The reasons why homo sapiens build walls and fences hasn’t changed much since the first known wall was built in the 8th millennium BC around the city of Jericho on the West Bank.
Ruins of Walls of Jericho - Image Credit: Dr. John DeLancey (2015)
Walled Cities followed in various locations from the Middle East to Europe and to China and Africa in the 6th or 5th millennium BC. No one knows when the first rudimentary fences might have been built, or if they do, they’re not saying.
It is true, however, that although the purposes for which fences are still built are primarily the same, the priority of importance of those reasons has shifted substantially over time.
Wall and Fences still serve two primary purposes: To keep things in, and to keep things out.
There are, in more modern times, other secondary reasons for building walls and fences, but it is basically “keep in”, “keep out”, or both at the same times. All the reasons for this spring from the six basic human emotions and combinations of those emotions, that all homo sapiens share: Happiness, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, Anger, and Surprise.
EVOLUTION OF THE SPECIES
During the development of homo sapiens on this earth, our species had to fight for survival for millennia and basic emotion fear played a rather large role in that survival. Anything that was unknown and unfamiliar was feared because it could mean life or death. It is easy to see why this powerful emotion eventually led to hiding, not being seen, and erecting barricades to keep strange, unknown things out and to keep the known community inside where it was safe, and they had the ability to defend the space.
We have evolved as social creatures who want to protect their tribes because they, in turn, protect us as well. Evolution has led us to adopt the custom of building fences around our property because it creates a safe space for our nuclear family. It sends a signal to passersby that they’re not welcome without an invitation.
In ancient times, in agrarian areas or where no one lived very close to others, improvised walls and fences, usually stone, were used to keep cattle and farm animals in, and wild animals out. The rulers of cities built walls around them for protection from invaders or strangers from the outside, human as well as wild animals. Although walls were primarily for protection and defense, the idea of decorating those structures soon became popular as the ancients discovered some of the more civilized benefits of walls.
THE AMERICAN WAY
Based on human development as social animals who have built walls since ancient times, an amazingly frequent question on the internet asks, “Why don’t Americans fence their yards?”
They don’t? Who knew?
Actually, preference for fencing tends to be localized in the US, with notable differences between rural and urban, East coast and West coast, Southwest, Midwest and East Coast, South and everywhere else. There is no one characteristic housing type or fencing preference, although generally speaking most Americans fence, wall, or otherwise separate their back yards or portions of them.
Regardless, most Americans homeowners think of their outdoor space as an extension of their indoor space, and they intend to use it how they want.
The standards for fences and walls are controlled by local laws. In addition, the nature, size, and orientation of the site, the terrain and slope, the density of the housing, the weather and rainfall, fire hazards, etc. all come into play when making the laws for development.
Typically, California houses have fenced or unfenced front yard, walls or fences which separate each side of the house from the neighbors up to the setback, and fenced or walled back yards.
Image Source: Zillow.com Image Source:
Typical California house with planting in front need to be able to see each other. Image Credit: silahsilah.com -- Image Source: pinterest.com/pin/688980442973965131/
Some planned communities (Planned Unit Developments or PUDs), small-lot subdivisions, single family homes built as a condominium or cooperative, etc. have no fencing or walls separating the houses from each other, primarily for fire safety reasons. This sort of development often occurs where the need for housing is great and the cost of the land and/or construction is high.
Some of these developments are “condominiums” -- a legal type of ownership, not a specific style of building -- where the owner owns the house and lot, and a percentage of the common space that serves the entire development. These have Homeowner Associations responsible for the common space and that is what homeowner fees go to support. In those cases, HOA’s have different legal requirements and responsibilities, one of which can be aesthetic controls.
In the 21st Century, the purposes of walls and fences are the same as they have been since ancient times, but the priorities have shifted more to aesthetics and environment. However, according to several national fence builders and manufacturers, safety/security is still the most predominant reason. The next most important reason is privacy. After that, the purposes of fences are listed below are not in any particular order or priority.
● Protection/ Safety
Assuming the worst from our neighbors or people in general isn’t the healthiest mindset, but it is one of the best ways for humans to guarantee their safety. Fences theoretically provide a 24/7 barrier to keep out unwanted visitors given the off chance someone attempts to invade our property. This custom seems to have endured the test of time, although history shows that most walls, ultimately, can be breached, even the ones surrounding whole cities.
● Better Security
While this can mean the same as safety from intruders, here it is more oriented to better and more sophisticated surveillance techniques or situations such as a swimming pool in the back yard or something on the property that might hurt someone if they trespass unknowingly.
● Increased Privacy
Just because people may like feeling a part of a community and don’t want fences, does not mean they don’t have an inherent need for privacy. Whatever basic emotions have to combine, nearly everyone has a need for privacy; some people more than others, but we all need it sometimes.
One of the most important psychological tools that fencing provides is a sense of privacy. Homeowners want to achieve a high level of privacy in their yard or pool area, so that they can relax and feel free to be themselves. For additional privacy, plant trees near your fence. A fence evokes an overall sense of safety which gives us the freedom to let go and relax without constantly worrying about our surroundings.
● Noise Mitigation
Noise mitigation is another reason for walls and fences. Regardless of where one lives, there are noises all around. Sometimes this noise doesn’t create bother or irritation, be it chickens or the man in the next apartment playing the violin. Sometimes it brings to mind the urge to kill and a least causes a headache. Frankly, you really do not want to hear your neighbors’ conversation and telephone calls.
One of the best mitigations is running water. Not a faucet, but a fountain which can mask unwanted noise with white noise. Be sure the fountain has a recirculating pump. You don’t want to waste the water. Keep in mind that flowing water becomes louder the farther it falls and the more tiers it travels over.
Walls and fences can cut down on noise, particularly if you pay attention to design and materials. Also hedges and planting the correct plants can effectively cut noise.
● Easier To Contain Pets
Anyone with wandering pets will understand the stress of keeping them confined. Most jurisdictions in urban areas do not permit dog to wander around without being on a leash, preferably one with a human at the other end. The simple solution is an appropriately fenced backyard.
Unlike privacy or security fences that require height, backyard fences to contain pets only need to be high enough to remain out of reach. Dog-proofing fencing can also be a smart move to prevent them digging underneath it or trying to get through it.
image source: https://www.bing.com/search
● Better For Child Safety
Keeping pets in is only one concern. Wandering children can also be a problem, especially if your backyard is positioned close to a road or an alley. With a backyard fence in place, your kids can play outside with reasonable freedom for both you and them.
Image Source: https://www.gametime.com/funding/playground-grant
If you live in a part of the US where large wildlife and deer are moving about, you will have a different need for fencing than in California or the Southwest US. In California where I live, the wildlife problem isn’t something you can address with a fence (except Coyotes) because rabbits, squirrels, and raccoons come over and under them unless you have a very deep footing. In other parts of the US, deer are frequent visitors and a common problem for gardeners, but certainly not the only wildlife to be aware of. Fencing your backyard keeps your plants protected from many of these creatures, avoiding any accidental mishaps. You don’t want to injure the wildlife, either.
● Aesthetic Reasons
Aesthetic reasons can vary including trespassing weeds, concealment of unattractive sights in the next yard (such as the retired policeman weighing over three hundred pounds who mows his lawn wearing shorts and his service weapon), accumulating trash, inoperable car in neighbor’s driveway for the last seven years, and patchy grass and an old couch on the porch, a dumpster across the street, and so on. Whatever the case may be, if you don’t want to see these unattractive sights from your yard, you can conceal them with a fence. Look for a tall, opaque fence that will hide anything you find unappealing.
Occasionally someone artistic just wants an aesthetic element to look at even if the surroundings are pristine.
● Establishing Boundaries (Property Lines)
Going right along with security, a fence is also a great way to establish the boundaries of your property. Sometimes people trespass on land accidentally, not realizing that they’re upsetting the owner. Other homeowners might be frustrated that their neighbors aren’t respecting the line that separates their properties. In situations like this, a fence will create a clear, hard-and-fast boundary.
Be sure you put the wall or fence in the right place if you want to identify a property line. Get a survey. Most people assume the property line is where the fence is, but often that is not correct. It must be totally on your property but may touch the property line. There are plenty of court cases over the difference between where the property line is located and where the fence is located.
● Curb Appeal
Whether or not your version of the American Dream is a charming house with a white picket fence, most fences are built for a utilitarian reason. Some homeowners choose to erect a fence primarily for its curb appeal. For that you are talking about fencing your front yard or the portion facing the street. Most people think of the back yard when someone talks about fencing the yard.
Fences and walls have been a part of human society for millennia and aren’t disappearing anytime soon. A famous psychologist named Erik Erikson once said there’s a strong association between identity and ideology. If our ideology changes, so does our identity. Humans feel very uncomfortable when they experience an “identity crisis,” which is why we avoid changing our ideology at all costs.
WHY SOME NEIGHBORHOODS/ COMMUNITIES DON’T ALLOW FENCES/ WALLS
Going back to the Homeowners Associations for certain types of housing development, it is true some of these groups do not allow fences. Generally, this problem of fences and walls relates to front yards, and it could be because of conditions of approval imposed by the approving jurisdiction for planning reasons. On the other hand, communities and neighborhoods are worried about curb appeal, aesthetics, and “the feel” of the neighborhood, all of which translate into something they believe affects property values.
In fact, most of these fears are without merit, since property value is assessed by professional assessors based on other factors. However, what the buyer first sees sets an impression that will affect their interest in purchase, and the better it looks, the more likely they will make a higher offer.
Some of the most common reasons why some HOAs don’t allow front-yard fences is because people believe they:
● Reduce the aesthetic appeal.
● Decrease property values.
● Can be difficult or costly to maintain.
● Can be an eyesore/ particularly front yards.
● Can make a neighborhood appear closed off.
● Can cause accidents.
● Limit visibility of pedestrians (meaning people inside the houses can’t see who is lurking out there).
● Create physical barriers between neighbors and make it more difficult to communicate/ cooperate.
● Can block access to public areas.
● Can limit the amount of space available for recreational activities.
● Can create a sense of isolation and barriers between neighbors.
ALTERNATIVES TO WALLS AND FENCES
Privacy is a high priority after security and safety. Everyone understands how walls and fences can achieve privacy, but a myriad of other ways also exist which can create privacy in a yard (not just a backyard) without a fence.
● The Privacy Screen
Privacy screens can consist of a trellis, lattice, wood panels, ornamental ironwork, or even synthetic materials. Image Credit: Michael Glassman & Associates
Image Source: thisoldhouse.com/yards/add-privacy
Semitransparent structures may not provide complete privacy, but they add a lot of visual interest to a landscape and allow natural light and breezes in. “They create a comforting sense of containment and a psychological buffer,” says landscape architect Stephanie Hubbard.
● Hedges and Living Walls
The hedges or other plantings can provide year-round screening and are typically not restricted by municipal ordinances limiting their height. This is something to check before you invest in planting one. Where space is tight, as in a side yard, fast-growing columnar evergreens like Italian cypress and arborvitae or a sheared privet hedge can provide a simple solution for separating adjoining yards or blocking sight lines out a kitchen window.
Select the type of hedge appropriate for the climate and soil; also, different types grow at different speeds. All of them require trimming, so be aware.
Image Source: https://www.thisoldhouse.com/yards/ Image Source: https://www.thisoldhouse.com/yards/
In larger yards, planting a mix of deciduous or evergreen trees, shrubs, and perennials creates a more naturalistic look, especially if you layer plants, grouping them in odd numbers. “Stagger evergreens in the background, and in the foreground step down the height with deciduous material to provide texture, depth, and color,” says landscape architect Elliott Brundage.
Image Credit: Nancy Andrews
Image source: thisoldhouse.com/yards/add-privacy,
Defined areas like small patios, outdoor kitchens, and decks are easier to screen than a whole yard, By building an enclosure around them, you can recreate the intimate feeling of eating or entertaining indoors, while still enjoying beautiful weather.
Image Credit: Trellis Structures
Image source: thisoldhouse.com/yards/add-privacy
Enclosures may take the shape of a slatted-top wooden pergola covered with climbing vines on a patio or a pair of fixed lattice panels along two sides of a raised deck. Prefab iron gazebos can be set right on the ground and surrounded with potted vines and hanging baskets to fill some of the gaps.
Let's not hear anything more about Americans not building fences and walls. We do just fine in this department.
* NOTE: “Don’t Fence Me In” is the title of a poem written originally by cowboy poet Robert H. Fletcher, the initially uncredited co-lyricist of Cole Porter's song "Don't Fence Me In" which was sung by Roy Rogers in the 1944 Warner Bros. movie Hollywood Canteen. Many people heard the song for the first time when Kate Smith introduced it on her radio broadcast of October 8, 1944. It was very popular and sung by many singers.