May/June 1997

Putting up the Gates

By Edward J. Blakely and Mary Gail Snyder

Gated communities provoke impassioned reactions from supporters and critics alike. In their book, Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States, to be published in October by the Brookings Institution Press, we question the ability of this increasingly pervasive design tool to meet its security goals and strengthen the sense of community in America.

Over eight million Americans have sought refuge from crime and other problems of urbanization by installing gates and fences to limit access to their communities – and their numbers are growing. Since the mid-1980s, gates have become ubiquitous in many areas of the country. New towns are routinely built with gated villages, and some entire incorporated cities feature guarded entrances. Along with the trend toward gating in new residential developments, existing neighborhoods are increasingly installing barricades and gates to seal themselves off.

Gated communities physically restrict access so that normally public spaces are privatized. They differ from apartment buildings with guards or doormen, which exclude public access to the private space of lobbies and hallways. Instead, gated communities exclude people from traditionally public areas like sidewalks and streets.

Gates – along with fences, private security forces, "residents only" restrictions on public parks, policies to control the homeless, land use policies, large-lot zoning, and other planning tools – are part of a trend throughout the country to restrict or limit access to residential, commercial, and public areas. These turf wars, representing a retreat from the public realm, are a troubling trend. Gated communities are a dramatic manifestation of the fortress mentality growing in America.

The context for the gated community trend is an America increasingly separated by income, race, and economic opportunity, although people with a range of backgrounds live in gated communities. In Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States, we classify gated communities into three major categories. First are the Lifestyle communities, where the gates provide security and separation for the leisure activities within. These include retirement communities and golf and country club leisure developments. Second are the Prestige communities, which lack the amenities of the Lifestyle communities, but where the gates still are valued as markers of distinction and status. The Lifestyle and Prestige communities are developer-built, and primarily suburban. They range from the enclaves of the rich and famous to the subdivisions of the working class.

The third category is the Security Zone, where trouble with crime or traffic and fear of outsiders are the most common motivations. In these cases residents, not developers, install gates and fences to their previously open neighborhoods. While the image of the neighborhood that retrofits itself with gates or barricades is of the embattled moderate-income city community, such closures occur in the inner city and in the suburbs, in neighborhoods of great wealth and in areas of great poverty. Gating is easily done in open private-street subdivisions. In neighborhoods with public streets, it is usually very controversial, as the streets must be taken over from the city before they can be gated off.

This third type of gated community also includes areas, such as Dayton's Five Oaks (see article this issue), with street barricades that create mazes of blocked streets to reduce vehicular access and deter outsiders. Such street barricading occurs in very wealthy neighborhoods and very poor ones, in places where crime is very high and where it is low. This partial solution is used most often in cases of public streets where residents cannot privatize their streets, either because they cannot afford to or they are not legally allowed to. The street barricaded neighborhoods lack the private amenities and complete closure of the others, but are a form of gated community nonetheless. The reasons given for the gates are usually the same – to reduce traffic, deter crime, and make the neighborhood more livable.

Movements to gate public streets in Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, Chicago, and other large cities often lead to bitter battles within and between neighborhoods. Proponents support street closures as an effective crime deterrent that helps maintain neighborhoods, homeownership, and curb middle-class flight to the suburbs. Opponents point to division, the displacement of crime and traffic, and other negative impacts on neighboring areas. Some opponents charge that racism or classism is the real root of a barricade plan, as in the case of the upscale community of Miami Shores, which borders on a poor African-American section of Miami. And when a small, middle-class, ethnically diverse neighborhood in Maplewood, New Jersey, decided to install five barricades near its border with Newark, ostensibly to reduce the flow of traffic using the neighborhood as a short cut, charges by Newark's mayor and other opponents that the closures were elitist and destructive caused a national media stir.

Exclusion and Control

Social distance has long been a goal of American settlement patterns; the suburbs were built on separation and segregation. Today, with a new set of problems pressing on our metropolitan areas, Americans still turn to separation as a solution.

Suburbanization has not meant a lessening of segregation, but only a redistribution of the urban patterns of discrimination. Gated communities are a microcosm of the larger spatial pattern of segmentation and separation. In the suburbs, gates are the logical extension of the original suburban drive. In the city, gates and barricades are sometimes called "cul-de-sac-ization," a term that clearly reflects the design goal to create out of the existing urban grid a street pattern as close to the suburbs as possible.

Exclusion imposes social costs on those left outside. It reduces the number of public spaces that all can share, and thus the contacts that people from different socioeconomic groups might otherwise have with each other. The growing divisions between city and suburb and rich and poor are creating new patterns which reinforce the costs that isolation and exclusion impose on some at the same time that they benefit others. Even where the dividing lines are not clearly ones of wealth, this pattern of fragmentation affects us all.

Forts or Communities?

Some argue that gates and barricades are unfortunate but necessary. They feel that such measures are the only way for beleaguered neighborhoods to reclaim their streets and for better-off neighborhoods to protect themselves in the future. But are these expectations realistic? In the course of our field work, we interviewed local law enforcement and analyzed local studies of streets closures. We found no firm evidence of any general permanent reductions of crime in fully gated communities or in the barricaded streets of the Security Zone. In part, this is because most evidence is anecdotal, and it varies greatly. Some Security Zone communities report drops in crime after streets are closed. Some report only temporary drops, and some no change at all. And still other places have removed barricades as failures, such as in Sepulveda, California, where local gangs used the maze of blocked streets to evade police and control their turf.

In addition to this wide variation in the reported effects of street closures, there is the problem that many available reports simply give "before and after" crime rates. Because such information often does not include comparisons with the crime rate in the overall area, or with longer-term trends, it is hard to conclude what effect the barricades themselves really had.

Gates and fences are not impenetrable to serious criminals, and they do nothing to reduce crime arising from residents. They do not necessarily protect, and they often cause dissension and controversy.

Efforts of neighborhoods to take back their streets are inspirational and sorely needed. That many are turning to barricades is understandable. But the issues that stimulate gates, walls, and private security stem in part from the inattention we have paid to building communities. Without community, we have no hope of solving our social problems, or ever really gaining control of our deteriorated neighborhoods. Physical design does have a place in building community and fighting crime; our choices in architecture, street layout, landscaping and design, and lighting all can help neighborhoods to protect themselves from threats. But these physical design choices are best used to facilitate and encourage social, community responses.

Ever since Jane Jacobs, urban designers and planners have recognized that "eyes on the street" are basic defenses against crime. This is the social control of a tightly-knit community. Overall, such socially-based mechanisms are more effective than additional hardware like gates.

We must also remember that the reasons for gating are not always entirely, or even primarily, the laudable reasons of crime and traffic control. Hopes of rising property values, the lure of prestige, and even the desire to build barriers against a poorer neighborhood or one of different race are also common reasons behind gated communities.

What is the measure of nationhood when the divisions between neighborhoods require security patrols and fencing to keep out other citizens? When public services and even local government are privatized, when the community of responsibility stops at the gates, the function and the very idea of democracy is threatened. Gates and barricades that separate people from one another also reduce people's potential to understand one another and commit to any common or collective purpose. In short, gates reduce the opportunity for social contact, and without social contact, this nation becomes less likely to fulfill its social contract.

Copyright 1997


Ed Blakely is Dean and Lusk Professor of the School of Urban and Regional Planning, University of Southern California. Mary Gail Snyder is a doctoral student in the Department of City and Regional Planning, University of California at Berkeley. Their book, Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States, will be published in October by the Brookings Institution Press. For more information, contact: Mary Gail Snyder; Department of City and Regional Planning, 228 Wurster Hall, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720; 510-642-3256; fax: 510-643-9576; mgsnyder@ced.berkeley.edu.


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