Fights between suburban neighbors turn more rancorous, according to lawyers

According to some sources, legal fights between suburban neighbors are now worse:


Neighbors have long bickered over fences, hedges and property borders. But lawyers involved in such tangles say the pandemic, which kept many people and their neighbors at home—and on one another’s nerves—far more, turned suburban sparring especially toxic. The rancor, they say, hasn’t eased up. Allegations of late have touched on topics including flying dirt, flowerpot placement and stray balls bouncing into a yard…

The leading reasons for flaps between neighbors are trees, fences, parking and noise, “probably in that order,” said Emily Doskow, a lawyer and mediator who edited the book “Neighbor Law.” “Everyone knows that having problems with your neighbors is one of the worst quality-of-life killers ever.”

The New York Peace Institute, a nonprofit that helps people resolve conflicts, got more calls during the pandemic about neighbor disputes, said Jessica Lopez, a program manager who coordinates mediations. Two years later, the caseload hasn’t slowed, she said, adding, “It’s a new normal.”

In a country where protecting single-family homes is vital, suburbanites prize single-family homes, and homeownership is an ongoing ideal plus suburbanites often relate through “moral minimalism,” perhaps this trend is not too surprising.

At the same time, as a sociologist, there are multiple questions I ask after reading this:

  1. Is there a way to get data on this? Are the number of neighbor disputes up in the courts or in lawsuits? Not all disputes go to court; would qualitative data in communities also reveal this?
  2. What exactly was the role of COVID-19 in this? One answer could be that more people spent time at home. Another could be that COVID-19 racheted up tension and disrupted regular social interactions. A third could be that rising property values and demand for property in some places pushed people to see their property differently.
  3. How many communities have alternative options for mediating disputes like these rather than going to court? Are there implementable models that suburbs could offer?

Suburbanites, backyard fences, and signaling status

I recently saw a request for users of a nearby park to stay on park property and not go into the yards of neighbors when there to attend sporting events. The particular area in question is surrounded on two sides by homes, one subdivision built roughly five decades ago and one roughly three decades ago. The earlier subdivision has more modest suburban dwellings – roughly 2,000 square feet, two car garages, split-levels, colonials, ranches, most homes with siding – and almost all of the yards backing up to the park have fences. See the image below:


The more recently constructed homes are larger: 3,500 square feet, a mix of two and three car garages, more brick, stone, and gables. Few of these homes have fences facing the park.

Residents, businesses, and communities use parts of the physical environment to demarcate boundaries. This park sits between several different kinds of communities. Even though it is located in a well-off suburb, there are clear gradations of social status in these dwellings.

With the fences, I wonder if this is a kind of conspicuous consumption on the part of the homeowners with more expensive properties: “We don’t need a fence to be separate from the park.” Indeed, multiple homes have nice patios, tables, and outdoor equipment near the park and very visible. In contrast, the older homes have deeper backyards and more cover – even without a fence. Could this simply be a legacy of a past era where fencing was more common or does it signal something about how suburbanites want to interface with a nearby park?

More broadly, suburbanites have multiple ways to signal their status without actively telling anyone anything. This can range from the facade of their home (with McMansions aiming to impress) to the vehicles parked in the driveway to the landscaping to the size of the lot. And near highly trafficked or public areas, the urge to look good may be hard to resist.


High fences indicative of a lack of community in suburbs?

Suburbs are often criticized for a lack of community: residents drive in and out of garages with little interaction. In searching for a missing girl in Cairns, Australia, several people suggest that the search is made harder by the high fences that separate suburban yards:

Cairns is losing its sense of community and neighbourhood spirit, with residents only finding time to help each other in times of natural disasters.

That’s the verdict of sociologists, politicians and police, who believe people in the Far North are living more isolated lives than ever before.

Fewer people know much about residents in their street, which potentially leads to an increased risk of crime.

And they say this trend can be most clearly demonstrated in, of all places, the proliferation of high fences in the suburbs.

At no time has this been more apparent than with the dilemma facing authorities as they seek information on the disappearance for teenager Declan Crouch and the murder of Erica Liddy.

Despite many pleas for help, vital clues from the public – the eyes and ears of Cairns – are yet to come.

A few decades ago, high fences in the suburbs were extremely rare, with neighbours often the best of friends, talking regularly over small mesh wire side fences in the backyard.

But experts say the fast pace of modern life mixed with a blend of fear, apathy and population growth is keeping residents hidden away from each other, behind those all-pervasive six-foot high fences.

I would suspect that the problem involves more than just fences. The fences are just a symptom of bigger issues – get rid of the fences and neighbors won’t necessarily know each other any better. And if there is a lot of media attention about these sort of stories (abductions, murder, etc.), why wouldn’t more suburbanites build fences to keep their yards and kids safe?

This story itself is illustrative of a larger question regarding suburbs: if they were simply designed a little differently, would there be stronger communities? This is a key claim of New Urbanists: moving cars and garages to a back alley, making streets more pedestrian friendly, and reintroducing porches to the front of houses will lead to more community. And with recent data suggesting that Americans do want to live in more walkable communities but still want to remain private, the verdict is still out on such design changes.