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It’s time to tear down, that much I’ll concede—but tear down and replace, or simply tear down—that is the question.  And I think this morning as I took this photo:  If I tear down, I may have to fill in this low-lying area on my neighbor’s side. Change is rarely easy for me and often it is preceded by much grousing on my part as to what is the best direction to take.  Not being a church-going person, I turn to poetry for support.

MENDING WALL – Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn't love a wall, 
that sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, 
And spills the upper boulders in the sun, 
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.  .  . .

He is all pine and I am apple orchard. 
My apple trees will never get across 
and eat the cones under his pines, I tell him. 
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'. 

.  .  . 'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it 
where there are cows? 
But here there are no cows. 

.  . .  He will not go behind his father's saying, 
and he likes having thought of it so well 
he says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

Ironic but Frost’s famous poem, “Mending Wall” is often cited as being a good reason for fences and the line “good fences make good neighbors” is quoted in support of fences.  The truth is that Frost was mocking his neighbor for clinging to a worn-out cliché handed down by his father that had no truth to it. Frost points out in the poem:  “But here there are no cows.”

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RETHINKING FENCES AND FRONT YARDS

As I gaze upon my dilapidated fence that seemingly becomes more dilapidated by day if not the hour, I find myself leaning more and more toward the possibility of simply taking it down and not replacing it.  Yet, a part of me clings to the old notion of a fence.  Thus I seek more proof that having no backyard fence is a good idea and I’m finding plenty of evidence to support no backyard fence. 

In his book, Happy: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design by Charles Montgomery, published in November 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the author points out that American cities are experiencing a crisis of social disconnection and urban design is part of the problem. 

I can definitely attest to the truth of this statement.  In June of 2013 I had lived in my home here in Garland for 9 years.  In that time not one person had ever stopped to chat when I was in my front yard(although for 9 years I was in my front yard from time to time to get my mail, pull weeds from the lawn and trim my shrubs). 

Then I decided to dig up my front lawn and begin to build a woodland garden with fruit trees, berry bushes and perennials.  From June 12 to August 16, I estimate that close to 200 people stopped to chat with me—people driving by in their cars literally stopped, parked, and came over to talk with me.  In fact, it was from these casual meetings that a few months later Loving Garland Green was formed.

Our standard urban/suburban design is a well-manicured expanse of lawn in the front yard, a few low shrubs stuck up near the foundation of the house, and a Bradford Pear or some other ornamental tree stuck in the yard half-way between the house and the curb. 

The only time that most are in their front yards is to get the mail, and to mow the lawn.  Those who hire others to mow their lawns spend even less time in their front yards than I do.   Yet it is amazing how invested some are in maintaining the status quo of this type of useless landscaping by insisting their neighbors follow along as well.  I didn’t encounter any resistance in my neighborhood, but I have friends living in other neighborhoods who report difficulties with neighbors when they tried to break out of the prescribed format for front yard landscaping.

 

RETHINKING STREETS AND ALLEYS

Ross Chapin, in his book, Pocket Neighborhoods, points out that streets are more than the routes we take to get somewhere else.  He advocates that we think of streets as rooms whose walls are made of building facades, trees, hedges and fences.  When traffic slows to a walking pace, streets can also become the neighborhood commons where neighbors meet and children play.  I know this sounds fantastically impossible to some, but if we can slow to 20 miles an hour in a school zone, we can also do it elsewhere.

Hans Monderman, a Dutch traffic engineer pioneered the Woonerf concept.  “Woonerf” translates from the Dutch to “living street.”   Traffic signs, according to him, are an invitation to stop thinking.  To control traffic, and particularly to slow people down, he advises confusion and ambiguity.  Without clear signals, signs or boundaries, drivers pay attention and slow down. 

I find a great deal of truth in this as more than once in my life, I’ve gotten off a main road and onto a narrow gravel country road with barely enough room for two cars with ditches on either side.  In these situations I am on full alert and indeed I slow down and pay attention.

In the Netherlands, Woonerfs have no lane markings, curbs, sidewalks, signals or crossing signs.  They are surfaced with paving blocks to signal a pedestrian zone.   Unsure of what space belongs to them, drivers become much more alert.  The outcome of Woonerfs has been drastically slower traffic and far fewer accidents.

Read more in this study:   The Woonerf Concept .  (The concept of Woonerf is not new.  It was developed in the late 1960's by the resident of Delft Netherlands who were upset with cut through traffic in their neighborhoods.  Streets are designed for people--not just traffic.)

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 Albuquerque High - Albuquerque Daily photo

RETHINKING REUSE OF OLD BUILDINGS

One of my favorite urban re-use designs is the conversion of the old Albuquerque High into 234 homes in 7 buildings plus the new BelVedere/Urban Courtyard Living block of 13 buildings.  Eight years ago a five-day public charrette at the First Baptist Church gave birth to the Edo Master Plan—unanimously passed by the City Council in March of 2005.

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When people get together at a local level, fantastic and wonderful things begin to happen—things that we alone could never have dreamed, much less realized.

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