Monday, December 10, 2007

Gated communities -- neither boon nor doom?

[“New Suburbia”: This is one of a series on the changing aspects of suburbia.]

   Left-leaning social critics have long disparaged the phenomenon of “gated communities” as an anti-social reflection of white suburbanites trying to hide from “the other,” with unsavory undertones of racism and an irrational fear of crime (when the suburbanites aren’t worried about their children being poisoned by Chinese toys).  Transportation planners sometimes fret that the isolated nature of gated communities makes integration into road systems difficult.  Barbara Ehrenreich recently published an essay arguing that gated communities don’t really provide the safety that they offer, referring to anecdotes and studies about crime within gated neighborhoods.

Gate    To me, the gated community is an unsurprising manifestation of the human desire for a sense of security –- whether or not it is effective.  Haven’t fancy Manhattan apartment houses always had a doorman?  Don’t middle-class walkup apartments have a locked door and a buzzer system?  Hasn’t the European vernacular of townhouses often presented a forbidding aspect to the street, with life centered on a secluded courtyard (unlike the British vernacular of a more inviting front door)?  Aren’t fences and gates far more ubiquitous in many other non-Western nations, which can’t be tarred with charges of American racism?   

   To the extent that Ehrenreich is correct that a gated community provides no refuge from crime, I would like to use this assertion to bolster my contention that the old chestnut about a sharp dichotomy between “city” and “suburb” makes little sense in today’s America.  Affluent old neighborhoods in big cities that have no gates (and yes, many “cities” include single-family homes) often have low crime rates, while gated communities in suburbs can be plagued by crime, especially if they are offer moderate-cost housing (a growing phenomenon) or are close to a poorer neighborhood.  Land use law acts like an ostrich if it clings to outmoded notions about a homogeneous and bland realm of suburbia.

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