The need for personal space is basic—but the amount and type of space desired by each individual complicates the transaction quickly. And just as perceptions of personal space differ among individuals and cultures, they also differ between indoors and out. Outdoor space, though it may be set apart by legal boundaries, comes with ungoverned intangibles such as views, noise, sunshine, and shade that cross those boundaries.
Unfortunately, privacy projects such as fences and vegetative borders can lead to years of misunderstanding among neighbors and undermine quality of life.
Yet it is reasonable to want some privacy and seclusion on your own property, and it is reasonable to keep pets and children safe and close to home. Can you have a friendly privacy? Perhaps. Here are some ideas:
1. Consider the intangibles: There are certain intangibles that transcend property lines and are shared: Views, sight lines, light, and shade. Will you be turning someone's sunny border into a shade garden? What are your actual property borders and where are the town easements? Above all, analyze what it is you are trying to screen in or screen out—will fence or vegetation actually do the job? It can be tricky to completely hide an undesirable view with fence.
2. Check your words: Vocabulary can be powerful—so think twice how you describe your privacy project to yourself and others. Think of borders rather than boundaries. Think of screens rather than solid walls. Think of creating a personal refuge, rather than a fortress. Think of creating privacy that will enhance rather than detract from the neighborhood. These are gentler ways of describing the lines that will be created.
3. Your side of the line: If you place fence or vegetative screening as far from the neighbor's property line as possible, you lower the risk of a negative reaction. While this may not be an option in smaller yards or in all situations, it is something to consider when a generous property size offers the option to keep fence lines back from property borders.
4. The message in the materials: Open weave fences, lattices, arbors, trellises, and pergolas are often friendlier materials than solid fence. Curved lines send a softer message than straight lines. If your privacy project is intended to create a secluded spot to enjoy during summer months, seasonal vegetation may be just the thing--rather than permanent fencing. Vines are perfect for the mission. For help in selecting them, see my article on selecting the right vine.
Whatever the reason for your privacy project, be aware of its implications. Both the fence—and the neighbors—may be on the scene for a very long time.
For two great books on fences with pictures, ideas, and instructions, see the following:
The Fence Bible, Jeff Beneke, Storey Publishing 2005
Wooden Fences, George Nash, Taunton Press, 1999