On Gated Communities
This past weekend I became aware that there are quite a few gated communities around where I live in East London. I had seen at least one of them before, but had paid little attention. It’s a redevelopment of some sort of industrial site and naturally enclosed. I even knew someone that lived there and went inside once; I remember he told us how it was annoying that he had to come all the way to the gate every time he had a visitor, because visitors found it difficult to find his place once inside the complex.
But as it turns out there are many more gated developments around here, and in fact, most of them seem to be that kind of ‘naturally enclosed site’, where even if there wasn’t a gate, the place would have just one exit and one entrance, sort of like a cul-de-sac. I think, though, that the fact that there is a gate there with a warning that private land lies behind it does make a big difference.
The point of a gated community is precisely that: to have a community within an enclosed site, because for some reason those living inside choose to exclude themselves from the community around them. This reason is mainly security and, to some degree, privacy. Whether real or perceived, security threats have a big impact in people’s lives and of course no one wants to live in a place where they don’t feel safe. Plus, as it turns out, property values within gated developments are higher on average than those of similar properties in the same neighbourhood but outside the gated developments. Gated communities often have ‘residents only’ facilities such as parks, gyms and other infrastructure.
So there are advantages to living behind gates. You feel safer and your home is worth more money. Other advantages are less car traffic, which can make streets safer for children to play, generally better maintenance of roads and open spaces, and in some cases, the prestige associated with living in an ‘exclusive’ neighbourhood. Moreover, in theory at least, there should be a stronger sense of community fostered by a sense of joint ownership of the place; in theory at least, you can trust your neighbours. This sense of community could also be strengthened by a feeling of ‘us’ (those within the gated community) and ‘them’ (those outside).
However, there can also be a number of disadvantages to living in a gated community. The surrounding community may perceive those living behind gates as wealthier than them (as it is often the case), which may in turn make them more vulnerable to crime. As a result of having this ‘exclusive’ neighbourhoods, communities became fragmented and this may bring more safety and crime issues than there may have been in the first place, making it in fact less safe for everyone. Other disadvantages are people finding it difficult to actually get to your home (as it was the case above), which may be a problem when it comes to deliveries or other door to door services, and the fact you have to pay for those maintenance and security costs.
Now, the gated communities that I have seen in London and I mention above are all, as I said, naturally enclosed sites. That means that if you don’t pay attention, you may not even notice they are there, or think much of them. There is a gate and in most cases a guard, but the surrounding streets look generally ‘normal’. But I have seen other types of gated communities, most of them in the developing world, but I know they exist in many countries, such as the United States and Spain. These are often neighbourhoods that were built as urban extensions, many of them very large, generally in the outskirts of cities, which are surrounded by big walls and with guards by the gate, 24/7.
These large enclosed chunks of space make the areas around them very unattractive, and in fact, potentially very unsafe. They do not integrate with the city at all, instead, they negate it. They seek to benefit from what the city offers (jobs, entertainment, services) but they offer nothing in return. Suddenly the outskirts of a city become a land of large fortresses with some interspersed bits of neighbourhoods which suffer from having them around them, its residents seen as ‘second class’ citizens. In some cities this can become a serious issue with growing social exclusion leading to higher rates of crime and other problems as the gap between the rich and the poor widens.
I guess all gated communities can have a negative impact on their immediate surroundings, but those are the ones that worry me the most. I think they make cities less attractive, less safe and less sustainable. They are generally very car orientated, so they encourage everyone to drive more. Because they have facilities within them, they discourage people from using other facilities, which may in turn cause that they close down or decrease in quality. I personally would not like to live in one of them, but unfortunately, I think I may be part of a minority.
From my point of view, policy makers should actively discourage gated communities. In the UK, advice is not clear cut on this type of development, although I know in most places it is frowned upon (yet some developers still get away with it). In other countries there seems to be little being done to stop them, as planning has little power over what people do with their own private land. I suspect, also, that in many places the surge of gated communities has caught city authorities unprepared to deal with the issues that come with them, and since properties are still selling, developers are not going to stop on their own.