Henderson, the second largest city in Clark County, Nevada, has been burdened with heavy expectation ever since former President John F. Kennedy, in a throwaway comment, referred to the then sparsely populated upstart — a stone’s throw from Las Vegas — as a “city of destiny.”
Within the next half century, Henderson swelled to the size of St. Paul, Minnesota, transforming itself into a middle-sized American city. “A place to call home,” is the town’s homespun motto, placed on the home page by the mayor himself.
Actually, no one is particularly welcome unless you already happen to live within its gates, and even then, chances are that a massive wall stands between you and all your nearest neighbors.
Henderson is home to Green Valley, one of the United States’s burgeoning number of “master-planned,” gated communities, serving a population of 60,000 – the size of many middle-sized towns — and constructed with the primacy of the individual specifically in mind.
Walls of precise design and construction have been placed between dwellings, at the end of backyards, between sections of the community and, most of all, between the community and the outside world. Bans in place prohibit residents from altering the walls in any regard, even those on their property.
Besides the gated entrance, high-end properties also come with their own security guard, and no one is admitted without a security check. Stores, parks, sidewalks, playgrounds, open spaces, even the local school all rest within its walled center, serving their exclusive community.
An explosion of walls
Green Valley is one of the world’s fastest growing types of neighborhoods. Presently, some eight million Americans live in gated communities; eight of every 10 new urban building projects are gated, particularly in the West and South, and in suburbs outside large urban sprawls.
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.
This trend is not unique to America. Gated communities are now popular in diverse areas such as South Africa, the Middle East, and the United Kingdom.
Although residents cite crime and security as the main reason for living behind a wall or 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 closed off its streets, found no significant difference in levels of crimes against property or person.
Auto theft, burglary, and other types of crimes at first drastically fell, but quickly returned to previous levels once criminals got used to getting around the gates.
The second study examined the crime rates of several closed neighborhoods with that of Fort Lauderdale as a whole found that gates made no real difference in deterring certain kinds of crime. Although crimes against the person were lower within the gates, incidence of burglary or car theft fell in the first year and then rose to the equivalent levels of areas outside the gates.
Recent incidents within Green Valley’s walls include serial rape, domestic murder, various robberies, teen drug dealing and consumption, chlorine-gas pollution from a nearby industrial plant – in short, all the problems of ordinary, ungated suburban neighborhoods.
In fact, even the most elaborate security in gated communities has not 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.
And those who live in the more exclusive, high-end communities — where most gated communities are situated — experience negligible crime in ungated areas.
Keeping out outsiders
The real point of a gated community is to shelter its inhabitants from outsiders, write Edward J. Blakely and Mary Gail Snyder in their book Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States: “Traffic equals strangers, strangers are bad and bad means crime.”
What many people claim to seek, behind a locked gate, is an old-fashioned neighborhood – that place where their kids can play safely in the streets, the parks and schools are safe, and the neighbors wave at each other over the garden fence.
Yet that is exactly the reverse of what a gate achieves. A gated community is very like a state that has seceded from the Union – supplying its own services and security, answerable to very little outside its walls, encouraging its inhabitants to abdicate any civic responsibility to anything on the outside.
Gated communities and many modern subdivisions have transformed the notion of “community” into “exclusive country club.”
Our idea of community is now largely one that must consist of sameness in order to work.
There is no evidence that sameness, in the form of a gated community, creates a better neighborhood or more “social capital” – the sociological term for community spirit and togetherness; as Harvard’s Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, points out, America possesses the lowest social capital in its history. The gate in fact prevents social capital from flourishing precisely because it encourages an in-group and out-group.
The most powerful way to create a vibrant, open neighborhood is to move beyond the tendency to cluster together in similar groups and to find community in the space between – the space of interdependence where all of us join together in our common humanity and common purpose.
As Robert Frost wrote in his famous poem, Building Walls: Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. That something, clearly, is a neighborhood of human beings.