As cities around the globe continue to grow far beyond their city limits, heavily patrolled perimeter fencing and high walls are becoming a common feature of the urban and suburban landscape. Intended to provide a sense of serenity and security for high-income city dwellers, gated communities are sprouting like transgenic mushrooms, including in relatively low-crime regions of North America and Europe.
In the United States alone more than 11 million housing units – equating to roughly 10 percent of the country’s housing stock – are in gated communities, according to 2009 Census Bureau data. What’s more, it’s a trend that’s picking up pace, with gated communities accounting for more than half of all new housing developments.
As Edward J. Blakely and Mary Gail Snyder noted in their landmark study Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States, the unprecedented growth in walled cities and gated communities belies the rise of a new fortress mentality in America:
Americans are electing to live behind walls with active security mechanisms to prevent intrusion into their private domains. Americans of all classes are forting up, attempting to secure the value of their houses, reduce or escape from the impact of crime, and find neighbors who share their sense of the good life. The new fortress developments are predominantly suburban, with a growing number of urban inner-city counterparts.
A similar trend is taking place across many European nations, in particular in France, the UK and Poland. In the UK more than 100,000 residents have abandoned the open city model of the 20th century to make new homes behind fences and walls on estates modeled on American ones. A perfect case in point is the outer-London St George’s Hill estate, which has been described as Britain’s answer to Beverly Hills. Houses on the complex, with its gravel drives, manicured lawns, private tennis club, gym, bars and restaurants, change hands for up to £13 million ($18 million) a piece.
Fear in the Lap of Luxury
Like most gated communities, St.George’s Hill is secluded behind security gates and guarded around the clock by private security guards and CCTV cameras. However, such measures failed to protect the residents from falling foul of a string of crimes in 2011. In the most serious incident a diplomat’s wife and son were tied up and held at gunpoint during a £100,000 robbery.
Such occurrences are a reminder that even the highest fences and hi-tech security cameras are not enough to keep determined intruders out. While added security may deter some criminals, others are attracted by the level of affluence.
More worrisome still, if the European trend continues to follow America, there could be a threat to the wider community as people object to paying twice for public services such as waste-disposal, sewerage or even policing. Court cases in the US have seen several groups of residents of gated communities challenging their obligations to pay local taxes.
As Blakely and Synder warn, the gated communities phenomenon has enormous public and social policy implications:
It allows some citizens to secede from public contact, excluding others from sharing in their economic and social privilege. This result raises an ideological question that prompts polarized viewpoints. Are gated communities a metaphor of the exclusionary fortress, creating walls between citizens, or are they refuges from the forces that threaten family, economic security, and quality of life?
In many respects, they are a metaphor for both. More to the point, they are symptoms of a much larger trend: the disintegration of the social contract between the state and society. Where there is no social contract, there is no social cohesion. And without social cohesion, all you are left with is escalating crime, violence and public disorder on the one side, and collective fear, distrust and paranoia on the other.
The Total Security Delusion
For a picture of where we may be headed if this process continues, one must look to some of the world’s fastest-growing emerging economies, to countries like Brazil, South Africa, Chile and Mexico (from where I’m writing this article). In all of these deeply class-divided and class-prejudiced nations, gated communities have long been a dominant feature of the urban landscape. Their enduring popularity is primarily the result of the climate of fear and insecurity that reigns in cities and communities blighted by poverty and inequality – a climate of fear that is often exploited and exaggerated by sales-hungry real estate firms and private security companies.
In Mexico, which boasts both the largest population of gated community dwellers in the world and the largest number of gated community dwellers as a percentage of national population, many gated communities have fully independent and self-contained infrastructure, such as schools, water and power facilities, security and fire forces, and medical facilities.
Mexico City’s most exclusive – and exclusionary – business district, the Interlomas, is far and away the largest concentration of gated communities (known in Mexico as fraccionamientos) in the world, stretching over 54 square miles. Put simply, it is the world’s biggest executive-class ghetto, whose semi-agoraphobic residents seek comfort and security from the vast, sprawling and often unpredictable city beyond its elevated, guard patrolled walls.
However, while residents of the fraccionamientos might be quite happy to trade in some of their freedom of movement for enhanced personal security, total security remains a fallacy, a fevered delusion of our hyper-paranoid age. Mexico’s largest gated communities need armies of domestic servants, child minders, personal chauffeurs, golf caddies (seriously!), tennis coaches, bar and restaurant staff, bodyguards and security personnel to keep their residents comfortable and “secure.” All it takes is for one of them to tip off a criminal gang and help them break through the perimeter and all of a sudden a resident’s personal safety is very much in danger – especially given the self-imposed isolation in which most residents choose to live.
In the last nine months alone dozens of gated-community residents have been killed in Mexico, including an elderly Canadian couple and a former governor of the ruling PRI party. In a number of cases the perpetrator’s turned out to be residents of the same complex. Indeed, as a recent report by El Universal revealed, growing numbers of narcotraficantes are now seeking shelter in some of Mexico’s most expensive fraccionamientos.
Yet despite such risks, Mexico’s Upper and Middle Classes continue to line up around the block to fill up the fraccionamientos. The inevitable result is increasing geographic stratification of Mexico’s already sharply polarized social classes as well as the ongoing privatization of growing tracts of urban land.
Mexico’s experience is an example – albeit an extreme one – of an accelerating global trend. As a recent photo gallery published by the Guardian showed, privately owned gated communities are cropping up all over the world. From Buenos Aries to Nairobi, to Moscow and China, once-public space or privately owned land is being transformed into corporate-owned shelters for the rich and fearful.
American economist Paul Romer has an even more ambitious dream:
To build self-governing city-states with their own laws, governments and judicial systems … “model cities” that would be safe-havens from, and inspirations for, the troubled nations in which they’re located. He calls them Charter Cities and they would be run by a variety of foreign-owned corporations. They would lease the land, rent the accommodations, run the water and sewers systems … even oversee the police, schools and hospitals.
With the Central American nation Honduras already signing up for one of his “Charter Cities,” Romer’s dream is on the verge of becoming reality. As we move from corporate-owned, corporate-run private estates and gated communities to corporate-owned, corporate-run cities, one can’t help but wonder just where the limits might lie to the corporate takeover of our city space. Don Quijones. An exclusive for Wolf Street.
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