Our urban environment is over-fenced

Charlottetown 3 kms from city centre: nary a fence in sight

Do good fences really make good neighbours?

We’re into the depths of winter and for those of us who love being outside without 14 layers of clothing puttering about in their gardens, spring is just around the corner. The planning profession is well represented in Spacing’s readership, so I suspect that many others share my love of lists and ‘projects’ including improvements to outdoor spaces. Now is the time for staring longingly out to the yard/patio/balcony with hands wrapped around a big mug of hot liquid in lieu of the summer time beer.

So what project is being pondered for my own back yard that might hold larger implications, you ask? Well – that project would be fencing. There is a chain link fence that wraps around two lot lines of our rear yard. Not the most attractive feature, although it does have certain advantages such as transparency and durability. I can only assume that the fence was erected as part of a larger project by the former owners that included gates on the other side and enclosed the yard so as to allow the numerous pets to hang around outside. The intent of the fence was to “wall in”.

The beef with this chain link fence is that it’s not pretty. If fencing is deemed a necessity, a more natural choice might be wood based, instead of the metal contraption reminiscent of a prison yard. But then thoughts turn to why fence at all? The property boundaries are clearly defined by shrubbery and we are on good terms with surrounding neighbours. Do good fences really make for good neighbours? Where does our desire for fencing come from? I’m sure the answer that many will come up with is privacy or to “wall out”, to keep others off the property. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m not likely to be partaking in anything that requires a significant amount of privacy in my yard and if someone really wanted in our rear yard, they could just walk down the driveway from the front yard. The fencing that is there is almost like more of a barrier than anything else between interaction. One neighbour stays on their side, and the other stays on their side, and polite chit chat results from my interaction with them along either side. Shrubs or trees could quite as easily delineate the property lines.

My thoughts on fencing in the past were fairly non-existent until our yearly trip to see the family on the east coast illustrated some interesting differences between outdoor spaces there and here in Ontario. Put quite simply – our friendly east coasters don’t fence as much as us. At my significant other’s childhood home in the Maritimes, a path existed on the side of their property unfenced to allow for kids to walk alongside the rear yard, cut through and walk to school more efficiently. No fencing involved, and a clear willingness to allow kids to walk on ‘gasp’ private property. Are the rumours about our east coast neighbours really that true – are they that much more open and friendly, not just with conversation, but with their properties?

At a recent road trip (yes, I’m that urban focused that this was called a road trip) to Smith Falls, the rural houses around North Gower seem largely unfenced, perhaps larger lots not requiring the obvious indication of property lines or maybe everyone just knows their neighbours and walks across others’ property without fear of retribution?

I live near a National Capital Commission Forest that is chain linked fenced around the entire perimeter with gates allowing access to paths. If anyone wanted access to the forest (which is permitted), you just have to walk to one of the openings or if you couldn’t wait that long, hop over the chain link. What is the intent of an ugly barrier where it’s on publicly accessible property, so not meant to either “wall in” or “wall out”?

Whatever the answers to the above questions are, my present conclusion might be obvious. We’ve overfenced our urban environment either in the name of privacy, obsession with private property rights, fear of others or containment of pets to the near point of ridiculousness. Come spring, a replacement fence might not be the answer, the fence might disappear completely and maybe the neighbourhood kids will find a shortcut.


  1. It is interesting to note that in places like Asia and Europe fences are almost universal. Here in Singapore, I have yet to see a house, condo or apartment building that does not have some sort of fence or wall around it’s perimeter.

    In the house I used to own in downtown Toronto, our small backyard had a fence, but it was only waist-high. It allowed for a delineation of space and managed to keep our dog in our backyard (and vice versa) but still allowed for conversations and the occasional shared beer with the neighbours.

  2. I see a fence in that photo, on the far right.

    I live in Centretown, and the backyard next door is a rear-yard parking lot, and on the other side there is a cinder block wall of the building that extends to the rear of that lot. I much prefer the wooden fence than having to look at the parking lot.

    Indeed, when the snowplow for the parking broke some segments of fence, vehicles have backed into my garden over the fence line and destroyed a small tree (~10 feet tall) that had been growing there.

    Because the neighbourhood is pre-car, most of the back yards face a mid-block lane, and the ‘yards’ are used for parking by most of the residents.

  3. Erin you are so right; a typical fence is an ugly and pointless delimitation to urban space. Believe it or not I am even concerned with their impact on soil quality for backyard gardening; most fences around where I live are pressure-treated lumber absolutely shot full of arsenic and heavy metals – our lots are very small and the space between the rows of townhomes is a honeycomb of “poison-treated” fencing looking like this: http://www.straightlinefence.ca/pb/wp_a5a1ec30/images/img2536049bff9cd53f17.gif

    Charles, surface parking lots are ugly too, of course, but that’s another argument. We can all get on our bikes and reduce the need for those. Maybe the sooner we all have to look at ugly surface parking lots full in the face the sooner the City will have to disallow such holdover-usages from the 1950s ad 1960s. Ultimately the solution is to get parked cars off surface lots and make the urban form more friendly for humans *and* for plant life.

  4. Interesting observation from a friend… on Vancouver Island fences are used to not only “wall out” people, but deer that are a common issue there. Something not considered. But maybe in situations where there is nothing to either wall in or wall out – the fence is not really necessary?

  5. OK I thought this article was going to be about park fences. Because it’s really hard to walk through a park without having to go around some kind of fenced in area, like a baseball diamond or dog play area or wading pool. I guess it organizes the park somewhat but it makes it hard to use it as a shortcut sometimes.

  6. Deer are indeed a concern on Vancouver Island. I’ve seen them for myself in the driveways and the backyards of Nanaimo. And yet, the sense of wonder at such sights is one thing I won’t regret having experienced.

  7. I think a major reason people have fences is for privacy. It serves the same purpose as having curtains on our windows. Also, I’ve noticed the smaller the property, the more likely it is to be enclosed in fencing. Fencing on properties where there is a back lane is ubiquitous, and serves to prevent people from using the back yards as an extension of the lane.

  8. I live in Halifax, not PEI, but fencing is pretty endemic here. In fact, Halifax stands out to me as overly fencing alot of different public use property (graveyards, fountains, central parks). I don’t know if we need fences around our yards, but I definitely think we can without them around our public use facilities.

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