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Gated Communities and “The Fortified Neighbourhood”

April 6, 2013

This may seem out of left field, but I am interested in Gated Communities and their social impact. Reading the introduction to a volume of papers on this phenomenon, I came across a point that reminded me of Bernard Beckett’s work (specifically August, but also, to an extent, Genesis). In fact, a number of dystopian and post-apocalyptic fictions (e.g. The Hunger Games) deal with issues of social and economic segregation and came to mind while reading this… (Maybe some of the work around Gated Communities is relevant to analysing these works?) I’ll let the authors of this introduction (Rowland Atkinson & Sarah Blandy) explain; they write that:

Gated communities (hereafter GCs) have been defined in a number of ways. These definitions tend to cluster around housing development that restricts public access, usually through the use of gates, booms, walls and fences. These residential areas may also employ security staff or CCTV systems to monitor access. In addition, GCs may include a variety of services such as shops or leisure facilities. The growth of such private spaces has provoked passionate discussion about why, where and how these developments have arisen.” (p.177) Furthermore, “Living in a gated community means signing up to a legal framework which allows the extraction of monies to help pay for maintenance of common-buildings, common services, such as rubbish collection, and other revenue costs such as paying staff to clean or secure the neighbourhood. However, such legal frameworks can also be found in many thousands of non-gated homeowner associations in the US, and indeed in blocks of leasehold flats in England. This leads us back to the important physical aspects of these developments. Where a combination is found of these socio-legal agreements and a physical structure which includes gates and walls enclosing space otherwise expected to be publicly accessible, we can finally achieve some clarity of definition. Gated communities may [-p.178] therefore be defined as walled or fenced housing developments, to which public access is restricted, characterised by legal agreements which tie the residents to a common code of conduct and (usually) collective responsibility for management.” (pp.177-178)

But the point that got me thinking about Beckett’s work is this:

“A key driver of [academic and professional] interest in GCs [Gated Communities] stems from the sense that they form an intellectual intersection at which we can locate a much wider range of social changes and concerns relating to our urban context. The existing research agenda has focused on the residential choices of a select demographic group, largely characterised by self-interest and personal affluence as well as a desire for disengagement. However, this is to miss much of the point at stake in the analysis of gating. Gated communities express a broader trend of private decision-making that has wider and public ramifications. In short, the locational choices made by affluent households affect outcomes for the poor in terms of city sustainability, security and social segregation. If ‘forting up’ is taken to extremes this search for security will have enormous impacts on those left outside these new enclaves. Our theme in this introduction is that the choices of these relatively few gated dwellers may help us to conceptualise what might be thought of as a kind of spatial contract which, if not balanced by public intervention, may lead to a downward spiral of urban social relations.” (p.179)

“Many observers have suggested that urban segregation has represented the crystallisation of wider social divisions and problems that are largely negative in their impact. For earlier writers, like Gans (1968), the importance of socially diverse areas lay in the empathy generated by meeting people of different social backgrounds and experiences. Increased concentrations of poverty and clustering along ethnic and socio-economic lines has left many cities divided in ways that commentators believe hinders political empathy while concentrating disadvantage and exclusion from employment and educational [-p.180] opportunity (Massey & Denton, 1993). To read more widely from this, the residential choices of society at large have important secondary impacts on those with least choice and whose concentration dislocates and disconnects them from prospects for personal development (Atkinson & Kintrea, 2002). There are, then, reasons to believe that segregation is problematic.
The process of gating surrounds an attempt, in part, to disengage with wider urban problems and responsibilities, both fiscal and social, in order to create a ‘weightless’ experience of the urban environment with elite fractions seamlessly moving between secure residential, workplace, education and leisure destinations (Atkinson & Flint, 2004; Graham and Marvin, 2001). However, this apparent floating world of the rich is still connected to the lives of those living in other areas through the tendril linkages of taxation, legal contract and a system of social policy interventions which attempts to bridge and ameliorate these social divides. Centralised taxation and spending systems cut across place of residence and link people of diverse social positions, this much is perhaps self-evident but is clearly significant.” (pp.179-180)

Atkinson and Blandy continue: “Increasing ghettoisation is occurring in a bifurcated manner with groups at both the top and bottom increasingly concentrated together in socially homogeneous areas. These processes are linked by fiscal and social contracts but which are now threatened by calls for at least partial fiscal autonomy by gated communities and the social withdrawal of the affluent. As these groups pull out, the effects of social concentration and residualisation further down a hierarchy of neighbourhood desirability are increased. Another way of thinking critically about this new enclavism is to consider why ghettoisation of the poor has so regularly been considered problematic while affluent concentration is not. The answer by those predisposed toward market solutions is likely to be that compounded problems of social disadvantage formed by concentrated deprivation are not to be found in areas of concentrated wealth which are therefore the ‘answer’. However, as we contend here, these processes are linked and mediated by the local and central state and housing market in an increasingly inequitable way.

Gated communities appear as segregated spaces with a social ecology that is planted into the fabric of the city; where the wall starts a new social area begins, whether one lives inside or out. A key question remains, if this ghettoisation of the affluent proceeds how will this affect the ameliorative social ties negotiated through the state—of welfare, social services and of crime control for those living in ghettoised poverty? While the club system of private access to security (Hope, 2000) allows the affluent to displace crime this access to safety is denied those with fewer resources.” (p.180)

“Even before getting into a debate about the relative merits of gating we find systematic research which suggests that the shelter from fear that gated communities appear to represent soon fades once residents move in. Research by Low (2003) suggests that living ‘behind the gates’ actually promotes fear of the unknown quantities of social contact outside them. The lack of predictability and experience of people in social situations outside these compounds appears to play out most strongly for the young, particularly those brought up in gated communities.
In fact, perceived safety and actual crime rates have been found to be no different between gated communities and similar, but non-gated, high-income American neighbourhoods. This research suggested that a sense of community was higher in the non-gated neighbourhoods (Wilson Doenges, 2000; confirmed by Sanchez et al., forthcoming). These various issues lead us into a whole new area: the long-run consequences of creating enclave-style developments. What happens to people who live in areas where social distinction is also expressed through clear physical boundaries (between a socially homogeneous affluent group and the mass beyond the gates)?  / The impacts of withdrawal by select social groups has wider implications for how we evaluate social justice in the city context.” (p.181)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) Rowland Atkinson & Sarah Blandy (2005): Introduction: International Perspectives on The New Enclavism and the Rise of Gated Communities, Housing Studies, 20:2, 177-186

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