Venturing from our studio in Bushwick Brooklyn on a clear, crisp day, we were in pursuit of fences in their natural habitat, in all their rich variety.
Bushwick’s streets are marked by busy stoops and young street trees, the occasional bits of green infrastructure and a few lonely benches — and fences, many, many fences.
Our fascination with these intra-neighborhood borders began at a time when we were studying how to make the many acres of underused open space within the city’s public housing campuses more socially and ecologically productive.
Walking through these New York City Housing Authority properties, we saw plantings and walking paths fenced in with multiple layers of wrought iron, one barricade over another like police-state nesting dolls. Rather than amenities, these spaces felt like poignant reminders of the residents’ lack of access to their open spaces and a physicalized strategy of control.
Walking the blocks around our studio, we found a wide sampling of New York City’s urban fence typologies ranging from the once common car jail to the elusive decorated barricade, with tiny trumpeting elephants. While every New York neighborhood has its own fence characteristics born of variations in culture, zoning and investment, there are identifying traits that can be organized into a taxonomy, a series of creatures that define and constrain NYC streets.
In their urban habitat, fences create borders both physical and abstract, defining boundaries between public and private, and occasionally creating strange in-between spaces. Sometimes fences make good neighbors but often, there is collateral damage. They go beyond delineating space to creating barriers. These barriers — geographic and psychogeographic — affect how we navigate through the city, understand our neighbors, and determine (and perhaps undermine) our sense of security.
Bushwick’s ubiquitous fences are in part a vestige of the powerful anti-urban forces that shook the city in the 1970s. The blackout of 1977, followed by fires set by landlords to collect insurance, and a callous policy of planned divestment, destroyed much of the fabric of the neighborhood, with repercussions that continue to this day. Walls of steel-wire mesh and wrought iron rose as markers of anxiety and fear. Cyclone fences cut jagged borders between public and private spaces; between protected spaces and the urban unknown.
Over the past 10 years, the crime rate has dropped in Bushwick and throughout the city. Yet fences continue to multiply. New typologies join the ranks.
These urban border walls are symptoms of our larger political climate, with its ignominious distrust of the other and push toward privatization.
So, how can we rethink the ways in which we inhabit our streets, engage with our neighbors and support safety through positive reinforcement? Can we begin to welcome each other into these interstitial areas, and break down cultural divisions through inhabiting the zone where streets and building meet? Can we create socially and ecologically productive street landscapes from chain link and wrought iron? The NYC Parks Department recently began the Parks Without Borders Initiative, a program aimed at “making parks more open, welcoming and beautiful by improving entrances, edges and park-adjacent space” through a community design process. This is a start to redefining how our city can dial back the fear and distrust built into our public spaces; encourage interaction among citizens, and connect instead of divide. But we need to go far beyond parks. We need to address the neighborhoods where a majority of these boundaries live, encouraging neighbors to remain strangers.
After our exploration of Bushwick, we began to develop a working fence lexicon. Naming and defining helps us understand the landscape and frame potential design transformations.
We began to ask ourselves, what would NYC look like if you took down these fences? What could these fence boundaries be transformed into?
Many new low-rise single family homes in Brooklyn and Queens are set back from the street edge to accommodate parking requirements, creating a semi-private paved front yard. The activated street wall is replaced by concrete expanse that is typically filled with cars, hardscape and garbage cans. The fence is gracefully telling us to move on. Social interaction is discouraged by its height and pointed finials. The fence is now the front door. And the parking lot the front lawn.
Much of Brooklyn is defined by multi-family and mixed-use buildings that hug the property line. A ubiquitous feature of these buildings is the wrought-iron fence that wraps the front facade, often encroaching on the sidewalk. Intended to protect the ground floor windows (which usually have their own metal bars) the garbage palisade now creates an interstitial dead zone, filled with trashcans, broken furniture and other detritus from our consumer culture. These areas are too small to inhabit. Their cluttered presence squeezes the steps and entrances, making the act of enjoying the front stoop difficult.
New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) may be the city’s most fence-happy landlord. High, low, old and new, wrought iron and wire mesh, fences define the 2,486 acres NYCHA owns and controls across the city. Often, the barricades layer one on top of another, creating something of a maze. It becomes both clear and unclear where residents can and cannot wander.
While the types of fences have changed over time, the barriers were originally installed to create defensible space, zones of safety for residents fearful of gangs and violence. Public housing has become safer, yet NYCHA residents still cannot access the grassy lawns that should be an amenity. Trees, picnic tables and even play equipment sometimes sit behind padlocked gates, out of reach.
The fences act in a dual manner, and it is hard to determine who is being fenced in and who is being fenced out — their presence charge what could be a great outdoor resource with a sense of fear. The constant control of movement creates a sense of permanent policing. NYCHA owns and controls a vast number of acres in New York — an area three times the size of Central Park that is inhabited by more than 600,000 residents. For youth and adults alike, this landscape is their front and backyard but the private and public is not blurred, it is in lockdown.
A recent addition to the fence typology, the gentrifier replaces the classic wrought-iron fence with horizontal wood slats. Typically found wrapped around new buildings or modern renovations, these are a signifier that a person of means and contemporary aesthetics has moved in. While some may argue the wooden slats are an improvement over the typical metal picket, hiding trash and blocking views into lower windows, these fences tend to exacerbate an us and them mentality. The gentrifier doesn’t seem very interested in getting to know its neighbors, but its undifferentiated surface is ideal for tagging.
Churches can be found on nearly every block in Bushwick, from small storefronts to imposing neo-gothic structures. These spaces have historically been the center of communities, welcoming both those that have and those in need. Beyond religious events, churches provide a wide range of social services, but they too are wrapped in fences, typically the most imposing one on the block. With heights reaching above your head, pointed finials and painted dark colors, these fences seem to run counter to the church’s mission.
The area left between the fence and building façade is all too often a dimension that is not inhabitable, too small for a bench but potentially a width just right for a landscape. There are many examples where residents or landlords have taken the initiative to create an act of beauty, planting roses or hedges or trees in these small areas. But the end effect is less a feeling of softening the streetscape and more a indication that these innocent plants are on trial, fenced away in protection, to be kept away from harm. Is the fence truly still necessary? Will the plants really escape if the fence is torn down? One cannot bend over and smell the roses, an act that should be encouraged in the busy, fast-paced city.
A strong remnant of Bushwick’s past, the chain-link fence topped with razor wire is an increasingly rare typology. In a city with escalating land values, there are few empty lots, those that remain are generally, and perhaps temporarily, being used for parking. The car prison is often festooned with wind blown plastic bags, trapped in the tines of the wire.
Bushwick has less than a third of an acre of parkland for every 1,000 residents, far less than the citywide average of 2.9 acres, according to the advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks.
We certainly don’t want to suggest that adding vines to chain-link fences and replacing wrought iron with shrubs is an acceptable alternative to critically needed open space. But there is substantial research on the positive impact on people’s mental state of having living plants be a part of their environment. In addition to the psychological and aesthetic benefits, more plants in our concrete environment will also provide crucial ecosystem services, such as mitigating air pollution and heat island effect, improving stormwater management, and potentially increasing bio-diversity.
In an age of legitimate uncertainty, what do we want our urban environment to communicate? Over the last 20 years, urban design has responded to terrorism and increased concern about loitering with specialties such as site security design and hostile architecture. (Imagine park benches with seat dividers topped with metal spikes and bollards the size of a car.)
The impulse behind these trends certainly is not new; defensive features integrated into the built environment are as old as urban settlement itself. What has been the impact of living with all these fences, these barriers that insist on keeping some people out, that imply that we cannot trust each other? In New York, we see armed military in Grand Central, go through metal detectors at City Hall and in public high schools, and now must pass through a phalanx of police and secret service on Fifth Avenue. We began this article before the election, before the reality of an enormous fence between the U.S. and Mexico seemed a possibility, and before the president-elect chose to bring an enormous security force and the promise of more controlled movement to the city’s densest shopping district.
Are we safer with these measures? Or perhaps we should ask — who benefits from these very physical elements of social control? What are we fencing off, what are we containing? Is Trump keeping us out, or are we keeping him in? This working list of fence transformations, while modest, proposes a way to loosen, in the words of author Mike Davis, the ecology of fear, at the individual building scale. We need the city, now more than ever, to be a place that embodies hospitable architecture, that is a generous and unpredictable space, one that rewards curiosity and openness. Of course, there is risk in this condition, but we believe the risks on continuing to build with fear are far more dangerous.
Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.
Elliott Maltby is a founding partner of thread collective and a professor in Pratt’s Planning and Sustainable Environmental Systems programs. Her work as a designer and an academic explores public space, with a particular focus on the intersection of social and ecological conditions. She believes that art and design can improve the sustainability and vitality of the urban experiment, and is interested in how communities co-opt and transform derelict and peripheral landscapes.
Gita Nandan, R.A., is an architect, designer, educator, and leader in community resilience planning and design. She is a founder and principal of the award winning design firm thread collective, and academic instructor at Pratt Institute and the School for Visual Arts. Ms. Nandan believes in the power of integrating social, cultural, and economic issues with design to create net-positive urban environments.
Rachel Abrams is a British-American visual storyteller, place-maker and design strategist, and founder of Turnstone Consulting, New York. As a graphic facilitator, she has drawn live for the United Nations, Amnesty International, Grimshaw Architects, Museum of Modern Art, Rockefeller Foundation, Municipal Arts Society and others, and completed visual commissions for the Open Society Foundations, National Film and Television School, Blue Note Records/Revive Music and others. She also runs Soundpapered, a music-focused drawing journal.