Robert Frost, the storied American poet, famously wrote “Good fences make good neighbours.”
But do they really?
Mr. Frost likely used the line ironically when he committed this sturdy Anglo-Saxon proverb to print in his 1915 poem Mending Walls. In the thoroughly privatized world of residential backyards, the adage mostly applies, especially if applied judiciously.
But the business of firmly fencing off the street-facing yards of homes – both sides and fronts – is another story altogether, and one that’s become increasingly visible in many Toronto neighbourhoods, especially areas with tight street grids, such as High Park or the Annex.
As soaring real-estate prices have driven up the cost of modestly-sized properties, a growing number of homeowners are fencing off those swaths of their properties that were, in an earlier time, left open. And while the city has a bylaw regulating heights, fences in some areas appear to be getting higher, more impermeable and pushed right up against the sidewalk. (Homeowners can apply for exemptions under the bylaw, with decisions made by community councils.)
“My observation is that the fences are getting higher, there are more of them, and there are more parking pads,” says Leo DeSorcy, a manager of urban design and city planning for the City of Toronto, who adds that the approvals system works.
“People are claiming their privacy or claiming their space,” says landscape architect Joel Loblaw. “You drive around and you see all these fence walls. He mentions neighbours in Leslieville who enclosed their entire side yard with a wooden slat fence built to the maximum height, which is two metres. “They’re happy. They have their privacy.”
The question is, what is the impact of the accumulation of high fences on the public realm of residential streets, and should individual homeowners care?
Mr. DeSorcy notes that the long-established vernacular of neighbourhood streets in English-speaking countries is that the public realm between residential homes featured visual transition zones, as the public space of the street and the sidewalk gradually yielded to an increasingly domestic and private realm delineated by yards, landscaping, hip-walls, stoops, porches and eyes on the street.
Over the past several decades, however, the advent of pad parking and the space required to store large garbage and recycling bins gradually altered that equation, says landscape architect Janet Rosenberg. The addition of a high wooden street-facing fence, she adds, “screams ‘KEEP OUT’” and may signal, at least visually, a loss of public space. “They’re just like play pens. They don’t add anything at all.”
Landscape designers and contractors say there are a range of straightforward alternatives to hard fences that create both a sense of enclosure and horticultural benefits, yet do so without turning a blank wall on the public realm.
“Too much fortification is the obvious danger,” says Dane Grgas, a homebuilder. “Selective fencing, hedging, screening with gateways, arbours and arches can create spaces that are visually interesting for passersby while cozy and inviting for occupants."
For front or side spaces that owners intend to use for seating or as a patio, Ms. Rosenberg recommends a lower fence in combination with deciduous flowering plants. Mr. Loblaw advocates the use of columnar trees, which are available in various heights, as well as tall ornamental grasses, vines, privacy screens and pergolas. “Plant material,” he adds, “is a great loophole [to the height bylaw].”
Landscape architect Victoria Taylor, the principal at VTLA Studios, points out that this kind of design aims to create an outdoor room that can provide “a feeling of privacy even though you’re not screened off with a fence.”
She adds that from a maintenance and comfort point of view, hard fences trap heat in the summer and limit air circulation or light. “Plants definitely grow better with air flow.”
Finding the right balance between privacy and openness is an acknowledgement that the public-facing parts of residential properties send signals about how a community functions, or not. “You just want to have a relationship with your neighbours,” observes Ms. Rosenberg. (As a less quoted passage in Frost’s poem goes, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know, What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offence.”)
While aesthetic decisions about how to enclose private property fall mainly to individual owners, the proliferation of pad parking on some streets illustrates how the aesthetics of residential areas can be dramatically altered over time by a series of individual choices enabled by a regulatory system that works on the precedent principle.
Mr. DeSorcy recently came back from a trip to Sydney, Australia, which has many older residential neighbourhoods of a similar vintage to Toronto’s, as well as soaring real-estate prices that have put a premium on all available residential space. “As that city has grown, those older front yards have turned into very hard conditions with gates and high walls,” he observes. “It’s changed so much.”
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