About the legitimacy of gated communities

Legitimacy of Gated Communities towards public engagement and social responsibility.

The relatively new spreading of gated communities in the western world had been raising a number of concerns regarding a phenomenon that brings to bare many of the modern days fears. A residential gated community can be seen as the physical form into the urban context of what can be felt in the contemporary society in terms of fear, instability and social divisions (Rohrbach, Urban form – Reflecting [on] society , 2007). In this essay I will try to define the qualities of a public space in order to work as a safe and enjoyable environment. Secondly I will analyze the reasons that bring to enclose a part of the city into itself in the creation of a gated community. Thirdly I will discuss the legitimacy of a gated community on a social and political point of view with regard to the problems raised by the typology itself. On a physical plan, the public space within the contemporary city can be defined as all that is not private space. Architect Giambattista Nolli in his “map of Rome” expressed this concept of public space as interstitial in 1748. Today, public space still represents the skeleton of our cities. The street, the square, the park and the sidewalk are a part of a complex mechanism in the urban machine that provides the society with the physical space needed in order to exchange, interact and be part of a whole. In terms of safety, society is already equipped with all the tools that allow the control on public space (Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities , 1961): the individuals tend to control naturally their environment and the more the public space is controlled the surrounding inhabitants, the more safe the space will be. Residential neighborhoods tend to organize themselves into self‐protected communities: the way a society organizes itself as well as the physical shape of the housing pattern provide the control leading to safety. In the case of physical shape, many examples of organization can be found western cities. One of them can be considered in Montreal. Zones like the Plateau are felt as safe first of all because of their structure: the fact that the inhabitants of the neighborhood can keep control over the public street in a safety factor as well as the organization of the residential units towards the alleys. In this particular case the public space safety is a result of the “shape” of the residences but also of the participation of the residents to public life. Each block can be considered as a small village where people know each other, with their small facilities, habits and characters. If we assume that a society’s “quality” can be measured in terms of exchanges and sharing, this urban pattern and structure undeniably allows the inhabitants to beneficiate of a more sharing environment. The city is the place of exchange; people come to the city in order to share their knowledge and skills. The city is furthermore the place where social relations materialize into urban patterns (Rohrbach, 2007). The public space is therefore the mean to every city’s aim. The role of the public place as a place of interaction and a place for safety are therefore interrelated: the fact of an exchange happening brings into the public space a sense of “society” with the consequent application of social rules in terms of behavior into the public space. Once more, the public space is the necessary mean to get the sharing that cities are about. While the private space, as well as the residence or the workplace, carries class values (the real estate value of the house, the way the garden is arranged etc.) and personal messages, the square becomes the essential place where everyone is equal as a citizen and therefore responsible of his social being. The quality of public space will reflect all the common values that the society is carrying: in a capitalistic society, for example, a public square will resemble to a mall.

The two main reasons in western society for the developing of gated communities are a concern regarding safety and a need of prestige. (Sanchez, Lang, & Dhavale, 2005) Gated communities are seen as safe enclaves from the dangerous surrounding city: a wall and a gate are seen are the most effective way to keep out the crime. The regulated access and the creation of a controlled environment give to the gated community that prestige that the inhabitant is searching for. A third reason can be find in the safety of investment: when you buy a property within a gated community, your investment is more likely to stay rentable in the long term, no matter what is happening outside. This last point is more controversial since gated communities are spreading into our cities, making them a good more and more available. The creation of a new type of residential living comes therefore from two major problems: unsafe environment (perceived or real) and prestige/safety of investment. The gated typology is perceived as an effective solution to those problems. Is it really working? This is the first concern in order to verify the legitimacy of gated communities. A study made by AHS (W.Sanchez, E.Lang, & M.Dhavale, 2005) shows that in the United States the difference between crime episodes between walled communities and non‐walled is not significant. And in particular it is not in the case of fenced mobile homes fields. Furthermore, in the Denver‐Boulder metropolitan area, statistics show that is not a real lower crime rate the reason for moving into a fenced community, rather than the perception of a safer environment within the walls (Ritcher & Goetz, 2007). The phenomenology of gated communities can be explained therefore by the existence of something that we can call “culture of fear” (Ritcher & Goetz, 2007) very visible in many symptoms that our society is showing. An example of this “culture” or “taste” can be seen on the media coverage of the news: to have a perception of it is as easy as tuning our televisions on Fox News to see how the “alert” word as lost all its meaning since everything is alert, everything is meant to be tragically frightful. Another example can be the well‐criticized Homeland Security Advisory System in the USA (Schneier, 2006). I would not discuss on the reasons why our society is getting on this path, but we have to take into account the fact that this fear, real or perceived, is what gated communities are trying to respond to. Is separating a part of our society from the rest of the world the proper response to the problem of fear? Arguably, fear comes from the unknown and the uncontrolled (Ben‐Jelloun, 1998): the more man knows about what he sees as a threat the more the danger will be resized in his perception. Undoubtedly, walls do not make knowledge and exchange easier tasks. Moreover, the enclaves created by gated communities can affect the entire society by amplifying the gap between different statuses and limiting exchanges across different social classes (Atkinson & Blandy, 2005). This process can be understood as a deteriorating destructive pattern within the society: the strength of our democracies, and in particular these day, comes from the understanding and assimilation of different cultures. When the society divides itself into watertight compartments the process of exchange and melting tumbles bringing harm to the overall soundness of the social structure.

In an urban context, walls can be a temporary solution to defeat crime but in the long term they just don’t work. An example of this can be seen in the Italian city of Padua, where a steel wall had been erected in order to prevent the spreading of crime episodes in the city. In this case the municipality was trying to keep the crime inside the gated neighborhood of via Anelli: for a short period of time crime episodes had been less frequent than before but eventually, a few years after, the situation is back to what was before the wall. Taking a closer look to the gating of a community, while the wall is not having any effect on the crime rates inside the gated community, the real estate value of the properties inside the wall is affected by the presence of the wall itself. Prestige and executive communities (Ritcher & Goetz, 2007) real estate values are much higher than the surrounding areas and they keep their price no matter what happens outside. In other terms, an investment into a gated community is more likely to be sure and stable. This is due primarily to the fact that by selecting the residents, some communities prevent the access to undesirable neighbors that potentially could bring flaw to the perceived prestige of the community. Once again, the perception factor is important in considering gated communities. Their success comes from the fact that they are “perceived” as safer places and “perceived” to be more prestigious. In order to have a full understanding of the consequences of gated communities into the urban environment, the sole dynamics within he gated communities are not enough. The analysis of the symptoms appearing in the areas surrounding gated enclaves brings to bare other aspects in this topic. With regard to the crime rates, it is shown that the creation of gated communities is affecting the crime rates outside of the walls (Duren, 2007). If we take a look at the real estate marked value, once more, the properties surrounding the gated area can suffer from a severe devaluation of the property’s price. This is due primarily to the fact that gated enclaves are an “anomaly” within the city. Their structure imposes new rules and artificial situations within the city that interfere with the urban machine. The shifting of real estate prices had been the reason for some municipalities for prohibit or decrease the amount of permissions for new gated communities (Duren, 2007).

A look to the consequences of the construction of gated communities raises a series of questions: considering living in a gated community a choice, is this choice legitimating the changes occurring outside the gated community in terms of crime rates and price unevenness? Can a part of the society by withdrawing itself from the whole affecting the urban structure and life? Is the public administration in title to decide whether or not allowing gated communities considering all the negative consequences? The choice of a part of the society to withdraw it self from the outer world can be considered as legitimate if without consequences. In this particular case however gated communities are influencing the surrounding city: in other terms, other parts of the city suffer from a choice made by someone else. The behavior of municipalities can be useful in order to get a full understanding of this matter. The two major conduct can be summarized as follow: either public administration forbid the creation of new gated communities, either it promotes them (Duren, 2007). The reasons lying underneath the limitations come from the chances occurring into the urban structure as said, but also from the fact that the exclusivity of normally public services, like schools, is not agreed by the municipalities’ policy. On the other hand, the promotion of gated communities by the public administration finds its reason in the fact that gated communities generate income for the municipality and less expenses than ordinary neighborhood. The cleaning of the streets as well as other tasks paid normally by the taxpayers, are in the gated communities achieved and paid for by the community itself. This point is probably the most controversial on a financial point of view: the idea that public space can be subtracted from the municipal territory and managed differently finds its legitimacy in the self‐sustainability of the community itself. This idea brings to bare another big reason for supporting the gating of a community: these parts of society do not trust anymore the public force. They do not in terms of insuring safety, as said, but they do not with regard to a proper management of the streets neither. This point brings to bare the failure of the public administration to convey an image of capability. This goes against all kind of social contract (Hobbes, 1651) and can be seen as the rise of a new individualism (Atkinson & Blandy, 2005).

This brings us back full circle: the loss of social diversity in the neighborhood because of the lack of exchanges, the increasing fear of the diverse, the elitism and individualism cultivated into gated communities and the financial aspect of an enclave taking upon the public administration show us how much gated communities are affecting the structure of the city, as well as the structure of the society. These changes cannot be considered legitimate when they come from the sole choice of a part of the society.