What would happen if we let gated communities thrive?

Ronald Maheu and James Lemon
The Next City
December 23, 1996
Ronald Maheu

We’d return to our roots. For generations, cities great and small have used gates to identify specific neighborhoods and to establish a sense of place. To pick Toronto examples, three older gated areas — Palmerston Avenue, Fairview Boulevard and Wychwood Park — are city jewels that command high real estate values.

We’d let residents, not bureaucrats, shape their neighborhoods. Different strokes for different folks. Gated communities cater to those individuals who prefer security to diversity, providing residents with housing that, through covenants and other restrictions, is more consistent, without ugly additions, unsightly fencing, “naturalized” gardens or houses painted in unconventional colors. Gated communities also provide residents with a sense of security and well-being, in that their homes are being looked after while they are away. The village aspect of these developments generates a strong sense of community with residents whose common bonds make them more likely to interact with one another. Critics call gated communities a disquieting sign of our changing times that we should somehow discourage. Many municipalities, however, stay out of the business of social engineering, allowing the residents to decide on their preferred form of housing.

Nothing mean-spirited or defensive about them. Gated communities have raised the spectre of armed camps of suburban residents barricading themselves against the onslaught of the city. The truth of the matter is much more mundane: generally a group of “empty nesters” who share similar attributes and attitudes with their neighbors, comforted by the fact that they have a community mini-golf facility within walking distance, and that all the houses are painted beige.

Stable real estate values promote stable communities. With our aging population increasingly cherishing values like peace of mind, the developers of these gated communities will find little difficulty finding buyers. Since the consistency of style makes the community’s future more predictable, property values tend to be maintained.

James Lemon

Society would be less egalitarian. Gated, often walled, and even guarded communities supposedly offer a greater sense of security and, hence, serenity. More likely, they appeal to a yearning for higher status in the midst of what has been a relatively egalitarian society. America has always been more competitive, more dangerous, more exclusive, more status driven than Canada. Why follow the American way?

Our social fabric would be frayed. Gated communities spring from a 20th-century American trend to fragment urban areas into small municipalities, all with the intent to exclude the unwanted. Apparently, municipal fragmentation has been inadequate, leading to gated communities. In Canada we had it right — municipalities are inclusive, not exclusive. These kinds of neighborhoods undercut the municipal and, hence, the social fabric.

Family life would suffer. Not only do they tear society, they are internally prone to self-destruct. In Harper’s (November 1992), David Guterson described a gated and guarded community on the margins of Las Vegas, the quintessential city of our age. There he found that, despite corporate smoothness and sweet talk, tensions mounted within the community and within families. When a bunch of fearful, even paranoid people act out in this way, social relations implode. Like ancient Rome, decay from within was more destructive than outside enemy attacks.

Our economy would suffer. Gated communities are a sign of the times. In the past, during periods of excessive speculation followed by depression, a similar intense preoccupation with status and exclusion flourished. The late 19th century, the Gilded Age of conspicuous consumption, promoted the survival of the fittest — social Darwinism. From the extravagant 1920s to the meanness of the Great Depression, a similar tendency played out. In the last 20 years, we’ve moved away from a more cooperative way of living, which had stronger economic growth, to competitive madness followed by yet another economic weakening.

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