Here Comes The Neighborhood

Gates and fences, as has been said, and as is quite obvious, started and often remain an element directed at security. The idea of keeping people out, except those the property-owner desires to enter, goes back to the very first fences, walls, and gates. But security comes in many colors, not the least of which is the idea of community. We would be correct to assume that physical security measures pre-date the security imposed by laws and the penalties that attach to their violation. But law, and the resultant cultures that are shaped by laws, have slowly, and in fits and starts, altered community itself, and all it implies and imparts.


Criminal acts will, sadly, be with us forever. But the numbers and nature of such acts have in some places diminished with time, and in other places shifted locations of greatest impact. Rural settings have markedly different crime rates as well as crime types. Cities also differ from each other based on a myriad of local factors – climate, local law and law enforcement efforts; cultural pressures; and most of all, community involvement. The more involved the community members are with life in their community, especially outside their own homes, where their physical visibility, and the visibility of their interactions with their neighbors, the less likely their neighborhood will be targeted by criminal elements.


It is within such neighborhoods that the nature of fences and gates change from pure physical barriers and access controls, to architectural complements to the home enclosed by them. This sort of change might seem subtle, but only due to how these elements support each others esthetics. Instead of relying on pure physical impermeability as their deterrence value, they rely on the historic mental image of a fence and gate as an unconscious reminder. Such fences and gates tell the passer-by to respect the property limits, while also relying on the pleasure of seeing an esthetically balanced view to engage that same passer-by in a different perspective – one of community, of neighborhood, of friendly people and places. By effecting a change in mind-set, one also reinforces the lowering of criminal intent by replacing it with a sense of belonging. Now, certainly this does not mean a total reduction in criminal behavior – the human species will always have its ner-do-well’s and miscreants. But these more subtle contributors to better security should not be under-valued: they represent a slow but historic shift in the evolution of communities.


So the next time you take a walk in the neighborhood, look at the fences and gates around the streets you are walking. Note how each either works esthetically with their house, or does not. Ask what the homeowner might have been thinking about, and how that might say something about how they view and interact with their own neighbors. Then, go home, and look at your own gate and fence. What are YOU communicating? How would you change it? And, why?


Fresh lemon-aid, here, come on inside the gate!

Front Gate Designs – The Why and Whereof

There are nearly as many possibilities for the design of a front gate as there are places for front gates to exist at all. But there are certain limitations – some rather obvious, and some not so – and yes, size does matter! The front gate of a small piece of property opening onto the front walk is going to be quite different than a front gate opening onto the drive of a 100-acre estate. A front gate for a business is going to be substantially different than a front gate opening onto a garden. But these are the obvious – what about the less-obvious design rationale?


Well, we can start with the purpose the owner of the gate starts with. If the primary purpose is security, design decisions, however esthetic, will be security-based first and foremost. Height, unclimbability, types of hinges and locks chosen, maybe even security cameras and alarms. And each of these considerations will impact the esthetic elements, which in turn will alter the ultimate perceptions of the visitor who approaches, and hopefully gains access to what this gate guards. Perhaps an example is in order?


I work in a field where I occasionally have to visit prisons and jails. In Dublin, California, there is a jail called Santa Rita, and the entire entryway is designed in such a manner as to let visitors know, from the moment they drive into the parking lot, that they have no control over anything until they successfully lave the premises. The lot is full of rather extreme speed humps, so closely spaced that you cannot reasonably go faster than five miles per hour, even less if you are driving an older model Cadillac. Then, as you approach the front visitor’s entrance, you have to walk up a very long, wide ramp, with perfectly manicured lawns on either side. The effect is like that experienced by Dorothy and her companions as they finally gain access to the Wizard’s chamber, and walk terrified toward a great and glorious Oz edifice, one which dwarves them to insignificance. This prison wants you to know at bone-deep level that you have no control, so don’t even think about it. The element of intimidation is perfectly in keeping with the purpose of the place, and thus, this is a gate, of sorts, that is doing precisely what it is designed to do.


The precise opposite would be the front gate of a home in a typical New England town, where the walls or fences surrounding the property is more often than not low, and hardly intimidating. One could almost step across such fences. And the gates opening such fences and walls tend to be decorative or simple, but make it clear it’s esthetic is of far greater importance than any notion of security. These are gates and fences that seek to delineate one’s small but loved kingdom, while extending a message of welcome, and well met! These are boundaries more amenable to neighbors standing on either side with a glass of lemonade in hand and the talk of weather and community gossip being the focus. It is evident such walls and fences won’t keep out varmints, and may only be effective at keeping in such critters as the family Corgi. Beyond that, they have scant utility. Esthetics, and a statement to the world about the personalities and desires of the tenants. is all that matters.




There are other factors which determine gate design, as well, such as location. gates in the countryside are almost always further from the house, and are more often situated at the main entrance to the property, and thus are gates for vehicles first and foremost. There would be little need for a pedestrian gate in such a location. Cultural circumstances also determine design – a gate in a relatively crime-free small town will have a very different purpose than a gate in a city where security nearly always trumps esthetics. No surprise to this, of course, but one might argue that the design of a gate in response to security concerns may in fact, when amalgamated with all other factors, actually add to the sense of insecurity and threat, by adding to the over-all visual landscape of threat and fear. One must see design as both response and contribution, never as one thing alone. This is not to argue one must neglect the issue of security, especially in places where it is duly warranted, but rather, to pay even more attention to esthetic, so as to better disguise the security elements, and not by extension contribute to the over-all sense of alienation that often predominates in such places.


In other words, to paraphrase the Cold War ethic: you are welcome, but I intend to verify your trustworthiness, first.


Time’s Change Everything


Yet another factor determining design for gates is time itself – historic forces always impact design – nothing new there – but for gates and fences this is particularly true. Two hundred years ago, America was small town, and rural, and there was a higher degree of trust that one’s neighbor’s weren’t going to make off with the family jewels or livestock. And even where such was a fear, as in the West of cattle and sheep ranching, fences and gates were focused more on the enclosure of livestock than on preventing the rustler from getting access. It was not that difficult to cut a wire fence.
As America became more about the big city and the suburb, fences, walls, and gates became more about the security they provided, and less about the look of the property, and whatever sense of welcome one might wish to extend. This shows best with the metal security gates found in many cities, often as a second door into a house or apartment dwelling. Here, utility found its calling. But esthetics, after a long period of decline, slowly became of interest again in the late part of the Twentieth century. Still, there are limits, especially with prefabricated designs. Whereas with custom designs, there are many more design possibilities.

Beyond the utility of metal security elements, esthetics can still predominate.

The Gate is Open

This project depends on you - and your photos of gates. Great gates, different gates, unusual gates, non-obvious gates. Be sure to include your contact information, permission to use your photo, and a name for proper credit where credit is due! Be a part of the Gate Project.