Do Gated Communities Threaten Society?
The shooting death of Trayvon Martin has caused an epidemic of soul-searching in the United States. In the weeks since George Zimmerman pulled the trigger in that Florida gated community, it feels as though the entire nation has been busy trying to explain to ourselves what happened and why. We want desperately to find some sort of lesson. Maybe we’re looking for redemption.
People who care about the way our cities and suburbs are built and organized have been no exception. In a post on Better! Cities and Towns, Robert Steuteville posited that “a poorly planned, exclusionary built environment” was a factor in Martin’s death.
The Retreat at Twin Lakes, where Martin died, is the kind of place where people choose to live when they want to be safe - from crime, from outsiders, from economic uncertainty. Of course, it doesn’t always work that way. By fostering suspicion and societal divisions, the argument goes, gated communities can paradoxically compromise safety rather than increasing it. And because they cut residents off from the larger community, writes Edward Blakely, author of Fortress America, they can “shrink the notion of civic engagement and allow residents to retreat from civic responsibility.”
The prevalence of gated communities has steadily risen across the United States and the world since the 1960s. Firm numbers are hard to come by, but Blakely cites census figures showing that between 6 and 9 million Americans live behind gates.
Rich Benjamin, author of Searching for Whitopia, wrote in The New York Times:
Gated communities churn a vicious cycle by attracting like-minded residents who seek shelter from outsiders and whose physical seclusion then worsens paranoid groupthink against outsiders.
I called Richard Schneider, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Florida and a specialist in place-based crime prevention, to find out what he thought of the discussion surrounding Martin’s death.
The answer is, according to Schneider, that there are no easy answers. “It’s hard to make a generalization,” he tells me, pointing out that there are many different types of gated communities catering to all parts of the economic and social spectrum. Some of them are walkable; some are not. Some are racially mixed (as is the Retreat at Twin Lakes), and some are not. Some are relatively affordable — you can find gated trailer parks - and some are filled with McMansions. Many of them are indistinguishable from any other suburban neighborhood. Did the built environment play a role in Martin’s death? Add it to the list of things we can never really know for sure about this terrible case.
As for whether gated communities deliver on one of their main selling points — protection from crime — Schneider says that research to date has been inconclusive. “It’s not a panacea,” he says about erecting gates. “You’re just as likely to be burgled by your next-door neighbor, especially if there are teenagers.” Criminals from outside are also quick to figure out how to get in. “They learn the code from the pizza guy,” says Schneider. “The effects of gating decay over time.”