Fortress Communities

The Walling and Gating of American Suburbs
Edward J. Blakely and Mary Gail Snyder, September 1, 1995

Gated communities are residential areas with restricted access designed to privatize normally public spaces. These developments occur in both new suburban developments and older inner city areas retrofitted to provide security. We estimate that at least three or four million and potentially many more Americans are seeking this new form of refuge from the problems of urbanization.

This rapidly growing phenomenon has become ubiquitous in many areas of the country since the late 1980s. While early gated communities were restricted to retirement villages and the compounds of the super rich, the majority found today are middle to upper-middle class. Along with the trend toward “forting up” in new developments, existing neighborhoods of both rich and poor are using barricades and gates with increasing frequency to isolate themselves.

Gated communities can be classified in three main categories based on the primary motivation of their residents. Two types of “lifestyle” communities provide security and separation for the leisure activities and amenities within. These include retirement communities and golf or country club leisure developments as one subgroup and suburban new towns as another.

In “elite” communities the gates symbolize distinction and prestige. Through both creating and protecting a secure place on the social ladder, these communities become enclaves of the rich and famous, developments for the very affluent, and executive home developments for the middle class.

The third type is the “security zone,” where fear of crime and outsiders is the key motivation for defensive fortifications. This category includes middle-class areas where residents attempt to protect property and property values; working-class neighborhoods, often in deteriorating sections of the city; and low-income areas, including public housing complexes, where crime is acute.

Urban Problems Stimulate Trend to Gating

High levels of foreign immigration, a growing underclass and a restructured economy are changing the face of many metropolitan areas and fueling the drive for separation, distinction, exclusion and protection. Gated communities are themselves a microcosm of America’s larger spatial pattern of segmentation and separation by income, race and economic opportunity. Suburbanization has not meant a lessening of segregation, but only a redistribution of the old urban patterns. Minority and immigrant suburbanization is concentrated in the inner ring and old manufacturing suburbs. At the same time, poverty is no longer concentrated in the central city, but is suburbanizing rapidly.

Gated communities are not yet the normal pattern in the nation. They are primarily a metropolitan and coastal phenomenon, with the largest aggregations being in California, Texas and Florida. However, gates are being erected in almost every state. Real estate developers suggest that the demand for homes in gated communities is increasing, and there is evidence that housing appreciation in such developments is higher than outside the gates.

Fear of crime is the strongest rationale for this new form of community. According to recent reports in Miami and other areas where gates and barricades have become the norm, some forms of crime, such as car theft, are reduced. On the other hand, some data indicate that the crime rate inside the gates is only marginally altered by barricades. Nevertheless, residents report less fear of crime in such settings. This reduction in fear is important in itself, since it can lead to increased neighborly contact, which can reduce crime in the long run.

Policy Issues for Community Life

The development of gated areas is related to the uncoupling of industry from cities and of professionals from the industrial core. Geography compounds current trends toward fragmentation and privatization by undercutting the old foundation of community and providing a new rationale for the lifestyle enclave or gated community based on shared socioeconomic status. This narrowing of social contact is likewise narrowing the social contract.

Privatization- the replacement of public government and its functions by private organizations which purchase services from the market- is promoted as a “benefit” of gated communities, but it may have serious impacts on the broader community. Private communities provide their own security, street maintenance, parks, recreation, garbage collection and other services, thus relieving taxpayers of additional burdens. However, they may also have the unintended consequence of reducing voter interest in participating in tax programs or voluntary efforts to deal with community problems or additional public services such as schools, streets, police or other city and county government programs.

The resulting loss of connection between citizens in privatized and traditional communities loosens social contact and weakens the bonds of mutual responsibility that are a normal part of community living. As a result, there is less and less talk of citizenship. The new lexicon of civic responsibility is that of the taxpayers who take no active role in governance but merely exchange money for services. Residents of privatized gated communities say they are taking care of themselves and lessening the public burden, but this perspective has the potential for redistributing public costs and benefits.

Walled and gated communities are a dramatic manifestation of the fortress mentality growing in America. As citizens divide themselves into homogenous, independent cells, their place in the greater polity and society becomes attenuated, increasing resistance to efforts to resolve municipal, let alone regional, problems.

The forting-up phenomenon has enormous policy consequences.What is the measure of nationhood when neighborhoods require armed patrols and electric fencing to keep out other citizens? When public services and even local governments are privatized and when the community of responsibility stops at the subdivision gates, what happens to the function and the very idea of democracy? In short, can this nation fulfill its social contract in the absence of social contact?

Edward J. Blakely, a visiting fellow of the Lincoln Institute, is dean and Lusk Professor of Planning and Development for the School of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Southern California. Mary Gail Snyder is a doctoral student in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of California at Berkeley.

Additional information in printed newsletter:

1. Map of the United States showing concentrations of Gated Communities.

2. Table showing Social Dimensions of Gated Communities.