Imagine if we pulled the fences down…
Imagine if you and your neighbours pulled your fences down. What would it look like? How would it feel? How would it impact you, how you live in your home, how you use the garden and how you interact with your neighbours? How might it change your community?
I recently stayed with my parents in The Netherlands for a few days. They live in a fairly new and typical Dutch house, a home over three levels. They’ve lived here for nearly 17 years.
“Would you be able to help us remove the last of our fences”, Mum asked one day. Together with their neighbours, they had agreed to replace their old wooden rotting fences. To save money they removed the old fences and posts themselves. The contractor would start in a couple of days and one of the last tasks was the rear boundary of my parents property. So one evening we rolled up our sleeves…
My parents know their neighbours on either side well. They bump into each other in the street, and lend a hand when needed, whether it be picking up the mail, looking after pets or watering indoor pot plants when on holidays. Our job however was the fence at the rear which they shared with Rob. Interestingly, they had rarely spoken in the past 10+ years since Rob and his family moved in. They simply don’t bump into each other much because their homes face different streets. But that evening, while working and sharing a cuppa together afterwards, the conversation started flowing.
“I find my garden a bit too big”, Rob said. “I love the house, but with my work and family commitments, I don’t have enough time to look after it properly”. I saw him looking around my parents’ garden with admiration. My parents are both in their early 70’s, no longer working, and still fit as a fiddle. By the looks of it, Rob was not the only one struggling; several other neighbours had paved most of their yard to have a tidy and easy care ‘garden’. We told Rob a little about our home back in Australia, and how we share the garden between four households. “I would be happy with a smaller space, as long as it is private ” Rob admitted.
Shared outdoor spaces are often top of the list when designing for a stronger sense of community, however it is important to get the balance between private and shared spaces right. Private spaces provide the opportunity to retreat and be by yourself, read a book, listen to music, or be with your own small group of family and friends. Shared spaces are an addition to this and are used to enjoy and look after together, and can be used to grow veggies or for the kids to play. Imagine coming home from holidays to a freshly mowed lawn, the veggie garden planted with new seedlings, and the garden beds repainted (I am not kidding, this is what we came home to!).
In Australia, when you buy a block of land in the suburbs, it comes with fences already erected. My observation in The Netherlands is the opposite with fences generally being one of the first reasons to knock on you new neighbours door. In addition to this, in Australia, the car is the dominant mode of transport; we only need to press a button to drive in and out of the garage. As a result we miss the incidental interactions with those that live nearby. In my experience, those small moments are important to create and experience a sense of connection with our community.
A well known quote is “Good fences make good neighbors” (Robert Frost, Mending Wall, London, 1914) and indeed fences can be the cause of unpleasant arguments between neighbors. Today, however, what we seem to have lost is the opportunity of good design and opportunities for interaction with our neighbours, and I wonder at what cost.
So let’s imagine what would happen if we pulled down the fences…