Gated Communities

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Gated Communities

Gated communities are residential areas, ranging in size from individual streets and neighborhoods to entire cities, enclosed by walls and gates that are intended to prevent unauthorized entry by nonresidents. In many gated communities further protection against the outside world is provided by private security guards and electronic security systems. Most such communities operate as Common Interest Developments in which residents collectively own the common spaces or shared amenities, and a private homeowners association oversees community affairs. The population of these fortified enclaves tends to be overwhelmingly middle-or upper-class, white, and middle-aged or older. The primary reason they settle in such places, according to surveys, is to escape the crime, traffic, and noise of the cities and ungated suburbs. To many observers, the rising number of gated communities constitutes, in the words of Clinton Administration Labor Secretary Robert Reich, "the succession of the successful" from the civic life of the broader society.

Although gated communities in one form or another have existed in America since the colonial era, up until the late 1960s they were popular only with the ultra-rich and privacy-conscious celebrities. In the 1970s, developers built a few master-planned walled subdivisions aimed primarily at senior citizens and retirees. By the 1980s and 1990s, gated communities designed for ordinary middle-class families were proliferating at a rapid rate, particularly throughout the Sun Belt states. Researchers agree that middle-class fears about rising crime and concerns about the deterioration of municipal services are the most important factors behind the boom in gated developments. In their book Fortress America, Edward Blakely and Mary Gail Snyder estimate that by 1997 the United States had approximately 20,000 gated communities with some three million units of housing and 8.4 million residents. Some of the gated developments being built in the 1990s attempt to incorporate all the traditional features of city living behind their walls. An excellent example of this trend is Green Lake, Nevada, a sprawling walled suburb outside Las Vegas that is expected to have 60,000 residents by the year 2005. It is divided by house size and cost into prefabricated "villages," each with its own meeting hall, recreational center, school, park, and in the more exclusive tracts, an entrance with a manned guardhouse. At the same time, more and more preexisting neighborhoods and suburbs are walling themselves off from surrounding cities by barricading public streets and installing gates and security systems.

In the majority of gated developments that are organized as CIDs, homeowners associations function as a kind of private government. People who buy property in such developments are forced to join the association, pay dues, and agree to abide by its rules. Homeowners associations deliver such traditionally public services as trash collection, policing, snow removal, road maintenance, and street lighting. They also make regulations governing all aspects of life in the community, including rules limiting the hours and frequency of visitors, setting the minimum age of residents, banning the display of flags, prohibiting certain kinds of pets, and specifying what color paint owners can use on their houses. Fairbanks Ranch, an affluent gated community in Southern California, is patrolled by private security officers who enforce a speed limit set by the homeowners association which fines repeat speeders $500 and bans them from the community's streets for a month. A few gated communities have succeeded in incorporating themselves as full-fledged municipalities (in which the elected city government usually defers to the rule-making authority of the homeowners association).

As the proportion of the population living in them has risen, gated communities have gradually become a political force to be reckoned with. In California, private homeowners associations have lobbied state legislatures for the right to deduct homeowner dues from state income taxes. In New Jersey, private homeowner associations in 1990 pushed legislation through the state legislature which entitles their members to rebates on the property taxes they pay to support city services.

Yet even as gated communities were beginning to enjoy the fruits of their new-found power, there were signs in the late 1990s of a growing backlash against what planner Norman Krumholtz has called the "balkanization" of America's cities. Four communities in suburban Dallas—Addison, Plano, Richardson, and Southlake—decided to prohibit barriers on public roads and even placed moratoriums on the construction of private gated developments. In 1995, both San Diego and Portland began studying policies that would limit the spread of gates within their boundaries. Proposals to erect walls around existing communities and close public streets have been successfully fought in courts and city councils in Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Sacramento, and elsewhere.

Ultimately, however, whether the number and population of America's fortified enclaves continues to expand will be determined less by political battles than by the desires and decisions of millions of home buyers in the years to come. As long as fear of crime and the desire for peace and quiet outweigh the lure of public life in the minds of those who can afford to choose where they live, gated communities will continue their inexorable spread across the nation's landscape.

—Steve Macek

Further Reading:

Blakely, Edward, and Mary Gail Snyder. Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States. Washington, D.C., Brookings Institution Press, 1997.

Judd, Dennis. "The Rise of New Walled Cities." Spatial Practices: Critical Explorations in Social/Spatial Theory. Edited by Helen Liggett and David Perry. Thousand Oaks, California, Sage, 1995, 144-166.

McKenzie, Evan. Privatopia: Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government. New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Press, 1994.

Stark, Andrew. "America, the Gated?" Wilson Quarterly. Winter 1998, 58-79.