Why Gated Communities are Becoming a Global Problem
Photo Credit: Dean Terry
The issue of gated and exclusively high-income communities in North America is rearing its ugly head again. It started earlier this year with the death of Trevon Martin, the young man visiting family in a gated community who ended up being accused of trespassing and shot dead in an altercation with a security guard.
This time, it involves Star Wars director George Lucas and property he once owned for his production studios in Marin County, a mostly rural area near San Francisco with high-priced housing.
Lucas plans to transfer some of his property to the Marin Community Foundation, which would work with a nonprofit developer to build low-income or “work force housing” projects throughout the area (apparently 60 percent of the jobs – in teaching, in-home health care, restaurants and other service-sector fields – go to people who commute long distances because they can’t afford to live there). One wealthy neighbor cried to the New York Times that Lucas was “inciting class warfare” by inviting poor people to move in.
This whole story brings to light the xenophobia problem plaguing gated and exclusively high-income communities across North America. The prevalence of gated communities has steadily risen across the United States since the 1960s. According to Arther Blakely, author of Fortress America, census figures showing that between 6 and 9 million Americans live behind gates. The appeal of gated communities lies in their promise of safety, privacy, exclusivity, and ultimately sameness and predictably.
People choose to live in these communities because they want to be around people like them and have freedom from the uncertainty of the outside world - most gated communities have a school, community centre, pool, and other amenities. You rarely have to leave the community, except when commuting to work.
Sonora Resort: a gated community near Disney World, Florida.
However that promise of safety and sameness is now proving to be pretty empty. In a recent article on gated communities in the Atlantic Cities, author Sarah Goodyear wrote:
By fostering suspicion and societal divisions gated communities can paradoxically compromise safety rather than increasing it. And because they cut residents off from the larger community, they can shrink the notion of civic engagement and allow residents to retreat from civic responsibility.
When you retreat into a big home in a gated or exclusively high-income community, you aren’t exposed to other cultures, people less fortunate than you, artists, senior citizens, etc. Common knowledge suggests that being exposed to different people and experiences is how we broaden our horizons. It is how we become inspired to do the little daily things that make the world a better place - like volunteering, making art or music, and creating or participating in community project.
In a gated community, you wouldn’t do any of these things because society’s problems are no longer your problem and, all you need for pleasure is there for you to passively enjoy. This might be okay on a vacation, but it does not make for an ideal society. People in gated communities run the risk of being culturally malnourished as they shut out difference and diversity for a predictable fantasyland that has no connection to reality. At Disney’s Golden Oaks community, you even have direct access to Disney World - the ultimate fantasy land and you never have to see the outside world!
Grandparents hiding behind their protective gates as a visitor enters their home in Golden Oaks.
This desire to live in gated communities is expanding beyond North America and becoming popular in emerging superpowers like China, India and Brazil - places where a new class of elite want to lock themselves away from those still struggling.
For example, in China they are building themed communities that bear no cultural connection to their location. Palm Springs, a gated community outside of Hong Kong has apparently been built to imitate the posh lifestyle of the desert resort town. The project was built in the early ’90s, and features three-story homes with terraces and backyards ideal for barbecuing.
The Palm Springs clubhouse in Chongqing, China
This international growth of gated communities is a troublesome trend. “In the places where the urban population is growing fastest, gated communities are fashionable for all the same reasons that they have been fashionable here in the United States – safety, prestige, privacy, exclusivity,” said Goodyear. “If urbanists’ worst fears about gated communities are true, the scale of what is happening in India, China, Brazil, and many other rapidly urbanizing countries around the world is chilling.”
She is right. It is chilling when our society would rather shut out the world’s problems than contribute solutions. Gated communities, like sprawling suburbs, are a threat to building authentic, vibrant communities. This is something North American planners and citymakers have come to realize. Hopefully the rest of the world will learn from our mistakes rather than repeating them.
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