Shutting the world out

It used to be the rule in Canberra where I live, that people were not allowed to put up fences on the front of their property. The idea was to keep the environment open and the interaction between neighbours, and between people and their neighbourhood, easier. It seems to have been intended to make the neighbourhood environment more friendly and open.

That is now changing. People are putting up high fences and brick walls at the front of  their property and high fences around the other sides to separate themselves from their neighbours and the outside world. It seems to me that this is not so much for increased privacy, as such, but is rather an effort to keep the city from encroaching on their privacy and private places and lives.

These changes are happening as the city becomes bigger, more complex and more intrusive on people’s private lives. As the stress levels in the city rise due to noise, pollution, crime and ever more people, they are trying to separate and protect themselves from it. Unfortunately, by separating themselves from others by fences and walls, these people are increasing the fragmentation in society and causing more stress. They are contributing to the problem against which they are trying to protect themselves.

It appears to me, from watching my neighbourhood change, that these walls and fences are a way of saying to the world “Stay out!. This is my territory, and you are not wanted nor welcome.”. In the ‘old’ days in Canberra, people sat out on their front porches on summer evenings, trading remarks with passing pedestrians. Now they sit behind their brick walls, shut off from such friendly interaction. And, I believe, are poorer for it. As people withdraw into their private territory they are becoming less friendly.

In those ‘old’ days many people walked around the neighbourhood, and it was common to say “Hello!” or “Good Morning!” to one’s fellow walkers. Now there is less of it. Many older walkers who remember the ‘olden’ days still swap greetings, but the younger ones often pass without comment.

Nowadays, less people walk around. They transfer from the privacy of their homes to the privacy of their cars to the closed confines of their workplaces, keeping themselves away from contact with strangers as much as possible. Friendly social contact is on the decline: Canberra used to be a much friendlier place when it was smaller.

The increase in the number of walls and fences closing people off from the world, I think, is indicative of a growing reaction to the stress of city living. People are trying to reduce the stress on themselves by isolating themselves as much as possible from the outside world. In doing so, they impoverish not only their own lives but also those of every other citizen. Reducing one’s social interaction by walling oneself off from the world is just escapism. It would be much better for all if these people who wall themselves in did something to improve the lives of those people around them, which would help reduce the stress of city living on everyone.

Unfortunately, it seems that, rather than doing something about the situation to improve city living, people prefer to withdraw themselves from the outside world as much as possible. Increasingly, they are shutting themselves away, telling the world at large to stay out and leave them alone. All they want to do is escape the city.

I can appreciate the need and value of privacy, but there are limits to what is good and proper. Shutting oneself completely away and isolating oneself from the outside world is not good and proper for the person nor the city.

The brick walls, then, are not only physical barriers, they are also social ones. They have become symbols of a person’s rejection of the social life of the city in their claim for whatever privacy they feel will protect them from the stress and presence of the city. They are statements of escape. But withdrawal is not the answer. It will only make the problem worse.

And so over time the city will become more and more socially fragmented into increasingly private and separate, isolated domains as more and more people fence themselves off from it, until each person’s home becomes a fortress against the city and every person’s self-imposed isolation is complete.

In some large cities this fragmentation has progressed to the point where people sit behind their own walls, armed against the intruders, taking little part in the social life of the city. It can only get worse as the city grows and people become more and more alienated from it. Perhaps it is already too late to do something about it in many places. Perhaps it is the eventual end of all cities.

This article is Copyright © Rod Pitcher
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