thoughts on our urban future

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.

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  1. This reminds me of two unrelated thoughts.

    First, a friend of mine living in Nairobi lives in a gated community ostensibly for safety. And yet a year ago or so, the gate became a target for kidnapping women. Obviously the whole purpose of a gated community for safety can be a double edged sword of things get critical enough. After all, you’ve only left yourself limited ways in and out of your neighborhood, and that may increase the potential for being a target. It may also increase the level of violence or force used or required. Just a thought.

    Unrelated to this above…

    When I studied and lived in St. Louis I found out about a long standing history of private roads dating back to the mid to late 1800’s! St. Louis residents really took to this concept, later going so far as to ‘privatize’ public roads to allow for greater local control including control over cleaning and garbage collection. So the city would deed over the street to the neighborhood group in exchange for residents providing their own city services. Good for city budgets in the short run but probably not ideal for the city overall? Big Society and localism anyone? I’m sure this is the sort of bedtime reading that gives David Cameron sweet sweet dreams.

  2. As Kayla’s friend who lives in a gated community in Nairobi, I can shed a bit more light on what life’s like on the other side of the gates. Though in my case, we don’t have lovely wrought-iron gates, but rather booms blocking road access manned by guards who seem to wave everyone in anyway (I have never been asked if I’m a resident; I do have a resident sticker on my car, but no one has ever scrutinised it from what I can tell).

    I think the security offered by a gated community is completely illusory, and I agree that the enclosure itself can make residents targets. Nairobi is all about the polar opposites — the expats are definitely the “haves” and most of the Kenyans are the “have nots”. That I am an expat is immediately obvious, whether someone knows where I live or not, and thus I fall into the “have” category at first glance. Living behind a gate just enhances my target value (why put a gate around something not worth protecting?) It is this differential that fuels most of the increasingly violent home invasions and carjackings that occur. That violence is becoming more commonplace in what were just crimes against property indicates rage starting to boil over.

    Within the very expansive (it is many square miles) housing estate in which I live, there is a slum where most of the domestic staff live. Ironically, it is itself boomed off from the rest of the estate, so I suppose it counts as a gated community in its own right. The whole thing is a ridiculous game of smoke and mirrors. Firstly, we’re gated off from the main roads as a pretense of security, and then we gate off those who work in our homes, either to pretend to more security or because it’s an eyesore, I’m not sure which.

    Ultimately, the gates don’t protect residents from the boogeyman lurking outside the gilded outer walls. In Nairobi, it’s not a choice — any nice residential area, whether expat or not, is likely to be gated. It’s just how the city has developed. It gives the city a rather inchoate, choppy feel, but that feel is mirrored by the reality of how its residents live.

    Contrast this with an urban space like Paris or Chicago, for instance, and it’s an entirely different feel. Those cities have distinct neighbourhoods, but no lines of demarcation separating them. You are free to wander from one to another, noting the transitions but not being jarred by something that seems rather like a penitentiary. Ultimately, my time in Nairobi has been spent behind gates and burglar bars, but those things won’t keep out determined criminals. The reality is gates and bars succeed only in creating separation, since they really can’t maintain security.

    Before I am pilloried by the general public for being a snooty expat, we chose the neighbourhood because of its convenience for where my husband works and for its superior safety rating (not that it’s safe, just that it’s safer) as compared to other estates. Believe me, I’d take a teensy flat in a great urban setting (except that my rambunctious Lab might not prefer that) over a sprawling house in Nairobi, but that’s just not how life is working out right now.

  3. I like that thought…”Benefit from what the city offers, but they offer nothing in return” except perhaps blank walls and a sterile street environment which encourage persons to litter and urinate in places where they think they cant be seen, although they are in fact on a main road. I had the experience of walking up onto a gentleman who chose to use the temporary fencing of our new gated community as a washroom although it was on a main road.

    We have our share of gated communities here in Trinidad. High end and more affordable as well. Urban as well as rural. Security, as already discussed is the main reason. Some offer great amenities, others just offer a park. Its often up to the community association to add whatever amenities they wish. Developers, for the most part, are in the game for the short term. Build and run. Of course, there are a few exceptions.

    Design within the gated communities must still adhere to good principles of urban design. Yes, the comunity as a whole doesnt contribute to the surroundings, but perhaps they should at least have high quality design internally. It may be all we can hope for. Natural surveillance of park and other play areas and visitor carparks, sense of place, way finding, legibility… these ideas should not be forgotton.

    I think there should be more innovation and creativity in the design of the gated community in its context. Recently I was working on what I thought would be a great interaction between a gated community within a developing urban area, but while the overal concept was liked, the legal land sub-division aspects, community management and constant pressure to get the most units per hectare pushed the design aside in favour of the typical block of gated townhouses which required little design thought and could be located anywhere and which does not respond in a positive way to its particular site.

    Once again Developers stick to what they know and are afraid to venture out . Whats even more saddening is that these units will probably be grabbed up by the market that doesnt seem to care about good quality environments. I am not paid to produce the final designs, but I can have a say, and it saddens me when I see oppotunity for great design and its not taken advantage of, for what I consider no good reason.

    Now that I am complete my typing, I think this post should be under Rants & Confessions!

  4. It’s really a shame that whole cities have been allowed to develop like that, but I guess as Samantha says, it is just a reflection of the society – big separations in wealth and lifestyle lead to physical separation too. In terms of tackling the more direct ails of this fenomenon I guess policymakers could take a stance on what is acceptable and what isn’t, both inside these estates and in how they relate to their surroundings. In situations not as extreme as Nairobi this could make a real difference… even in extreme situations improving the built environment might just contribute towards dealing with those other issues of security and inequality?

  5. I’ve spent a lot of time this year in Johannesburg, South Africa (more time, in fact, than in Nairobi) and I was driving around Johannesburg today just observing my surroundings. In Jo’burg there are gated communities with the requisite armed guards and the huge gates and the huge allegedly impenetrable perimeter wall. But, the houses within the gated communities do not have individual fences, which is in stark contrast to the gated estates in Nairobi.

    On the flip side of the housing coin, you have houses outside of gated communities, but each house is surrounded by its own tall perimeter wall topped with electric fencing and razor wire. It’s sort of decor a la Stalag 17. So each house is physically completely disconnected from every other house such that there cannot be a sense of neighbourhood at all. To drive home the fact that these neighbourhoods are not neighbourhoods, there are no sidewalks, and from what I’ve seen and what I know from friends who live here, no one walks their dogs or plays with their kids outside or anything that would lend cohesion and sociability to the area. It’s sort of house as walled prison, which is ironic since the point is to keep the criminals out. In actuality, the gated communities here provide the best opportunity to live in what many would deem a normal neighbourhood with residents behaving in a normal neighbourly fashion.

    What needs to be done, even before you get to the point of policymakers not allowing development of this sort, is for governments (local and national) simultaneously to crack down on crime and to develop programs where people can get an education or vocational training. Impoverished people with no hope who live in a place where the vast majority of criminals are never arrested, charged, prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned will carry on what has become a robust tradition of ever-more-violent crime. If the lack of hope, lack of education and training and lack of employment opportunities as well as the lack of police power and a justice system that delivers on its promises never get addressed in a meaningful way, no one’s going to ever tear down their walls. People live in dangerous cities by clinging to a delusion that violent crime can’t happen to them and even if someone tried something bad, that their walls make them safe. In the absence of true security, walls, electric fences and razor wire as well as gated communities are here to stay.

  6. Sad, but true!

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