, I want the neighborhood kids in my yard. What’s wrong with that? I don’t get it.

    Where I grew up, we had no fences and a swing set (the old name for a play structure) in my back yard. Kids from the entire neighborhood played in my back yard. Kids had *FUN* there every day. Every day. Remember FUN?

    Do kids have FUN in your neighborhood? I’m guessing it happens rarely.

    The bottom line is that our parents saw the tradeoff differently than parents do today. Did kids get hurt in our back yard? Did they play there when we weren’t around? Heck, did neighbor kids climb our big locust tree and our house and “invade our privacy” in all sorts of ways? Abbbbsolutely. And we had wayyyy more FUN than your kids do. Guaranteed.

    I think our parents had things figured out pretty well, actually.

  10. ACites says:

    Um, as someone who lives in a house in a “no-fence” neighborhood and has 10 boys between the ages of 5-10 coming from 4 neighbor houses trampling landscaping, acting like everyone’s yard is their own private property, and at ALL HOURS OF THE DAY, including 7:30am on Sundays, I can tell you that not everyone appreciates communal living. Some of us actually want privacy, have kids studying for AP exams, etc. Fun is great, but discipline, moderation, and respect for others is important, too.

  11. Mike Lanza says:

    ACites – Well, you could live in one of the neighborhoods around where I live (Palo Alto & Menlo Park, CA) where kids *never* play outside in their neighborhoods. Never.

    Perhaps a happy medium is best, but if forced to choose between the two polar extremes, I’ll take your neighborhood hands down.

  12. Jimmy H says:

    Hi all. I happen to live in a house that does not have a fenced in yard. I have no children of my own but recently the neighbor’s children have decided to take over my yard without asking permission. When I was young and living in this same neighborhood it was an absolute no no to play in or even near the yard of a stranger. From what’s on this site, I guess that’s outmoded thinking. On one hand the noise can be disturbing and my grass gets trampled but on the other hand I hate to be the bad guy and tell them they can’t play in their new found yard. It’s especially tough since these kids live in an apartment next door with just a sliver of a yard. My chief worry is the liability issue. Also I don’t think it’s a good idea for the sake of the kids to play in strangers yards. There’s too many bad people out there. I would take it that you would encourage children to ask permission first, or clear it with their parents before entering peoples yards. I like your idea of openness but I believe there must be cautions for the children and a respect for peoples’ privacy and property.