Laura and I have been spending a lot of time lately at my parents house in Cedar Hills, Utah. In the past, I’ve used Cedar Hills as a kind of poster city for the problems inherent in suburban living. While I continue to be shocked and disappointed at how damaging that lifestyle is (environmentally, socially, etc.), there is one unique thing that I really like about my parent’s neighborhood: no fences.
When I first visited my parents home after they moved there in 2007 I was at once disappointed and pleasantly surprised. First, I was disappointed because the houses in the neighborhood weren’t atypically interesting; though it didn’t shock me, they’re all pretty much like those any newish housing development. However, what amazed me then and impresses me now is that there are relatively few partitions between the homes. Each house technically has a yard, but for the most part they all run together. The result is that the houses all kind of feel like they’re in a park. This also has the added benefit of making the fairly small yards feel spacious.
Besides making people believe their yard is bigger than it actually is, there seem to be a number of benefits to not having fences. For example, it makes getting from point A to B much faster and more convenient; instead of going around the houses (on the frustratingly winding streets) a person could just cut through all the open yards. (Some people have tried to stop others from doing this, which is really unfortunate.) This also has the potential benefit of encouraging people to walk places instead of drive because the distance can be so much shorter on foot. (And I shouldn’t have to mention all the reasons why walking is superior to driving.)
More abstractly, a lack of fences seems to be an argument for community interaction. While suburban architecture seems specifically designed to separate (and therefore isolate, and thus alienate) people, breaking down the barriers between properties symbolically breaks down the barriers between people. Inevitably residents will see and interact more often with their neighbors if there are no fences. I don’t think it’s a far stretch to suggest that that interaction will engender greater empathy and interest among residents. Just last week while at my parents house I noticed how I could actually see into the neighbor’s house at night (and presumably they could see into my parents house). Admittedly, that raises questions about voyeurism and the like, but it also served as a reminder that there were people all around me. I wasn’t in an isolated little island of personal space. I was sharing an environment with other people. As a non-resident of the area I don’t really have a relationship with the people in the neighborhood, but the lack of fences nevertheless seems to be a promising way to combat the social entropy that some claim is inherent in suburbia.
Unfortunately, fences are slowly going up in Cedar Hills. Some seem to be designed to keep pets in, while others look like they’re simply to prevent people from cutting across the yard. Though I hope it doesn’t happen, I wouldn’t be surprised if in five or ten years all the houses in the area had fences. Still, keeping the neighborhood open is a good idea. Suburban living is perhaps the least efficient and socially conscious lifestyle out there, but if tearing down fences doesn’t make anything greener it at least encourages people to see themselves first and foremost as members of a community. Ultimately then, in this case and unlike other suburbs across the nation, Cedar Hills has figured something out that surprisingly begins chip away at the problems of suburban life.