One morning this spring, I looked out my sliding glass door to see an explosion of purple flowers in my next-door neighbor’s backyard. Her Texas mountain laurel tree had bloomed, seemingly overnight. I carried my sixteen-month-old son outside, reached over, and drew a blossom to his nose. It was his first time smelling that distinct aroma, and it sweetened the rest of our day.

We could enjoy my neighbor’s fragrant shrub—and the rest of her recently landscaped lot—because the only thing between us is a dinky chain link fence. Used everywhere from tennis courts to prisons, it’s the unsexy workhorse of fencing, containing balls, dogs, and humans, but not sight lines. Ours stands about four feet tall and also runs along the rear of our Allandale house. The transparency means we’re able to chat with the family behind us, as well as with the people beside them. They’re prolific gardeners, producing a bounty of spinach, beets, and green beans that they share with us in generously stuffed Ziploc bags.

Our yards form a semi-open green space that’s a relic of the fifties and sixties, when our neighborhood was built on Austin’s then northern edge. Waist-high chain link fences were a popular choice for backyards. Though plenty of the old metal survives, over the years, many residents have replaced theirs with six-foot wood fencing. I assumed we’d do the same when we bought our fixer-upper at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. But I’ve begun to question the need, even as I notice a rush of ever-more-private fences going up across the city. 

Driving around Austin, from Crestview to Zilker, it’s hard to miss the newly stained lumber—some of it so high it nearly kisses the house eaves. Local fencing companies tell me that though city code limits most fences to six feet in height, the past decade has brought an uptick in customers wanting to go higher. An eight-foot fence requires written permission from a neighbor, but more and more people are willing to have that awkward conversation. 

“People want their backyards fully enclosed, fully private, so they have a space where they don’t see anybody,” says Nate Austin of Austin Brothers Fence Company. “It’s becoming increasingly rare for them to want an option where they can talk to the neighbors.” 

Going higher than eight feet with a solid fence requires a special permit, but some Austinites sidestep the hassle by installing an “ornamental” fence (defined as one-part solid to four parts see-through), then covering it with vines, says Shaney Clemmons of Shademaker Studio. That lets them hit a staggering fifteen feet, the height of a female giraffe. “You have to get a structural engineer involved,” Clemmons says. 

More people are also installing front yard fences, sometimes to enclose swimming pools. In the 78704 zip code, which sits south of Lady Bird Lake and includes South Congress, some wealthier homeowners have ignored code and erected seven- and eight-foot fences and walls along the street, complete with automatic driveway gates and keypads, then masked the height by building up the ground with dirt or planters. For the most part, the city only investigates if someone complains. 

“You don’t feel like you’re in a neighborhood anymore,” says Bruce Wiland, a zoning committee member of the Zilker Neighborhood Association. He moved to Zilker in 1978, when he could still see his neighbors over the back chain link fence. Now it feels like “a bunch of little forts.”

All I had wanted was a handsome six-footer that my introverted self could happily hide behind. It seemed essential to the task of DIY house renovation: Rip out the old and replace it with whatever everyone else is doing. I never questioned whether I actually needed it. 

The idea of getting to know the neighbors behind us never occurred to me either. Growing up in South Dallas, I didn’t think of a neighborhood as a community, but more as a random collection of strangers assigned by their economic conditions to the same zip code—with all the potential danger that implies. As an adult, I thought of the home and its outdoor spaces as a bunker where I could retreat from the world, not connect with it.   

While I posted pictures on Instagram of our family playing catch or eating dinner outside, I balked at the idea of a neighbor seeing the unfiltered version of us in real time. Though I revealed intimate details of our lives on social media, I wanted to be able to wander outside in my bathrobe without anyone seeing. It’s an odd thing, really: Why did I long for so much privacy in my backyard, even as I overshared online? 

Urban outdoor life has swung toward privacy since the 1930s, when the rise of the automobile pushed it from the front to the backyard, says Michael Holleran, an architectural historian at the University of Texas at Austin. “Cars were noisy and smelly and could be dangerous,” Holleran tells me. “The neighbors driving them were no longer walking by, available for a chat.” Still, privacy fences weren’t as prevalent until after the 1960s. Holleran speculates the shift is partly due to that era’s social upheaval and the ensuing diversification of households, even in income-sorted new subdivisions. “[It] doesn’t mean you dislike your neighbor, but [it] at least means you may make fewer assumptions about what you might have in common.”

Demand for fencing grew nationwide during the pandemic as people spent more time at home and outside. In Austin, this also coincided with a dizzying population surge and a construction boom that saw builders demolishing older homes to max out square footage. Bigger houses push neighbors right up against one another, an effect only compounded when one throws up a detached office or guesthouse or a developer builds multiple units on a single lot. For some, six feet of wood just doesn’t cut it anymore. “You stand on your deck, and your neighbor stands on his, and it’s like you’re looking into each other’s barbecue grills,” Chris Brudi of Sasquatch Deck and Fence tells me.  

It might be that beefed-up fences are a necessary concession for greater urban density. Aside from simply blocking wind or leaf blower exhaust, today’s Austinites also want to shut out the eyes peering down from multistory dwellings, the hullabaloo of rowdy Airbnbs, and the incessant roar of delivery trucks rumbling by. It doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t care about the neighbors.

And yet, Austin’s fencing boom also comes during an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation,” according to U.S. surgeon general Vivek H. Murthy. It makes me wonder if there’s a hidden cost to the seclusion we crave. In gaining so much privacy, are we losing something else? 

The longer I lived with my sixty-year-old fence, the more I saw what that might be. Chain link is often associated with blight, but as the months passed, I began to appreciate the open view it offered. My yard seemed to quadruple in size. In his 1999 book The American Lawn, Georges Teyssot called this “the borrowed view,” citing nineteenth-century British architect Gervase Wheeler, who wrote that however small a homeowner’s land might be, softer-edged fencing and natural plantings can “draw attention from its boundaries” and “carry the eye . . . into his neighbor’s domains.” There was something liberating, even mentally stimulating, about how far I could visually roam. 

The woven wire’s permeability encouraged interaction with our neighbors, who are exceedingly kind. They keep an eye on things when we go out of town, surprise our kids with birthday gifts, and treat us to tinfoil-wrapped slices of homemade cake. Through small, quotidian interactions, I began to feel less isolated, more connected to a larger whole. I quit caring as much if the neighbors glimpsed me yelling at my five-year-old or observed my sad attempts to prune the azaleas.

Of course, I’m lucky my neighbors aren’t assholes. In the journal Postmodern Culture in 2005, the architectural scholar Dana Cuff described how the sheer proximity of neighbors creates a charged relationship existing “somewhere between friendship and enmity.” Fences can help keep the peace. And yet, even if I disliked the people next door—or they disliked me—would it mean I’d have to enclose my yard in something that would make me feel like I’m sitting inside a box? 

I tend to think not, and my conviction only grows when I drive around Austin to gawk at all the fences—not just the eight-footers, but also the ones half their size. Despite recent trends, the city has for decades been home to many creative, sustainable fences that are warm and porous, enhancing views instead of obstructing them. Jennifer Orr of Studio Balcones credits this to Austin’s design culture and to the fact that it is home to “more architects and landscape architects than you can shake a stick at.” One of her favorites is a delicate picket made of two-inch-wide vertical slats, level on top and meticulously spaced two inches apart. “It’s really hard to do, so you have to have a craftsperson with a lot of patience,” she says.  

For his corner lot in Montopolis, architect Sean Guess chose horse panels with a vertical rectangular weave on a galvanized steel frame. He planted jasmine at the fence’s base for a hint of privacy, but the four-foot height still lets passersby glimpse him sitting on his porch or chopping vegetables by his kitchen window, which doesn’t have a shade. “It’s important to feel private in the places I personally would deem private,” Guess says. “Having dinner with [my] family at the dining table? I don’t necessarily view that as private.”

Not everyone can embrace that kind of visibility, though, which is why Shaney Clemmons recommends her clients plant hedges like drought-resistant Taylor juniper and cherry laurel. “If you put up a fence, it doesn’t do anything for anybody except create a physical barrier,” says Clemmons. “But if privacy is your thing, you can still put a shrub there to check that box, and then you’re also improving the soil, reducing heat, and creating habitat.” 

Our physical enclosures don’t just shape habitat; they also shape culture. They can foster connectivity and relationships, or they can breed disconnection and division. But it’s hard to work against the grain that says you need a wood privacy fence—as Guess can attest. To his frustration, after installing his thoughtfully designed open fence, a developer bought the lot next to his and threw up a solid one mere inches away. “It’s just like, ‘Why?’ ” Guess says. “We had a fence.”

I can’t control what the folks around me or future developers will do. For now, I’m privileged to live on a larger lot beside good people, and I’ve decided to keep the dull chain link as long as I can. We have a fence. Replacing it with a bigger one would only make my world smaller. And maybe that of my neighbors, too. One winter, after the man living behind us unexpectedly died, I called his wife about dropping something off on her doorstep. “Oh, honey,” she said, “just meet me at the back fence. Like we always do.”