The migration by Americans into gated communities is a growing trend that does more harm than good, and does not provide the safety, security and sense of community that residents seek, according to Setha Low, professor of environmental psychology and anthropology and the director of the Public Space Research Group at the City University of New York.
Low spoke on Feb. 23 at the University Club as part of the Community Outreach Partnership Center’s continuing lecture series, ‘The Changing Face of Orange County.’
In her lecture, titled ‘Gated Communities: Security, Segregation, and the Culture of Fear,’ Low discussed her findings from 10 years of ethnographic research of gated communities in New York, Texas and Mexico City and why there has been an increase in Americans moving to gated communities.
‘This retreat to walls, gates and guards materially and symbolically contradicts aspects of an idealized American ethos and values, threatens democratic spatial values, such as access to public space, and creates … another barrier to social interaction, the building of social networks, as well as tolerance of diverse, racial, cultural and social groups in a period that is already marked by homeland security,’ Low said.
She added that gated communities represent the ‘American Dream with a twist because resident security is gained by architecturally excluding others and providing for services privately. Further, an intensified politics of fear is emerging that justifies gating as well as private governance, increased social controls and surveillance to reinforce these social, spatial and class-based exclusionary practices.’
Gated communities originated as places for the wealthy and later expanded with planned retirement communities, such as Leisure World in Seal Beach, according to Low. Gated communities later expanded in the 1980s.
‘The majority of gated communities are in California, Texas and Arizona, drawing retirees attracted to the weather,’ she said. ‘One-third of all new communities in Southern California are gated [as of 2000].’
Low said that the western United States has the highest percentage of gated communities in the country.
‘More than any region in the United States, gated communities are transforming Southern California,’ Low said. ‘The metropolitan Los Angeles area alone has over 1 million walled residential units.’
Low cited the passage of Proposition 13, which led to local governments having to turn to private companies to provide infrastructure and services, the post-World War II fetish with suburbs and the spread of gang violence as reasons for the dramatic expansion of gated communities in Southern California.
Her research revealed that gated communities don’t necessarily have less crime than the surrounding area. In addition, residents did not find the friendly community that they were looking for. She found that residents did feel safer, but they worried all the time about the guards and the workers, and the residents had their home security systems on all the time.
She believed that there are many negative consequences to living in gated communities, such as the continuation of a ‘pervasive sense of insecurity.’
‘Surveillance, gating, walls and guards don’t provide a solution because they don’t address an emotional reaction,’ Low said.
‘My concern is that fortress architecture, which was originally designed for retirement communities and elite retreats, is becoming commonplace … and preferred for the middle class and families with children,’ Low said, adding that gated communities are more harmful to children who grow up fearful of the outside and others.
Other consequences of gated communities include racialized spatial ordering, a politics of exclusion, triple taxation on residents for services inadequately provided, a loss of legal rights and freedom of speech, court adjudication and excessive restriction and degree of control from the homeowner’s association, according to Low.
She concluded her speech by suggesting that architects and planners reconsider gating as a design and search for other alternatives.
‘On one hand, I do think that families have the right to feel safe … and we have an obligation to provide that,’ Low said. ‘I just wish we could find another way to do so that doesn’t require gates and guards that I think creates this landscape of fear that is concrete, and it will be with us forever because it isn’t necessarily going to go away.’
Carolyn Mamaradio, a third-year environmental analysis and design major, agreed with Low’s argument.
‘I never really liked gated communities,’ she said.
For Arfakhashad Munaim, a third-year environmental analysis and design major, the discussion left him with a big question mark.
‘I couldn’t figure out why gated communities would be more harmful. I thought they were secure and there to protect the community rather than be more harmful,’ he said.
The next lecture in this series, ‘The Bridge over the Racial Divide: Rising Inequality and Coalition Politics Reexamined’ with Professor William Julius Wilson of Harvard, will be held from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 11 at the Beckman Center.
Through this lecture series, COPC hopes ‘to bring the community and the campus together to dialogue about how we’re changing and where we’re going as we become more diverse and move into the future,’ according to COPC Executive Director Kristen Day.