"This is a village with no facilities
beyond raw security"


Marcus Fairs opinion: gated communities

Opinion: in his latest column, Dezeen editor-in-chief Marcus Fairs discusses why gated communities are "becoming the default setting in towns and cities around the world" and asks whether it matters who owns the land beneath our feet.

From the air, it’s easier to spot wealth than poverty. Climbing out of Cape Town International Airport the informal settlements soon become a blur but the private developments remain in crisp focus, their pristine loops of asphalt standing out like Nazca lines, the bulk of their road-straddling gatehouses unmissable and their clustered tricolours of lawn, pool and villa conspicuous against the dun landscape.

Later, descending into Johannesburg in darkness, the city lights reveal the same pattern: random, dull and fuzzy in the shack districts but bright and purposeful in the secure enclaves.  The British euphemistically call these developments “gated communities” but South African developers use the more straightforward “security estate”.

In one such as these, near Pretoria to the north, Oscar Pistorius felt safe enough behind high walls, razor wire, attack dogs and armed guards to sleep with the patio doors open (albeit with a gun under his bed and a cricket bat behind the bathroom door).

Pistorius lived on the Silver Woods Country Estate (shown in the aerial image above) - a “pres­ti­gious secu­rity estate” of 290 homes and still-vacant building plots set amid similar districts with names like Willow Acres and Faerie Glen. This still-growing Securicor suburb will eventually house 25,000 people.

The sleeping and bathing quarters at Casa Pistorius are now among the most familiar interior layouts of all time thanks to numerous media reconstructions of the night he shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

Yet the urban design of Silver Woods has hardly been discussed, even though its paranoia-driven features might provide the only mitigating circumstances in Pistorius’ favour: people who live in these places clearly fear for their lives.

Like most security estates, Silver Woods has a single point of entry and departure: a covered, manned and barriered gateway, bristling with CCTV and biometric scanners and resembling a sub-tropical Checkpoint Charlie. It is connected to the public domain but not of it.

The estate is “enclosed with a solid, elec­tri­fied secu­rity wall” and is planned “in such a way that it has the feel of a vil­lage.” All build­ing work is sub­ject to “a strict archi­tec­tural and aes­thet­ics spec­i­fi­ca­tion”.

Yet this is a village with no facilities on offer beyond raw security: no stores, playgrounds, bars or cafes. Residents have to journey by car for all their daily needs, or get them delivered. Hinting perhaps at the fearful priorities of its residents, the estate’s website boasts of its proximity to hospitals and medical clinics first of all, before listing the distance to local schools and shops. The location of the nearest police station is not regarded as a benefit worth mentioning.

While security estates respond to violent crime they do not solve it. Despite its precautions Silver Woods has suffered “incidents” in the past. Beneath a brief statement on its website from the Silver Woods management commiserating on the Valentine’s Day tragedy a woman called Colleen has commented: “We moved to the UK to avoid the crime. While liv­ing in a ‘secure’ sub­urb in Johan­nes­burg we expe­ri­enced many an inci­dent with regards safety, bur­glary etc. Our chil­dren were vic­tims of hijack­ing attempts as well.”

Developments like Silver Woods attract universal disdain from architectural writers and urbanists. They are seen as a betrayal of civilised values and an abandonment of design’s potential to benignly regulate behaviour in the urban environment. Former Guardian architecture critic Jonathan Glancey called gated communities a “social ill” and wrote: “It's time we opened our gates, and to shoo the fear away as we do.”

But they are becoming the default setting in towns and cities around the world – and not only for the wealthy. In the USA, the number of homes in developments secured by walls or fences grew 53 percent between 2001 and 2009 and now account for ten percent of all occupied homes.

Anna Minton’s 2009 book Ground Control documented the creeping privatisation of urban space in the UK and the USA but the book predates news of entire private cities being built in Guatemala and Honduras.

She updated the book in 2012 to include a new chapter on the London Olympic Park, which she described as “a divided landscape of privately owned, disconnected, high security gated enclaves side by side with enclaves of poverty which remain untouched by the wealth around them”. This, she writes, creates “a climate of fear and growing mistrust between people, which together with the undemocratic nature of these new private places, erodes civil society.” This paragraph makes Stratford sound like Johannesburg, which it most definitely is not.

I once found myself accidentally living in a gated community in London and the experience taught me of its benefits. Between signing the contract and moving into the flat the developer erected a high, spike-topped fence, electronic gates and unmissable CCTV arrays.

I was furious, until I found out that the other residents had demanded the improvements after numerous muggings in the dark cul-de-sac between the converted warehouses of our development. The over-conspicuous security measures caused mild resentment among neighbours on the other side of the fence but opportunistic crime ended immediately. We came to appreciate our ugly guardians. They were needed to overcome a fundamental design flaw – the spatially indefensible arrangement of the converted industrial buildings.

But even where there is no razor wire or guard, much of life takes place in monitored environments that require entry credentials. Concierged apartment blocks are types of security estates, arranged vertically rather than horizontally. Office buildings with swipe-card entrance systems are security estates.

The Tube and rail networks are security estates, as is a ticketed festival or conference (entry to the Design Indaba conference I was attending in Cape Town was via fingerprint scanner). Large private developments like Canary Wharf are gateless, city district-sized security estates.

What we think of as the public realm has in many places shrunk to a leaf skeleton of arteries that connect non-public realms. But does it really matter whether the land beneath your feet is owned by the state or by a corporation? And if the former is unable to guarantee the safety of its citizens, is it not understandable that they turn to the latter?

  • sor perdida

    Exposing and debating the deviousness of the gated community concept is a long time due task for urbanists, anthropologists or sociologists – thank you Marcus Fairs and Dezeen!

    Must be added that the recent Trayvon Martin case in the US is a consequence of this paranoia that comes along with self-isolation based on status. Viewed through the safety glass wall or crosshairs, rather, the world outside the gated community – that is the normal world – becomes a constant peril that strains the nerves and clinches the trigger of this in-bred social patriciate rotten at core.

    Off and on, just as in J.G. Ballard’s novella Running Wild, the gated community implodes in sad yet expected tragic spectacles, with the same viciousness that generated it.

  • h.a.

    Easy to talk from london. One in three South African women hasbeen raped. It is not paranoia; it is a fact. I don´t particularly like those neighbourhoods, but I live in a place where, unlike South Africa, one can walk in the streets safely. Don´t make an academic discussion out of a more serious matter. By the way, it is in bad taste talking like that of the Pistorius case.

  • Nick Simpson

    It’s an interesting topic and not a straightforward one. There obviously has to be a line between public and private, but where do you draw it? The front door of a terraced house? The gates of a walled garden? The front door of a block of apartments? These all seem fine. In the gated development in London mentioned in the article, who other than residents ought to be wandering around those buildings?

    At the other extreme, gating off entire streets or neighbourhoods – especially those with shops and services – seems totally wrong.

    But where do you draw the line in the vast grey area between these? It’s a question that needs to be answered if we don’t want to see further fragmenting in western societies between those that have and those that don’t.

  • Gated communities proliferate all over Mexico city. Hell, I’m typing this from a house (re-purposed as studio/showroom) inside a gated community – we call them cerradas over here.

    To me this is an obvious consequence of the erosion of the middle class, which translates into social disintegration.

    The new multi-functional buildings that are being developed all focus on the same logic: offer their inhabitants the chance to perform as much of their daily routine INSIDE the comfort of their perimeter as possible.

    Why? To avoid wasting precious time commuting from point A to point B, but also to offer the illusion of protection.

    Yes, I say it’s an illusion because unless you’re willing to become a hermit sooner or later you’ll have to expose yourself in no man’s land. And our newspapers are filled of stories of how – even with bodyguards – rich people are kidnapped or assassinated on the street all the time.

    But the high-class in Mexico are all insistent on sticking with the American model of distribution of wealth – the so-called American dream, or as I call it, “every man for himself”.

  • firstkitten

    Just a point of law: until convicted by a court. I’d actually prefer to not see his story used opportunistically like this because it’s an insult to the victim, but if you must, at least be accurate.

    • BriH

      Could you explain in what way it is inaccurate? I’m not being awkward, I just don’t know all the facts (I’m not sure anyone does yet!)

  • I agree with nick. It’s all a question of scale. If it is a concierge in a tower block we wouldn’t expect strangers to be to allowed to roam the internal halls etc. When it is a large areas of detached houses with streets that are gated off and policed by dubious security services, it becomes more questionable. Having said that, there has been a very sad (and I believe largely unnecessary) change in British society since I was a child in the 1970s. Children are no longer allowed the freedom to play out on the street or disappear with their friends all day on their bikes as we were. Maybe a very large gated community would give their parents the confidence to allow them that freedom and that would be no bad thing.

  • taptap

    I find it quite shocking that the organizers of Design Indaba took their visitors’ fingerprints. What happens with the data afterwards? And how come visitors do that voluntarily instead of revolting for beeing treated like criminals?

  • Thomas Wensing

    The statistics are (see Chavs – the demonisation of the working class) that the UK went in 30 years from being one of the most equitable western societies to one in which the disparity between the haves and have-nots has become largest. Gated communities and the privatisation of the public realm are a reflection of this increased class separation. The reason why privatisation of the public realm is so dangerous is that they are controlled by an elite, and dismantle democracy and civil society.

    Companies are first and foremost accountable to their shareholders and the bottom line and have very little commitment to regular users (you and me) of public spaces. As the protests around St Paul’s have shown, because Paternoster Square is owned by corporations they can use publicly sponsored police services to get rid of protesters who exercise their legitimate civil right of expressing their opinion.

    If you read reports from the UN, these show that all sorts of social indicators (education, public health, crime) are better in more equal societies and yet we continue to believe in the travesty that people are mainly opportunistic, greedy and egocentric rather than social beings. We really need to elevate ourselves and fight for a more equitable division of wealth or these problems continue to persist.

  • Ishmael Mokgadi

    Thank you, Marcus Fairs, for your enlightened observations. As a resident of South Africa, I must say, I absolutely hate these gated communities. South African cities must surely have the worst planners in the world, who believe that gated communities are an answer to the crime problems.

    Where I live, together with other “privileged” people, individual homes also have walls – as high as two metres – that seem to have been designed to cut off social interaction with your neighbours. Days and nights are eerily quiet, except for the continual barking of huge dogs that are meant to deter would-be criminals.

    There is no green space in my complex: all land has been gobbled up by the greedy developer to cram in as many houses as possible. If you want to exercise, you have to DRIVE (not walk) to the nearest gym or sports complex, five kilometres away. The nearest coffee shop is ten minutes’ drive away.

    On days that I go for jogs, I’m usually the only human being jostling for space with speeding cars that don’t even bother to stop at pedestrian crossings. I’ve tried on several occasions to engage in friendly talk with the neighbours, but in a paranoid society that kind of behaviour is met with disdain.

    I miss hearing the voices of children running around. I miss seeing people WALKING. These gated communities are little Berlin Walls that should come down.

  • Ram

    Sorry that is an open road and a place not closed?

  • Antonio Aldazoro

    I am from Caracas, Venezuela. When I moved to my present house we were victims of armed robbery at least 4 times in a year. Our neighbors in the 50 houses were also victims of armed robbery almost everyday. Most houses have very tall fences, some with electricity on the top but that did not prevent any robbery. They came armed on motorcycles waiting for anyone who open his garage doors to assault us, so we decided to close the street and covert it to a gated community.

    Since the day we covert to a gated community we have had only one robbery in and house whose residents were out. So I believe gated communities could be a solution when the security that should be provided by the government fails. in reality for the middle class living in a gated community is another tax we have to pay to be safe.

  • bill

    To put this in a historical context, I guess the earliest Mesopotamian city-states can be understood as gated communities. Maybe the modern idea of public space is an anomaly.

    • Thomas Wensing

      There has been a lot of development since then, although the notion of linear progress is perhaps a fallacy; surely we should at least aim to create urban environments which are at once open, public and safe?