Fences and their psychological implications

Berlin Wall, prior to its demolition in 1989

When Donald Trump announced he was running for president, his maiden campaign speech stated this:

“I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively, I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall.”

I’ve always been fascinated by the attitudes around fences. Again, coming back to ResCode here, there are two reasons for the use of fences:

  • to demarcate title boundaries, defining the front garden setback as Private Open Space
  • to provide privacy in the rear yard, that is, Secluded Private Open Space

Why are we so inclined to define our spatial boundaries using physical means? Robert Waldinger, psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, puts forward 3 theories:

  1. Evolution — referencing prospect-refuge theory, survival of the fittest happened through pack mentality. If we keep our families safe together, we are more likely to survive.
  2. Identity comes from our ideologies — to change an ideology will cause anxiety as our identity becomes unstable. Fences, and therefore our entitlement to land/space, is one of our ingrained ideologies, and therefore is part of our identity formation. To alter a fence is to ask for our identity to alter also. He quotes psychologist Erik Erikson, who states that:
“Ideology is essentially a psychological function, but its clothing will vary from historical circumstance to historical circumstance…there is a clear continuum between identity, ideology and culture. A threat, therefore to ideology or culture is a threat to identity…thus, a change of historical circumstances…will threaten the individual’s sense of identity by removing and altering the external social coordinates by which the individual recognises her/his own identity continuity. This diffusion of identity, or identity crisis, will trigger anxiety and the crisis will be countered by a dynamic adaptive reaction in which either a) the already held identity is protected, or b) a new synthesis of identifications is made appropriate to the situation and its constraints.”

3. We gain reassurance through assumed certainty — it is too hard to do the work of assessing each person/group on the other side of the fence according to their merits. Rather, we assume that everyone on the outside of the fence is potentially dangerous, and everyone inside requires protection. Despite whether or not this is true, it is this assumed certainty about who ‘others’ are that contributes to the prevalence of fences.

Eaglemont Summit Drive estate, by Walter Burley Griffin

Ignoring some other need for fences such as animal containment and retention of soil, what happens when the entitlement to privacy is blurred?

The image above is an aerial of suburban Melbourne — Eaglemont, approx 12km NE of the CBD. Walter Burley Griffin, of Canberra fame, designed the pattern of subdivision in the 1930s. Apart from following the topography of Mount Eagle instead of assuming a tabula rasa gridded approach, he also included some common gardens shared by approximately 10 or so houses. There is no vehicular access to these, only a couple of pedestrian paths from the road, but more interestingly, no rear fences proposed. Whilst each house has its allotted title boundaries, there was an implied common back yard that extended beyond the surveyed boundary.

Eaglemont common garden, now bordered with rear fences

These days, however, the preference for privacy has resulted in many of these yards being fenced.

I believe that part of the difficulty of the house vs apartment shift has to do with our formation of identity during the post-war years, which we have yet to let go of. This identity is rooted in an ideology of space as status, accumulation of new gadgetry and clean air. Yet somehow, our ideologies have moved on, yet we are still clinging onto the identity, not knowing where they came from.

The bigger question, before we can deduce the appropriation of fences, is to discuss what are our new ideologies? What are they based upon, and how might our possession of land/space be a true and honest reflection of that? In an emerging culture of the sharing economy (think Uber, Air BnB, coworking hubs, Go Get, etc), I believe we have moved on from our post-war values, and therefore, demonstration of our entitlement to possession of land through fences, amongst other things, should change also.

To finish, here are some lyrics from Melbourne-based poet, Joel McKerrow, on his album of spoken word “Welcome Home,” a track called Fences:

“I have never liked fences; the walls that are held up by both sides, black and white, men vs women, Christian vs Athiest vs Islam, pro-life vs pro-choice; our voices rise till we cannot hear the cries of those forgotten in the middle of it all. The pregnant teenager who just needs someone to love on her. We fight our wars and forget the people. I have picked up too many bodies, riddled with too many bullets that have been fired by my own gun, killed by my own gun, I am deafened by my own gun. Bullets do not discriminate by race or gender or political ideals, they say, that it is not good to sit on the fence. Yet I am wondering whether this is exactly where we should be — between force and retaliation, between us and them and them and us, between the violence of our arguments, between the walls that demarcate what is mine from what is yours, my land from yours, your land from theirs — anywhere must be better than this! So let us sit, on the fence, not twiddling thumbs with no opinion, but with bandages for the broken, with chisel in hand, with hammer and axe to swing to swing to swing, till the wall is torn down. I have never liked fences.”

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