Beyond the pale

Rethinking the fences between us

My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbours.’

Robert Frost, ‘Mending Wall’


‘HEY, DON’T CLIMB that fence!’

It was perhaps an innocent warning to my five-year-old son, intended for his protection. But I was incensed. Why shouldn’t my son clamber along the line of suburban fences as we meandered down the street? Was the warning really about his safety, or about encroaching on private property? When I responded that he was fine, and anyway, people shouldn’t build dangerous fences with spikes on top, the stranger retreated behind that very fence.

We continued to the local hardware store, the little one now glued to my side, sensing my irritation. At the store entrance, in bold black letters, was an advertisement for ‘good neighbour fences’ – galvanised iron fences gleaming in the morning sun. The claim related to the fact that the fence posts were embedded in the centre of the fence, meaning each side was identical. No communication required to negotiate who got the dodgy side, and future communication discouraged by the fence’s six-foot height and complete opacity. The fence was also effectively unclimbable.

Back home, five-year-old now exploring our fenceless front yard, I put the spare bathroom tiles that have been gathering dust on the front veranda onto the verge. Once the tiles have crossed the invisible barrier demarcating my private property, they are gone within hours.

Next to our open yard, the neighbours have erected a concrete wall around their house with an intercom at the front gate. I am still plucking up the courage to speak through the monitor to alert them to a leaking tap in their backyard.

Fences are cultural artefacts. They say little about the direct relations between those on either side, but much about the psychology of the society they inhabit. A friend of mine, having relocated to Adelaide from Canada, described the shock of being confronted by houses surrounded by fences. Where he comes from, open gardens are the norm. His initial thought was the crime rate must be through the roof.

In his essay ‘Neighbours and strangers’ for the journal Heat, Don Miller describes the neighbourhood as a space existing between the personal world of the home and the impersonal world of workplace and state. Neighbourhoods are in some senses peculiarly open. There is free movement in and out, and no criteria – be it ethnicity, culture, religion or citizenship – for who can settle there. All that binds neighbours is physical proximity. You can choose to create relations with your neighbours or keep them at arms-length. The only obligation is to live side by side.

In his seminal work, Spheres of Justice (Basic Books, 1983), the political theorist Michael Walzer proposes a direct connection between national boundaries and internal borders. The more open the nation, the more closed the neighbourhood. For Walzer, there is a natural desire to preserve the political community, and if states do not control entry restrictively at the border, people will take matters into their own hands at the local level.

I am not convinced by this analysis. It fails to account for the psychology of border control. Border fences are the product of fear, and the construction of more border fences will only exacerbate this fear. In America, for example, building a wall to keep Mexicans out also keeps in those Mexicans who have crossed the border illegally. The wall will simply serve to heighten the community’s perception that it needs protection from the internal Mexican.

On the other hand, openness begets openness. Those less fearful of the other, and less desirous of national border control, are more likely to live in open neighbourhoods. High, impenetrable fences reduce communication between people, and there is a danger that they breed fear, suspicion and intolerance, and heighten a sense of individuality and isolation. The boundaries between us need to be soft, and open to negotiation using our social capacity. This is not only of aesthetic importance; it is necessary for our flourishing as a community.

The way fences are used to regulate public and private space in our neighbourhoods provides insights into our values not only as communities, but also as nations. Our level of comfort with suburban security fences desensitises us to the detention of refugees on Manus Island, and the psychology of a nation with relatively open borders and accepting of refugees is akin to the psychology of a house owner with lawn running down to the verge.

This is not to say that there is no role for fences. Fences can facilitate freedom where there is a real and present danger to bodily integrity. In dangerous neighbourhoods, it may make good sense to surround private property with fences. These fences indicate an existing breakdown in community. What we don’t want is for fences to create a breakdown by promoting conditions of distrust and poor communication.


THE GREATEST THREAT to the openness of the neighbourhood is the gated community.

Gated communities became popular in the US and Australia in the 1990s. They offer the promise of an exclusive lifestyle with like-minded – or at least similarly affluent – people. There is apparently less crime (although there is a heightened fear of the criminal within) and children are apparently safer on the streets (although there are new dangers such as automatic security gates occasionally crushing and killing children[i]). And then there is the uncomfortable truth, unspoken, that children are at most risk from those who are closest to them.

But are gated communities safer? And even if they are, do residents feel safer? And even if they feel safer, is it worth it? The fact of enclosure, having to view and negotiate the fence every day, and having to turn one’s mind to the unseen, and therefore unknown, enemy on the outside is not a recipe for psychological health. Residents cannot completely remove themselves from society. And nor would they want to. What meaning is left if one does not participate in activities outside the gate? The separation is an illusion, and the apparatus of separation only serves to heighten anxiety about one’s safety.

The security fence not only protects from disorder without, but also requires order within. The resident in the gated community must attain a standard of behaviour beyond that on the outside: well-kept garden, polished car, no drying underwear on the patio, compliance with community rules. The fence imposes these cultural norms.

But despite requiring a standard of behaviour, real estate spruikers warn that ‘crime still occurs in gated communities and you shouldn’t let your guard down just because there’s a nice little fence around your community. Heck, the neighbourhood kids could be the ones stealing from you.’[ii] It is this obsession with crime that is the problem. By raising the threshold of fear, gating a community risks expanding the crime threat, so that a further layer of security is required. The external gates then necessitate internal fences, and the benefits of the gated community are lost.


THE ISSUE OF fences is not limited to residential properties. Since 2000, government schools around Australia have been erecting security fences. The product of choice is a 2,100-millimetre high tubular steel fence with sharp points at the top. The South Australian Government has spent more than $10 million building security fences around its schools in the last ten years. In 2014, the federal government weighed in with a Schools Security Program to spend $18 million over three years from 2015 to 2018 on projects including fences.[iii] By 2016, security fences had been erected in nine hundred and sixty-five schools in NSW.[iv] This trend is replicated across the country.

Governments claim that the fences have led to a dramatic decrease in incidences of vandalism, and saved taxpayers millions of dollars in lost revenue. Other claimed benefits cited by schools, governments and fencing contractors include creating a ‘safe community for students’; a ‘safety perception in the eyes of families intending to enrol their children’; preventing the school grounds from being used by members of the community as a shortcut during and after school hours; controlling contact between students and non-students to avoid anti-social behaviour; and allowing ‘lock down’ and emergency evacuation procedures to be implemented effectively.[v]

These supposed benefits reproduce the concerns of the gated community. They speak of distrust, fear and an entitlement to exclusive use. Do these security fences really lead to a perception of safety, or do they breed a more general insecurity about the neighbourhood, and its imagined predators? When is it envisaged that ‘lock down’ will be required? And surely impenetrable, unclimbable fences are a hindrance to ‘emergency evacuation procedures’.

And then there is the social loss occasioned by the fences: school grounds being unavailable to members of the community looking for green space to walk a dog or kick a ball after hours; the loss of school grounds as a thoroughfare, discouraging walking; the lack of mixing between the school community with the wider community, and the occasional gruesome incident of students being maimed attempting to climb security fences to sneak into school late.[vi] Fences turn public things like schools, parks, tennis courts and ovals into private things.

Perhaps the biggest loss of all is the inability to negotiate boundaries using ideas and words. If it is a problem to have members of the public crossing school grounds as a short cut, install a polite sign explaining the issue or call a neighbourhood meeting. If students are engaging in anti-social behaviour with non-students, teach them how to get on. What message are we teaching our children by solving social issues through the erection of fences? And what sort of community are we creating when we choose to invest in fences for safety instead of a program (Safe Schools) aimed at teaching tolerance and acceptance?

Oh, let me take an angle grinder, and at least remove the spikes.


THE TRIBAL LANDS of Indigenous Australians are written into the landscape, and are not marked by artificial boundaries. This made it easier for settlers to fill the land with fences in total disregard for Indigenous property rights. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it took a claim by a Torres Strait Islander, Eddie Mabo, who marked out his land using rocks, for the law to finally recognise Indigenous land rights in 1992.

One of the greatest challenges in native title claims on the mainland has been to clearly and precisely delineate native title boundaries, in particular to translate Indigenous boundaries to co-ordinates on a map. Although Aboriginal people had a tradition of boundaries and custodianship of land, these were not precise lines capable of being mapped. Boundaries were more elastic and accommodated the needs of others.

In 1998, I witnessed the cross examination of a native title claimant in the case of Western Australia v Ward, in which a government lawyer was trying to pinpoint the extent of a tribal boundary by testing how far the claimant was entitled to hunt a goanna. The answer was clear: until it was caught. The imperative to delineate and map fixed boundaries is colonial. Demarcating land is a strategy for claiming land. Lines on a map transform unique relationships associated with particular land into part of a global whole. Indigenous laws and customs precede this kind of map-making. The epistemological gap between the foundation of native title and its cartographic representation is immense.

With no culture of set boundaries and fences, it was particularly devastating physically and psychically for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be locked up in missions, residential schools, suburban homes and prisons, and to be excluded by fences from participation in civilian life. During a 2016 trip to the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands, in north-west South Australia, I encountered the same two-metre-high security fences found in urban schools surrounding police stations constructed in three of the largest communities.[vii] The investment in the police stations accompanied an increased presence of police to tackle high levels of anti-social behaviour and crime, particularly problems of violence against women.

The fences around the stations are the tallest in town, and are particularly stark when compared with the low-lying fences around suburban houses. They suggest it is the police who need protecting. One member of the local community recounted her attempts to contact the police: first calling the police station on the phone, only to have the call diverted directly to Port Augusta, a thousand kilometres away, then yelling through the fence and finally getting a response by throwing rocks on the roof of the station.

Have community relations with police really broken down so badly in the APY lands to require this level of security? Or are the fences deemed necessary regardless of security issues? Do they simply reflect a breakdown of trust between police and communities as a result of a change in policing practice from the 1990s? Police are no longer stationed permanently on APY lands, but fly in for three-week shifts. As a result, there is less inclination to learn language and culture, and less opportunity to understand the ebbs and flows of community life. Rather than negotiating the complex social interactions required in these communities, the fences offer a convenient way to disengage.


FENCES DO A lot of contradictory things. They mark out private property, which is the cornerstone of capitalism. In 1792, the English agriculturist Arthur Young stated: ‘Give a man the secure possession of a bleak rock and he will turn it into a garden. Give him a nine-years’ lease of a garden and he will convert it into a desert.’

But while promoting enterprise, the fences that demarcate private property create social barriers between people that threaten the health of society. In On the Origin of the Inequality of Mankind, Jean-Jacques Rousseau captured this risk in a tirade against private property:

The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying, ‘This is mine’, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might [someone] have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, filling in the ditch, and crying to his fellows, ‘Beware of listening to this imposter; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.’

Fences oscillate between determining and over-determining boundaries. By marking out territory to clarify borders, fences may prevent disputes, but they may also highlight the extent of those disputes, intensifying the site of conflict. While offering security from intruders, fences magnify the extent of the threat that intruders pose. Fences mark the boundary between the public and the private, but are themselves neither purely public nor purely private. The meaning of fences depends, largely, on the intention of those who build them, view them and breach them.

Although the sea is an extremely effective barrier to entry to Australia, we supplement the sea with barriers of our own: high barbed-wire fences around mainland and offshore detention centres, and legally defining territory as excluded from the migration zone. Writers as diverse as Mungo MacCallum in Quarterly Essay 5: Girt By Sea – Australia, the Refugees and the Politics of Fear (Black Inc., 2002) and Tim Winton in his ‘landscape memoir’ Island Home (Hamish Hamilton, 2015) have contemplated what our sea barrier does to our psychology. Australia’s hostile response to asylum seekers arriving by boat since 1999 suggests that our isolation has contributed to our fear. There is a strong desire to maintain control of the border at virtually any cost. Despite being a migrant nation with a highly diverse cosmopolitan community, Australia places a high value on control over migration numbers and mode of arrival, while being relatively agnostic as to religious or ethnic background.

The desperate desire for control is not driven exclusively by need. At its height in 2012–13, unauthorised migration to Australia by boat was twenty-five thousand people. Australia welcomes 190,000 permanent migrants each year in a planned migration program focused on growth. Although there is an economic cost associated with offering protection to asylum seekers compared with skilled migration, it is relatively low. Just as security fences around schools, police stations and houses risk magnifying the threat of the outside, do boat turnbacks and offshore detention magnify the risk of refugee invasion?

In November 2017, we saw the strange and horrifying reversal of the role of fences on Manus Island as the Australian Government closed the detention centre. Refugees desperately barricaded themselves in, having to dig for water and smuggle in food, seeking safety from local residents who were intolerant of their presence on the island.


IN THE HUMAN Condition (University of Chicago Press, 1958), Hannah Arendt describes a breakdown of the public–private divide. For the Greeks, the private was the realm of economics – running households and businesses – and the public was the forum for citizens to gather and consider political affairs. The public realm was exalted, and the private was the realm of necessary toil. To the extent that the private was bounded off, it was to keep the mundane tasks and exploitative behaviour of the household outside public view.

Arendt describes how in modern societies the social realm collapses the public–private dichotomy, with politics becoming embroiled in economic concerns and losing sight of its higher ideals while the household is exposed to rules about how people can behave in private. Arendt describes a narrower private realm where intimacy is the only thing protected from public scrutiny. Only in the bedroom can the cameras be turned off completely.

Through the erection of fences around homes, the private realm is hitting back. But in modern society, there is still a limit to just how impenetrable a fence can be before it is considered (literally) beyond the pale. The Summary Offences Act 1953 (SA), for example, has an offence of constructing ‘fortifications’ around private dwellings. A fortification is defined as a security measure that is ‘intended or designed to prevent or impede police access to the premises’. When Victoria introduced similar legislation in 2013, Attorney-General Robert Clark described fortifications as ‘a visible threat to the community’.

So here we have come full circle. The gated community erected fences to keep threats out, and the focus was on safety within. But when the gated community itself is the threat, then the fence must be penetrable for the protection of the broader community.

We can build on this reversal. The biggest threat to healthy and safe communal living is not the external threat, but the fence or fortification that generates the fear of the other. It is this that must be removed.


AT THE BEGINNING of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Tom is set a punishment of whitewashing a picket fence, and manages to turn it into a communal exercise, convincing his friends of how happy he is to do the chore and encouraging them to share the joy. In his inimitable style, Tom gets to spend an afternoon in the sun, watching his unsuspecting victims doing his work for him. In the story, the fence symbolises the possibility of communal living. Many children contribute to its maintenance. The fence is a public thing. It offers no threat.

The white picket fence harps back to an illusory golden era of traditional nuclear families with well-behaved children, living and learning wholesome values. Why is it that the fence is the symbol of these values? What value does the fence itself espouse?

One reading of the white picket fence is that it represents neatness and order and a clear delineation between public and private space. But the way a picket fence delineates public and private is instructive. The fence, being three to four feet tall, can be looked over and through, and you can gather either side for a chat. It does not hide the private life contained within – the walls of the house do that. The fence is relatively easy to traverse, not being too high to straddle, and the tapered pickets offer little chance of injury.

The boundaries between us are real. Even with low fences we may choose to lock our doors at night. Not everyone is to be trusted, but you can’t build trust or trustworthiness with high and opaque fences that prevent communication.


IN 1968, GARRETT Hardin published an article in Science titled ‘The tragedy of the commons’. Hardin proposed that individuals will inevitably overuse common resources to maximise individual gain, thus irrevocably depleting that resource. For Hardin, the evident solution was to fence the commons and rely on private property.

In 2009, Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel prize for economics for conducting research over many years demonstrating that communities around the world had successfully managed common resources without government intervention or privatisation, thus debunking Hardin’s theory. Ostrom’s work suggests that the tragedy lies elsewhere. Fences over-determine the boundaries between us. They reduce communication, co-operation and trust. They are their own tragedy.

Canadian political theorist Joseph Carens puts a powerful case for why liberal theory requires the dismantling of national borders and the free movement of people. The place of one’s birth is an accident, he argues, and in no way earned. Carens proposes that if we put ourselves in the position of a person born in a poor, war-torn country, we would not deny ourselves the chance of achieving a better life through migration. Carens also suggests that the reality of free movement would be far less dramatic than many people fear. Despite a growing capacity to move, only about two hundred million people cross national borders around the globe, leaving more than seven billion continuing to live among their cultures, lands and families. The neighbourhood is instructive here. There are many reasons not to move to the wealthiest suburb, such as the cost of housing and services.

If the physical barriers between us were lower and less dangerous, we may have to share a little more of our lives – putting up with the neighbours watching us tend the garden, and tolerating kids running through our yards to fetch an errant ball. But this minor annoyance is well worth the potential benefit of requiring us to use our intelligence and social skills to negotiate boundaries and resolve disputes.

We might discover good neighbours do not need good fences.






[iv] Security-Fencing.pdf;




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