Lately I’ve been reading about places where communities are separated by fences. Not divided, as if they had previously been together. I mean places like Hamden, Conn., or the town of Mont-Royal in Montreal, where the wealthier community has literally built a fence to separate itself from the lower-income neighborhood next door.
Neither of these fences was built recently, and neither situation seems surprising when one considers what attitudes were in the mainstream in the 1950s. What is disturbing is that when it is proposed today that these fences be torn down, people on the wealthy side of the fence continue to argue that the separation is needed. People fear their neighbors so much they can’t imagine living together with people of a different race, class or ethnic background.
What I have often seen as a land use planner is that developers of apartment and townhouse communities, especially those that are expected to include affordable housing, typically propose a vegetated buffer of at least 20 feet to separate them from whatever happens to be next door. Developers do this in anticipation of opposition from neighbors to affordable homes, or in respond to a demand neighbors make. The result is the perpetuation of a cul-de-sac, segregated development pattern, rather than one that might tie communities together over time. Neighbors often cite their property value as what is at stake, but behind this is often fear of what the new residents will be like or resentment that people might get a subsidy for their housing.
I wonder if 50 years from now, poorer residents will peek through these tree buffers much as they look through those fences today, seething that they have to be “kept out” of the “better” neighborhood, while wealthier residents still have this fear of their poorer neighbors, because the buffer prevents them from relating to each other in any meaningful way.
(Photo by Flickr user Industry Is Virtue, CC BY-NC-ND.)