Do high fences really make the best neighbours?

Would we all not be happier if we returned to a world of community?

I recently attended a property lunch with a talk given by an award-winning developer, who is currently building thousands of affordable homes for low income families. His attractive house designs attempt to offer value for money and emphasise the importance of lots of storage and general security for the entire estate.

But the feature of the homes that most took my eye was the deliberately low partition fences in the back garden. The developer believes passionately in the importance of community and that we need to get back to living in an environment where we chat with our neighbours over the garden fence, not attempt to close ourselves off in isolating high-fenced homes that no one can look into.

Would we all not be happier if we returned to a world of community, where we are all friendly and engaged with one another, and could rediscover that lost idyll where people left the front door off the latch and popped around next door to borrow a cup of sugar?

Certainly, I can vouchsafe the appeal of living on a street with a sense of community. On the street where I live myself, we have a couple of barbecues and the odd Christmas party that everyone on the street is invited to every year. That type of community–- of having meaningful social engagement with the residents around you – makes a big difference to quality of life.

Yet “community” is not always such a benign force. A retired sociology professor I know often tells me how his controversial PhD thesis was along the lines that “community is oppressive”. Take a look at the super rich, he points out. You won’t find them with low partition fences chatting to their neighbours. They’ll be in big houses and grounds, as far removed from others as possible.

And, in truth, I have some sympathy for his “community is oppressive” argument. Even on the friendly street in which I live, if your political outlook differs from that of the majority, you have to tightly keep it to yourself for fear of exclusion.

Mode of life

“Community” is often all well and good if you share exactly the same aspirations and mode of life as the people next door, when you are exactly on par with the Reillys, but once you start to pull away and start to do your own thing, you might soon find that the street gossip mills start turning, leaving you longing for complete privacy.

I’ve never forgotten that the first house I bought was owned by a seemingly blissfully happy retired couple who lived next door to another happily retired couple that they had known for more than 40 years. Their sense of friendship was such that the owner of the house when clipping the front hedge used to also do next door’s out of pure “good neighbourliness”.

I imagine it must have been something of a disappointment when I, as a busy single young man, moved in next door and their cherished sense of community wilted.

I’ve always thought of “community” as something that you wouldn’t want to be without and yet which you don’t want to be trapped inside. It’s like interconnecting doors in hotel bedrooms that you sometimes might want to leave open and other times keep firmly locked.

Isn’t there something patronising about thinking that poorer income families will welcome a sense of “community” governed only by the random circumstance of having other economically challenged people living next door? Perhaps one family will be desperate to move on while others will be looking to contently spend their lives in such a home.

In an ideal, future world I think garden fences would be double layered and able to be electronically raised and lowered according to just how much sense of “community” you felt in the mood for that particular day.