The Language of Fences

"We don't want to seem unfriendly, but . . ."

How often have we heard that phrase?

open lattice fence

solid privacy fence

Open weave designs, such as the fence on the left, make a different statement on the landscape than solid fences.

Many people, when they call to review their fencing options, say they want privacy but don't want the neighbors to feel it's anything personal. If you've had that thought, rest assured it is a very common and understandable one. The desire to relax inside your territory, to experience your space as a place of refuge, and to eliminate unsightly images are all reasonable goals. Fencing can be an excellent response to those needs.

People sometimes feel that only tall, solid fence will give them what they're looking for. Before you reach that conclusion, it is worthwhile to consider the statement your fence will make in the landscape--and the various ways of creating the right privacy fence for your situation. In many cases, it is possible to select a design that both increases privacy and also maintains a friendly feeling.

What Type of Privacy?

Fencing can meet different types of privacy and screening needs, and let's acknowledge here that not all of them are friendly. We often hear about several different privacy goals:

1. Barriers to physical entry: This type of fence literally seeks to exclude intruders and is generally not in the friendly fencing category. A typical barrier-to-entry scenario occurs in a lumber yard, for instance, where goods are protected by a high fence that is difficult to cross. Typical residential scenarios involve deer fencing or fencing that excludes roaming dogs.

circle gate on village street fence along village sidewalk

Context is important in fence selection. A quiet village street may call for a different style and statement than an area along a busy state road.

solid fence along state road

2. Screening out sights: Fencing is often used to block undesirable images either inside or outside the property boundaries. For instance, people like to hide garbage cans, propane tanks, utility poles, gas stations, or industrial sites at the edges of residential or retail zones. Many people use tall, solid fence to screen views of a busy street or a parking lot.

3. Creating privacy: Even when we feel good about our neighbors and neighborhoods, it can be unsettling to feel visible. We don't like to feel we can be seen by anyone passing by, particularly when we can't see them. It is this type of privacy that can be most easily addressed with "friendly fences."

Principles of Friendly Fences

Several factors determine the overall visual statement made by a fence.

Local surroundings: A village, a busy state road, or a retail district call for very different approaches to privacy fences. Although the maximum height of the fence (and sometimes the style) is dictated by local regulations, there are many other factors that need to be considered in light of unwritten expectations by neighbors in the local surroundings. For instance, a tall solid fence may not get much notice along a busy thru-road. In a village setting, however, the same fence might evoke very negative reactions.

Height and distance of the fence:  The closer the fence is to the viewer, the more views are blocked. This can be a good thing for the fence builder, but jarring to those whose views are blocked. When planning the placement of your fence, use this factor to determine whether the height and distance of the fence will create negative impressions. This principle is also useful if you wish to block an image within your property boundaries, so that you can't see the local gas station from where you relax on a porch or patio.

Materials: There are many materials that will help deflect attention from a space while not creating a solid barrier. (See photos for examples.) Open lattices and curved lines in a fence are key to creating the impression of a friendly boundary. They have a lighter touch on the landscape than solid fence.

The friendliness of a fence is generally increased when lightly intermingled with shrubs and trees, both evergreen and deciduous. Fences lined by well-tended plantings have a softer appearance.

If you don't want to seem unfriendly, but you want to increase your own comfort and sense of privacy in a location, consider the principles of friendly fences. The fence design that results may not only seem less forbidding to neighbors and passersby, but may be more pleasing to you as well.
fence heights
By using multiple fence heights, you can create open areas while still achieving maximum privacy where it's needed.
This tall screen, placed close to the center of home social activity, completely blocks undesired views--both in and out. deck enclosed by solid white fence
With curving lines and multiple heights, this picket fence offers a "semi-private" solution in a residential neighborhood. picket fence
This 2' fence gently marks a boundary but does not obscure views in or out. low fence defining boundary

 

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