by Michael E. Bregman, AICP
Many communities have responded to rising crime levels or the perception of rising crime levels by erecting walls around their neighborhoods and controlling access by gates. The trend toward gated communities has become increasingly popular. However, the debate over whether gated communities benefit or detract from communities has supporters on both sides.
Walls and gates control access to these communities, restricting access to those that residents may consider "undesirable." Under these measures, all roads leading to a community are blocked, except for one or a few usually near the main road for maximum convenience to residents and visitors. Vehicles and pedestrians must pass through gates that are often manned by uniformed security officers. Often, systems assign residents and visitors to use separate lanes to enter. Residents use specially issued computer cards or fobs to open gates while the guard verifies authorization for entry by visitors with residents by telephone.
Supporters point to evidence that gates and walls reduce crime within communities. Indeed, crime rates inside these communities are typically lower than those in the outside world. Many residents also express a feeling of security from the surrounding walls or fences. One could also make an argument that emergency vehicles reach an address more quickly if the security service has sufficient personnel to direct emergency services to the exact location, an option that may be particularly attractive if the neighborhood does not rely on a numbering system for its street network.
Supporters also assert that the walls add privacy to the neighborhoods and increase its prestige. On the other hand, detractors emphasize many faults in the concept of gated communities. First, they argue that blocking roads creates greater traffic congestion through the surrounding areas. Put simply, the same amount of traffic must use fewer streets. Taking more streets out of the network also reduces the street network density, creating more uninterrupted stretches, and consequently encourages higher speeds and more dangerous conditions for drivers and pedestrians.
Problems may also occur when emergency vehicles need to access a location within the walls. They must stop and wait for the gate to open, costing precious seconds. Also, when there is a preponderance of gated communities within a general area, emergency vehicles may experience the same congested traffic conditions described above, especially during peak travel periods.
Although residents of gated communities' may enjoy a sense of security and seclusion within their walls, they also experience these difficulties when they venture outside. Detractors of gated communities also underscore this fact as a disadvantage. Another problem is the lack of communication between neighborhoods. In traditional neighborhoods, social networks develop due to a number of factors including a high level of pedestrian mobility. Being able to easily walk from one location to another allows individuals to visit shops or friends in other neighborhoods. The increased numbers of people generates more safety. In gated communities by contrast, a lack of people on sidewalks detracts from the community's ability to provide this type of natural surveillance.
Typical gated communities are also exclusively residential, as many residents express misgivings concerning mixed use. Many believe that mixed use causes higher crime levels lower standards of living, even though these feelings are largely unfounded. Even when including mixed use, controlled access limits potential customers and thus also limits business opportunity. Thus, social networks do not develop in these communities in a natural way. Often, they only arise through programming such as parent-teacher associations.
In essence, many people find the security or the appearance of security found in gated communities to be attractive. However, questions over whether these communities really provide more security and other impacts to their surroundings make the concept of gated communities highly controversial. Potential home buyers should examine all of the pros and cons of living in gated communities before deciding to purchase a home.
Michael E. Bregman is a city planner residing in Israel. He was formerly employed as Senior Planner by the Miami-Dade County Department of Planning and Zoning and is also the former chairperson of the American Planning Association Gold Coast Section.