Fences for Privacy and Security

We’ve all heard the old adage "good fences make good neighbours", but what needs to be considered to make a fence good? Well, from my gardening and police experience, I can tell you that if you approach the fence selection process from the perspective of doing what is best for your garden, you will eliminate two common home security pitfalls which you might otherwise overlook.  I am referring to the tendency of people to over fence their yard.

The Tendency to Over-Fence

The tendency of people to over fence their yard, can be traced to the popularity of the privacy fences which took off in the 1990’s after the City of Toronto increased the height limit for fences from 5 feet to 6 foot 7 inches and higher, provided neighbours agree. The privacy fence is a board on board fence that is commonly topped off with a lattice. Like its name implies, the fence offers significant privacy. Unfortunately, this privacy comes at a price in a number of other important ways.

Firstly, the fence can have a severe impact on the amount of sunlight that reaches the garden.  This can limit not only the growth but the selection of plants that can be expected to do well in its presence. Sun-loving plants such as roses, tomatoes or petunias can all be significantly impaired.

Second, the fence can severely impair your ability, and in some cases desire, to get to know your neighbours.  The benefits of good neighbourly relations cannot be understated.  It can make the difference between having a person who will look out for you or one who is indifferent or possibly worse.  The loss of some “privacy” is a very small price to pay given that the windows of most homes overlook these yards and a good neighbour can prove to be invaluable.

Last, the fence severely curtails sight lines both in and out of the property.  This can result in a small, boxy look while attracting attention from criminals.  Such was the case for a Brampton home which was located next to a walkway.  The home distinguished itself from the neighbouring house located on the other side of the walkway by the addition of a rear privacy fence.  This worked against the homeowner and was used to the criminal’s advantage, when a burglar was attracted by the cover presented by the fence then used it to his advantage to successfully defeat a set of security bars that protected a basement window.  The role of the fence cannot be understated given that the only thing between the burglar and the basement window of the other home was a three foot chain link fence.  What is the takeaway from this story? Criminals are drawn to environments where cover is present.    

Fence According to Need

The idea of a one size fits all fence is generally simplistic at best, and problematic at worst. Given the problems that can develop from over-fencing a yard and the fact that fences are costly and, for the most part, not readily changed, I strongly recommend that you avoid thinking about your fence as a one-size fits all/all or nothing project and strive for balance by fencing your yard according to all the needs found within that space.

Achieving a balanced approach to fencing need not be hard, if you rely on your gardening knowledge and instincts.  Your gardening knowledge will help to ensure that critical sight lines are maintained so long as you remember to fence your garden according to what is best for your plants.  This generally means selecting a fence that provides an abundance of sun light.

Your gardening knowledge can also be used to develop better, yet practical, alternatives to the board on board fence.  “Living” fences such as cedar, euonymus or privet can provide a magnificent green and/or variegated backdrop that can support a variety of birds while providing an effective three dimensional barrier that delivers privacy to where it’s needed.

In this regard, I have two living fences in my backyard. The first is an eight-foot tall euonymus hedge which creates a magnificent backdrop for my patio and bird feeder and is supported by a less than magnificent privacy fence which would otherwise define the space. I also have a cedar hedge which serves to screen the back of a neighbours' garage while giving me some structure. Cedars make relatively slow growing hedges making them well suited for annual maintenance. The result?  Two magnificent hedges and all the privacy I need.

The remainder of my yard features a three-foot chain link fence that allows for oblique views to and from my yard and the occasional conversation with my neighbours.  It is the opportunity presented by this type of fence that allows for those back-yard conversations that make a good neighbour.

This reminds me of a favourite quote from U.S.A. Today* that said “when you think about the America we love in our nostalgic minds… what was different? It wasn’t that people had more locks, they had more community." It is for reasons such as these that I like to say “when it comes to fences, be careful what you wish for.

Written by Guest Blogger Constable Tom McKay, Peel Regional Police, Crime Prevention Services

 *USA Today “How crime is changing the face of America”