Where I lived in town, the backyard was surrounded on three sides by fences, with the house on the only unfenced fourth side. These were the sort of fences that were common in suburban neighborhoods. They kept children and dogs in or out of adjacent gardens, and probably provided some sense of privacy, although I never understood why we all needed such privacy there.
I mean, if I really wanted significant privacy, I would not have lived in town, where the homes and gardens were all so close together. I enjoyed living there, and I enjoyed my neighbors. We could hear some of each others conversations and televisions, but no one seemed to mind. It was worth living in such an excellent neighborhood so close to everything we could want in town.
Years ago, suburban fences were not too obtrusive. They were only about four feet high. Some of the older homes were still outfitted with picket fences that were only about three feet high. We could still talk to neighbors over them, and sometimes pass over a bag of extra fruit or vegetables, or even flowers, from the garden. Dogs and young children were effectively contained.
Then everyone became obsessed with privacy. At the same time, many of us added onto our homes or replaced them with new homes that occupied more of the allowable space within their compact formerly suburban, but now urban parcels. Smaller remaining garden spaces became more shaded by bigger houses and taller fences. Gardening, as we once knew it, became passe.
What are all these big fences for? What are they keeping out? . . . or . . . What are they keeping in? Why do so many who want so much privacy live so close to so many who crave the same?!
There is no doubt that fences are useful for a variety of functions. They exclude deer from the garden. They confine livestock. For suburban homes, they enclose a relatively safe space for children and pets. Fences should be designed according to their intended functions. Those designed to exclude deer might be as simple as coarse mesh on posts. Those enclosing backyards might be more refined and compatible with the landscape.
Over the years, conformity to modern suburban and urban landscapes, as well as modern architecture and lifestyles, has changed the standards of how fences are designed. Low picket fences do not adequately obscure the scenery that adjacent and often dissimilar landscapes contribute to a view. Where common vegetable gardens might have been, most of us want private outdoor rooms, with a distinct style of landscape.
It seems that everyone wants privacy nowadays. Those who have no need for privacy will get it anyway because no one will build fences that will not provide it. In the 1950, fences were commonly four feet high, and not every backyard had them. By the 1970s, they were more commonly six feet high, and standard for almost every backyard. Now, fences are expected, and many are seven feet high or higher, with lattice on top!
Modern architecture and lifestyles are part of the justification for such tall fences. Low profile older homes on formerly suburban lots are commonly replaced with two or more larger homes on smaller subdivided city lots. They are much closer to each other than the older homes were, with only narrow spaces between upstairs windows, where even eight foot high fences will not provide privacy.
So, not only do much larger homes on much smaller parcels mean that there is much less space for gardening, but taller two story (or taller) homes with weirdly high fences mean that more of the very limited space available for gardening is shaded!
By ‘big trees’, I don’t mean the various ficus trees that can grow up to the ceiling, and be quite happy inside. I am referring to the shade trees that live out in the yard, or forest trees that live beyond that. They are outside for a reason . . . or actually, several reasons. They are too big to bring inside. They probably would not like the climate inside. No one wants to rake fallen autumn leaves inside. Well, you get the point.
Unfortunately, on rare occasion, big trees that are outside end up partly inside by falling or dropping limbs onto the homes that they provide shade for. Just like trees seem to fall onto certain types of cars more than others ( tonytomeo.com/2018/11/04/trees-hate-cars ), trees seem to fall onto certain types of homes more than others. The difference between the homes that trees seem to dislike and the cars that they seem to dislike, is that there are actually reasons why some types of architecture is more susceptible to falling limbs or trees.
First of all, just as some trees seem to avoid falling on cars, some seem to avoid falling on houses.
Coastal redwoods in landscape situations are remarkably stable. In my entire career, I have inspected only three that have fallen. One had a massive pair of trunks that split apart and fell away from each other. Although they were on the fence line between two closely set urban homes, and there was almost no place for them to fall without destroying one home or another, they did the seemingly impossible. They literally fell onto the property line. One trunk fell out into the street. The other fell back into the backyards of the homes behind. The fence was pressed into the ground. The landscapes were seriously damaged. Gutters were stripped from both adjacent homes. Otherwise, there was NO structural damage to any of the homes. I am still amazed at how minimal the damage was!
The massive coast live oak two doors down from my former home in town was just as talented. It sprawled out over its associated home and the front yards of the two adjacent homes. It was so broad that I would not have believed that it could have fallen down without destroying one of the homes. Yet, it did exactly that . . . as I watched from my dining room. During a windy storm, it fell right toward me, and landed squarely in the front yard next door. It broke a few rafters on the edges of the eaves, and tore the gutters off, but that was the worst of the damage. It somehow found the best spot to fall where it would cause the least amount of damage.
Not all homes are so fortunate.
Victorian homes though, do not seem to be targeted by trees as much as others are. Most are closer to downtown, away from tall or very broad forest trees. Many are on somewhat narrow parcels that can not accommodate disproportionately large trees like the coast live oak in the picture above. Broadly sprawling trees tend to be too low to extend their limbs over the roofs of taller two story Victorian homes. Although taller than most other types of homes, two story Victorian homes do not occupy as much area as other homes, so are not such big targets.
Low profile homes of ranch architecture, or similar types of architecture, are more likely to be damaged by falling limbs or trees. Many happen to be located in suburban or rural areas, closer to bigger and broader forest trees. Their wider parcels can accommodate larger trees. Their roofs are low enough for trees to extend limbs over. Because they tend to be on a single level, they occupy more area, so are larger targets.
Skyscrapers are already very efficient. They fit more usable floorspace into their ‘footprint’ than any other type of building does. They conserve energy that gets used for heating and cooling by exposing less of that floorspace to the outside weather. For all that usable floorspace, they need only a single roof.
Think about it. A relatively short ten story building contains as much floorspace as ten single story buildings that occupy the same area individually, but collectively occupy ten times as much area! Nine of those stories loose heat during cold weather, and collect heat during hot weather, only around the exterior walls. Only the top floor loses and collects heat through the roof, and only if there is not an upper utility ‘attic’ floor that insulates it. Ten single story buildings of the same area are all exposed on top, as well as all the way around. Of course, ten single story buildings of the same area need ten roofs comparable to the single roof of the ten story skyscraper.
Skyscrapers certainly need more infrastructure to support all of their floors, and they lose a bit of their floorspace to that infrastructure, as well as to the elevators needed for access to the upper floors. It also takes significant energy to pump water up to upper floors. Regardless, skyscrapers are still the most efficient of buildings. They have nothing to prove to the treehuggers who dislike them so.
‘Green roofs’ on top of skyscrapers are a fun concept. They utilize space that is otherwise useless, and they really do help to insulate the top and most exposed floor of big buildings. However, they are no more ‘green’ than landscapes that are at ground level. In fact, they necessitate the incorporation of extra infrastructure into their respective buildings in order to sustain their synthetic environments, and to support the extra weight of the soil, water and flora. Pumping water to irrigate green roofs takes more energy than irrigating landscapes at ground level. Generally though, they are probably worth the effort, as long as they are not too elaborate,
Chia Pet Skyscrapers are what happens when they get too elaborate. The vertical landscapes incorporated into the facades of these buildings consume more resources and energy than they conserve. Although less energy is needed for cooling the buildings during warm weather, more energy is used to pump water for irrigation. Not only must the buildings be constructed to sustain these landscapes, but they require much more specialized maintenance than conventional skyscrapers need. Because the flora in these vertical landscapes can not disperse roots into real soil, the growing medium must be fertilized very regularly with more synthetic fertilizer than conventional landscapes in the ground need, and all this fertilizer eventually leaches into the drainage systems of the landscape. Insects might enjoy these vertical landscapes, but the necessary regular maintenance would prevent much other fauna from getting established like they could in conventional landscapes at ground level.
Although the skyscraper within this spectacular Chia Pet Skyscraper benefits the environment, the vertical landscape that adorns the exterior only benefits those who live and work in and around it.