In gated communities, such as where Trayvon Martin died, a dangerous mind-set

April 6, 2012

On the night he was shot, Trayvon Martin walked through an area that he may have thought was public territory. George Zimmerman, on the other hand, saw “a real suspicious guy” walking into what he probably perceived as his private domain. Because the Retreat at Twin Lakes, where the girlfriend of Martin’s father lives, is surrounded by gates with controlled access, the community is not quite public and not quite private space.

Gates convey to those living behind them that their “home” extends all the way to the walls surrounding the compound. Because streets and parks are accessible only to those living within the community, they begin to feel more like private living rooms and are defended fiercely against intruders. When gates blur public and private spaces in this way, these communities can become dangerous for the people inside and outside them — and dangerous for the nation’s ideal of equality among its people.

Proponents of gated communities often say they are safe, neighborly places. But according to my research and that of local police departments across the country, gated communities do not have less crime than the suburbs from which they’re walled off. (One exception is car theft, which my research with Mary Gail Snyder found to be less frequent in gated communities than in non-gated ones.) We also found that residents of gated developments don’t know their neighbors any better than people in other suburban communities.

For many, the guards at the gate provide an artificial sense of safety. In our surveys of more than 1,000 residents of gated communities, many said they chose to live there because they traveled or worked long hours, so they had no time to meet neighbors and used the guards as their home security system. In fact, some responded: Why get to know my neighbors? If there were an emergency, after all, I’d just call security.

Gates and security guards also convey to residents that their preserve is outside the wider community’s laws. It is their kingdom; anyone who enters it is subject to new rules that transfer public authority to private individuals. This creates a tragedy of the commons in which vigilante security can be a result of residents’ mistrust of the suburbs from which they’ve been walled off. All Americans should think about the role gated communities play in a democracy that’s supposed to guarantee equality to all.

Six to 9 million Americans live in single-family residences in gated suburban developments, according to 2009 census data. In most respects, these compounds don’t differ from any other suburban neighborhood except for the enclosing fences, walls, and gates with guards or alarms and codes. In addition, the developments take on many aspects of communal life. Residents hire outside firms to care for their streets. They don’t use public resources to build or maintain common spaces such as roads, parks and sidewalks, and they make their own rules for community behavior. They may even impose traffic and other rules specific to their development.

Many argue that they are double-taxed because they pay for private security and infrastructure in addition to paying local taxes. Why should they have to pay for municipal police and other services they don’t use? Somehow, they fail to recognize that their guards have no police powers and that they do have to go beyond the gates for many services, such as schools and hospitals.

And sometimes, the private utopia where residents control house colors, street use and noise levels becomes a police state where rules are strictly enforced. The community associations that govern these spaces can promulgate restrictions that in any open suburb would be violations of personal rights and freedoms.

Upper-income Americans aren’t the only ones living this way; gated communities are found in every socioeconomic class. Increasingly in inner cities, street barricades are being erected to thwart crime. In this sense, low-income people are mimicking upper-class neighborhoods in the hope they can stem the tide of crime on their streets.

But the evidence is clear: Though gates reroute traffic, they do not lower crime. Instead, in these controlled spaces, an “us vs. them” mentality festers: Leaders of gated communities need to show that there is value to their rules by creating an external enemy — those people outside the walls.

Not only do the gates breed fear, they also shrink the notion of civic engagement and allow residents to retreat from civic responsibility. Residents of these communities may ask: Why do we need to pass the bond issue for more police? We have police. Why should we pay for the new park downtown? We have a park.

In response, cities need to ask themselves: How can we have a city where some neighborhoods can choose whom to admit? How can we have a social contract when we can reduce or eliminate social contact? How can a democracy function if some of its members develop a private space that operates in isolation?

For more than 200 years, America has been grounded in the freedom to seek opportunity, with equal access, obligations and regard for the rights of others. We see around the world where walls, fences and barriers are put up — in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Beirut and elsewhere. Barriers erode social stability and civic responsibility. Some make sense to protect special natural habitats, schools and similar places. But in cities and suburbs, we need to share space to make our communities stronger and safer.

We have to work together to reduce crime, poverty and other social problems in our communities — rich and poor, black and white, urban and suburban. If we aren’t hanging out together where we live, we can easily fall apart.

ed2ser@aol.com

Edward J. Blakely is a professor of urban policy at the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney. He is a co-author of “Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States.”

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