Urban planning community

  • Gates and Walls

    By Perry Norton, FAICP

    The term "gated community" has a negative connotation for most planners, and perhaps for significant numbers of people with active social consciences. These are suburban, elitist, places - the thinking goes - where self indulging economic parasites go to live out their fantasies, and retreat from their responsibilities.

    A one to one conversation with a developer, or resident, of a gated community will produce horror stories of a whole range of assaults on persons and property. We have a right to protect ourselves and loved ones from these threats, they say. Oscar Newman sold many copies of his book on "defensible communities."

    Overreactions? Probably.

    But walls are not new, nor are predators.

    The dominant urban feature of the Middle Ages was the wall. The fallen Roman Empire was not replaced by another empire; it decayed from within and was cut apart from without. Outside destroyers were marauding bands, pirates on the land, who plundered and terrorized people who retreated behind walls. The church, which through monastic orders had preserved the classics, dominated many of those medieval retreats. But that dominance was frequently, and contentiously, shared with militarists, who could organize the people of the community into an effective defense unit.

    Before the Europeans came, the Lanape Indians were the chief residents of Manhattan Island. Amongst one another the various Lanape families lived peaceably. But individual, extended, families built palisade strongholds for their communal living during the months of winter, to protect their stored food from neighbors who had been less diligent in their harvest. When the Dutch arrived (1625, Peter Minuit, Dutch West Indies Company) their construction included Fort Amsterdam, with guns pointed in every direction. In 1655 Indians of various Hudson River tribes went on a rampage, and New Amsterdam residents took refuge behind the wall of their fortified community. Ergo, Wall Street.

    Are there any echoes here? Is there a new and growing sense of anarchy in our society today which generates the urge to protect? Certainly those malcontents who come together in militant, armed, bands aren't invading quiet residential areas with drive-by cannonades. But they are blowing up buildings, and filing phoney liens on properties, and threatening county clerks who refuse to process their malicious paper.

    Overreaction, or symbolic of outrages yet to come?

    It seems to me that before we can intelligently address any discussion about gated communities (walls, if you will), we must understand what really contributes to the urge to retreat thereto. Budgets of city planning departments are not likely to provide for research into such difficult subjects. Are our academicians helping to enlighten those planners who work daily with the public? I don't think so. But closing the gap between academia and practice is another subject altogether.

    "Gates and Walls" was originally published on Cyburbia on June 7, 1997.
    Comments 2 Comments
    1. Linda_D's avatar
      Linda_D -
      I think that Mr Norton is simply being alarmist because that urge to "hide behind a wall" has always been with a certain segment of people in our western culture. It's just that in the last century, our "walls" have been less obvious. IMO, the rise of gated communities really coincides with the end of social and legal means of keeping "the riffraff out" of the places that snobbish/bigoted/paranoid people prefer to live. You don't need a gate if you have a domestic staff to always keep your mansion occupied. You don't need a gate if "respectable" people dress and speak distinctively differently from the unwashed masses. You don't need to have a gate if you have restrictive covenants that don't allow Jews or African Americans or other "undesirables" to move in next door. You don't need to have a gate if your local police force harasses any dark-skinned person walking down a street or any person driving an older, beatup care in the neighborhood.

      As our society has become more tolerant, and the legal, social, and cultural "walls" that were the norm 50 or 60 years ago have crumbled, the people who don't like living in diversity have had to build physical walls to separate themselves.
    1. TerraSapient's avatar
      TerraSapient -
      I read a good book about living in gated communities in graduate school. It is certainly worth checking out if this topic appeals to you.In terms of why people choose to live in gated communities, I don't think the motivation is exclusively "anti-diversity", though I'm sure some residents might feel this way. IMO, frequently people choose to live in a gated environment because of the sense of security it provides. This doesn't mean that gates actually provide improved security, just that it makes people feel safer. This is true of persons from a variety of economic backgrounds, not just the affluent.It is interesting that the increased development of gated communities has positively corresponded to a decreased social acceptance of racism and sexism. More importantly, perhaps, is that fact that we are seeing such a large rise in the development of gated communities again in human history during a time when we once again have a striking gap between economic classes in society. Fear of the serfs revolting?