The phenomenon of gated communities — the fastest-growing form of housing in the United States — continues unabated in California and across the nation. There are now more than 1 million homes behind such walls in the Greater Los Angeles area alone. One-third of all houses built in the region are in secured-access developments. Across the U.S., there are 7 million households in fortified communities, according to the American Housing Survey of 2001, with the largest number located in the West.
This symbolism of wealth and security is so pervasive that there are now even faux gated communities, called "neighborhood entry identities," in Simi Valley that sport walls and guardhouses but no locked gates or guards.
Yet residents may be walling in more problems than they are keeping out.
Walled communities go way back in the history of human habitation. Ancient towns were surrounded by walls to protect inhabitants and their property. In the United States, gated residential developments first originated in upscale communities such as Llewellyn Park, N.J., in the 1850s, and in resorts like New York's Tuxedo Park, developed in 1886 as a hunting retreat and ringed by 24 miles of barbed wire.
It wasn't until the 1960s and 1970s, however, that middle-class Americans first sealed themselves inside in planned retirement communities like Leisure World in Seal Beach.
In the 1980s, real estate speculation was the driving force behind building gated communities around golf courses designed for exclusivity and prestige. By 2000, Southern California gated communities expanded to the suburbs and included a broad range of residents, not just the rich — although along with supposed cachet, those walls and gates also added to the price tag.
Unfortunately, this sought-after feature also helped to further divide our society. Of the 219 gated enclaves that Sorbonne geographer Renaud LeGoix identified in a study of Greater Los Angeles, a third were in middle-income white suburbs. But not only whites were isolating themselves: A fifth were in middle- and low-income Latino or Asian neighborhoods.
During ethnographic research from 1994 to 2002, gated community residents told me they were seeking safety and security along with a nice place to live. These desires were often expressed as a wish to live near people like themselves because of a fear of "others."
But in fact there is little evidence that gated communities are any safer, nor do they encourage a sense of community. Residents often acknowledged that they were experiencing a "false sense of security" because they still had to worry about the handymen, gardeners, domestics and even the private guards who entered every day.
The unintended consequences of gating are widespread. In addition to generating a sense of exclusion and social segregation, gating also contributes to an overall shortage of public space. And although proponents say the developments reduce the fiscal burden for their municipalities, if they fail — and some do — municipal costs can increase as local governments have to fund repairs.
Most people who move to gated communities are not aware of what they are giving up in their quest for safety and privacy. Growing up with an implicit fortress mentality, children may experience more, not less, fear of people outside the gates. The costs of maintaining one's home can escalate because of additional fees, such as maintaining privately owned roads and amenities while still paying taxes for unused public services.
Gated communities have homeowners associations with strict covenants, contracts and deed restrictions that regulate most aspects of their houses and environment. Many residents find these rules onerous, as was illustrated in an episode of "The X-Files" in which gated community homeowners who didn't toe the line were eaten by a monster.
One of the striking features of our world today is that many people feel increasingly insecure. To date, the main responses have been more policing, surveillance technology, privatized security forces and barricaded homes.
We must recognize that our fear is not simply about crime and "others" but is a reflection of the inherent insecurities of modern life. Perhaps then we can openly debate the effects of these gated communities — their social and psychological costs as well as their personal benefits.
Setha M. Low, a professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, is author of "Behind the Gates: Life, Security and the Pursuit of Happiness inFortress America" (Routledge 2003).
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times