Green Valley, Nevada, one of the US’s burgeoning number of ‘master-planned’ and gated communities, with a population of 60,000 – the size of many middle-sized towns – is one of the world’s fastest growing types of neighborhoods, constructed with the primacy of the individual specifically in mind.
Walls of extremely precise design and construction have been firmly placed between dwellings, at the end of backyards, between sections of the community — including the wholly enclosed school and local stores — and particularly between the community and the outside world. Bans are in place prohibiting residents from altering the walls in any regard, even those on their property.
High-end properties also rest behind a gated entrance with a security guard, and no one is admitted without a security check. Stores, parks, sidewalks, playgrounds, open spaces, even the local school also rest within its walled center, serving their exclusive community.
Presently, some eight million Americans live behind walls and gates in gated communities, with eight of every 10 new urban building projects established to be gated. One half million of the country’s gated communities reside in California alone; some 40 per cent of new homes in California are built behind gates or some sort of security device.
Nevertheless, this trend, particularly in the West and South and in suburbs outside large urban sprawls, is not unique to America.
Gated communities are now popular in such diverse areas as China, South Africa, where land developers first wall off an area, then fill it in with roads and houses; the Middle East, such the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, where armored vehicles patrol to protect Westerners with interests in oil; and the United Kingdom, where much of London urban renewal in the Docklands is occurring behind bars.
Even the less developed parts of the world, such Mexico and the rest of Central and South America, find the idea of walled towns and neighborhoods compelling; Nordelta in Argentina, the largest ‘barrio privado’ in the country, even offers its residents their own exclusive hospital.
Although residents cite crime and security as the main reason for living behind a gate, research into the effect of gated communities shows that they have a marginal effect at keeping crime at bay.
The best two studies, carried out by the police in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, comparing the rates of all manner of crime before and after a neighborhood had closed off its streets, found no significant difference in violent or personal crimes. Auto theft, burglary and other types of crimes at first drastically fell, but returned to similar levels after a short time.
The second study, examining the crime rates of several closed neighborhoods with that of Fort Lauderdale as a whole found no real difference in deterring crime. Although crimes against the person are permanently affected, incidence of burglary or car theft drop in the first year and then rise to the levels outside.
Green Valley was built specifically to deter crime and outsiders. Nevertheless, recent crimes include serial rape, domestic murder, various robberies, a drug problem in the schools and chlorine-gas pollution from a neighboring industrial plant – in short, all the problems of ordinary, ungated suburbs.
In fact, even the most elaborate security in gated communities does not appear to have worked as well as simple Neighborhood Watch schemes, which have been shown to decrease robberies and burglaries by 24 and 33 per cent respectively, according to a study by Florida International University.
Shutting out strangers
Although the residents may feel safer than they actually are, the real point of a gated community is to shelter its inhabitants from outsiders. In the case of the more exclusive, high-end communities, the residents can already afford to live in ungated areas of negligible crime.
As Edward J. Blakely and Mary Gail Snyder note, in their book Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States, ‘ traffic equals strangers, strangers are bad and bad means crime.’
The other point of a gated community is the keen desire for upward mobility and status; as the authors note, ‘They feed on aspirations for exclusion and the desire to differentiate. . . . Their motivation for gates is a desire to project an image, protect current investment, and control housing values.’
As a builder noted to Blakeley during his 1994-5 study, what buyers want is a home that ‘makes a clear statement about themselves and their lifestyles.’ Consequently, the most recently built communities create especially elaborate entrances, its own exclusive country club – a finger in the eye to anyone else outside its walls.
Law unto itself
A gated community is very like a country that has seceded from the union – supplying its own services and security, answerable to very little outside its wall, encouraging its inhabitants to abdicate any
civic duties involving anything on the outside.
What many people actually seek, behind a locked gate, is what is fast disappearing in our modern landscape – a romantic view of neighborhood – that place where our kids can play safely in the streets, where we know the parks and schools are safe, where neighbors wave over the garden fence and come together in common purpose.
Nevertheless, not only is there no evidence that gated communities create a better neighborhood or more ‘social capital’ – the sociological term for community spirit and togetherness — the gate itself in fact prevents social capital from flourishing precisely because it encourages an in-group and ‘out-group’.
I was speaking with a translator I had once in the Middle East, a young woman called ‘Nour’. When she was growing up, she says, the residential areas outside the country were grouped into small villages. The villagers tend to live in 200-year old buildings of rough concrete and blockwork, passed down from many generations, and deliberately left unpainted.
The idea is to avoid ostentation precisely so that you do not ‘break your neighbors’ hearts’, she told me, by making them feel envious or bad about themselves: the beauty of your house is created within — in the warmth you have inside.
Unfortunately, this custom is given way to creeping westernization, and new homes are now built with showy exteriors.
In his classic poem Mending Wall, Robert Frost wrote:
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’. . .
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out.