walled in or walled out? – America’s gated communities


Opening the panel session,  “Gated Communities in America”, Edward J. Blakely asks “regarding gated communities …, Are you walling something in, or are you trying to wall something out?” (p.879).

Before handing this question on for discussion, though, he points out that these gated communities are largely to be found in “the high-concentration areas: Los Angeles, Phoenix, Houston, Miami, Chicago, New York,” and notes: “These are the areas that are having the most rapid in-migration. And the in-migration, particularly of people of color, has led people to say, “I’ve got to set a boundary. No longer can I just move out now. I’m going to put my stakes down here, and I’m going to control my territory.”” (p.879)

Mary Gail Snyder asks “Is there less crime? No. Do people feel them to be more secure? Yes, until they’ve actually moved in. That’s the short answer to that question. Fear of crime—physical security concerns—is one of the primary motivations for people moving into gated communities, but it’s not the only motivation. When people are talking about how secure they feel in their gated communities, they’re talking about freedom from exposure to canvassers or strangers of any sort.” (p.888)

Blakely, similarly, notes: “It’s interesting, this perception issue. As a matter of fact, we found that, because people felt so comfortable, they lost track of who most criminals are—usually the young person who brings another young person, who’s a friend, into the place. There’s a gated community in Southern California we were in with a population of 30,000 people and a crime rate that is slightly higher than in other cities of 30,000.” (p.889) He also observes: “But to be quite frank, there are fewer crimes directly against people. You don’t get mugged on the street, and auto theft goes down because it’s harder to get the automobile out past the gate. But residents drive their automobiles out, so you might as well steal it in the shopping center. Wait until it gets out from behind the gate. Why penetrate the gate to steal the automobile?” (p.889)

Approaching this discussion from a different angle, Gil Chin observes: “we would say easily, “Yes, I’m a member of the global community,” but in the meantime, in our local community, we are building walls. And I think to a certain extent this reflects American politics and foreign policy. I have observed increasingly that the United States as a nation is building a wall around itself. This is the country that is most difficult for foreigners to get into. And with the conservative politics of some people, I think people in the community may feel it is okay to have our own wall around us. So gated communities reflect national politics.” (p.890)

During the session, Richard Legates declared: “I guess I came to this panel with a knee-jerk dislike of gated communities. Nothing here has made me like them any better, particularly, but I have been educated. It’s much more a symbolic issue than I had thought. It seems to me the objections I had to gated communities were primarily around class segregation, racial segregation, private appropriation of public space, and then just sort of a cultural dislike of privileged, scared, conservative communities. I think those impressions have been borne out. On the other hand, the gate seems to be almost irrelevant in a lot of ways.” (p.894)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold) Robert E. Lang & Karen A. Danielsen (1997): Gated communities in America: Walling out the world?, Housing Policy Debate, 8:4, 867-899

This article revisits and reproduces the Friday, November 7, 1997, Panel Session: “Gated Communities in America” “Planning in the Americas” Conference, Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning, November 6–9, 1997, Fort Lauderdale, FL (moderated by Edward J. Blakely). It is this session that is referenced above.


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