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Gated communities in a world without borders

By Basak Tanulku, Simone Pekelsma, Utrecht University, Therese Kenna, University College Cork, Micaela Lois, Federal Office for Gender Equality, Qiong He, University of Amsterdam, Karla, Barrentes Chaves, University of Costa Rica, & Cristina Handal, Parsons School of Design

It is often said that we live in a borderless world. We saw this during the pandemic to some respects, when even though most of the world population were confined to their homes, people still “travelled” using the Internet, connecting people all over the world. Before the pandemic, global mobility had increased with many people regularly moving across national borders to live and work.

However, despite the perceived disappearance of certain borders, people still segregate themselves, their communities, or homes by various physical boundaries, such as locks, walls, gates, and fences. There are historical examples of walls and gates protecting people from outside threats, such as the Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall, and the Berlin Wall. There are also more subtle boundaries in almost every field of our lives: passports needed to enter another country; IDs to get into club; and payments such as membership at a gym. And there are boundaries that we simply feel, such as subtle cues from people that can make you feel alienated or excluded.

Perhaps one of the most recognisable boundaries remaining in contemporary societies, are those that surround gated communities. There are many types of gated communities: those in cities and the countryside, in the Global North and South, in different parts of the world. They are a contested and much-debated type of development. Characterised by physical and symbolic borders, they are usually described as deepening the separation between insiders and outsiders. To many people, gated communities are seen as segregated enclaves for the wealthy that allow them to disconnect from the broader geographies surrounding them.

But are all gated communities the same? Or might there be differences between gated communities concerning their local lives, gating practices, boundary-making and interaction with the outside?

As a group of scholars interested in gated communities, we came together for a session at the RGS-IBG Conference to discuss exactly these questions, drawing on our various research perspectives: Basak Tanulku (the chair), gated communities in a trendy district of Istanbul (Simone Pekelsma); luxury student accommodation (Therese Kenna and Ailish Murphy); gender identities in gated communities in Chile (Micaela Lois), economic segregation in Chinese cities (Qiong He, Sako Musterd, and Willem Boterman), fears of crime in gated communities in Costa Rica (Karla Barrantes Chaves); and on ‘street gates’ in Honduras (Cristina Handal and Clara Irazabal). This allowed us to draw out some key lessons about gated communities around the world.

Gated communities: Making and unmaking physical and symbolic boundaries

Together, our papers demonstrated how gated communities exist at different scales, from the micro realm of house to broader ones like cities.  They also demonstrate some more general themes linked to gated communities and their effects on cities and people.

The papers from the South American countries, Honduras, Costa Rica and Chile, for instance, showed once again, that gated communities that increase socio-spatial fragmentation and fear of crime. In Honduras, for instance street gates were shown to both increase the community bond and safety within the gates while diminishing the mobility and sociality of city inhabitants more generally. And in Costa Rica, it was shown that the perception of crime differs according to gender and income level.

Beyond fear of crime, gated communities were also shown to reproducing other gender roles and ideals. In Chile, we can see that when residents belong to these communities, they tend to reaffirm norms femininity, whiteness, heterosexuality, and being part of the upper class. This marks a growing tension between idealised heterosexual femininity reproduced inside gated communities and the new feminist and liberal femininity in broader Chilean society.

More broadly, cities have become more fragmented and unequal regarding access to the urban space. “Gated communities” are one form of segregation and symbolise a middle and upper-class search for safety, a good life, and exclusivity. But urban transformation, regeneration and gentrification also change the urban landscape, creating tiny cells of segregation according to different economic and cultural boundaries, thereby increasing inequality. We can see this through the example of studentification which can increase house and local service prices, meaning existing residents are forced to leave and more, often relatively wealthy, students move in.

So, how can cities become more just?

There is a growing literature on the question of justice, ranging from the ‘right to the city’ to less-radical approaches, such as rehabilitation programmes led by public-private partnerships. Some cities are more just than others. In the Global North, more advanced cities tend to show higher segregation levels. In contrast, their Chinese counterparts generally show less segregation than less developed cities due to a stronger industrialisation process and stronger professionalisation of the lower class. This has been accomplished by the incorporation of agriculture-related employees into low-end manufacturing and service industries.

Yet, polarisation does not only emerge due to class or income differences. Polarisation can also arise due to socio-cultural differentiation (education, social origin, ethnicity, or religion), encouraging people to live among others similar to them, rather than mixing throughout cities. Gated communities are often argued to encourage this kind of segregation, particularly when it comes to class and culture.

However, these class and cultural polarisations might not be that fixed. Instead, these physical and symbolic boundaries are constantly being made and remade. In some respects, we can see this in a gated development in Atasehir, a trendy central district of Istanbul on the Asian side of the city, redeveloped in the last decades. Rather than creating carceral structures involving gates and walls, in this gated development. Borders are continuously being made, unmade, and remade through various processes, including use of Airbnb, social media, and internal cultural clashes between residents.

Why the case study in Atasehir is different from the rest and as we asked in the beginning of the text, are all these developments the same? As we see in the Atasehir case study, and in earlier research there are some factors affecting flows in/outside gated communities, the relationships established with different actors (inside, local people and governments, other gated communities) and the community’s perception of the outside world: the master plan of gated community and their locations (in the city centre and outside), the design of housing units, security mechanisms, the walls (height and materials making up walls), and demographic profile of residents (income/class, culture, social origin, age) which might affect the likelihood of establishing relationship with the outside. Also, some residents facilitate the establishment of relationships between gated communities and broader society.

More generally,gated communities might not be regarded as “gated” (or closed) by their residents, who consider gated communities as no more than an ordinary housing unit. In this context, “gates” are simply a feature of their homes, among many others. It is up to them to open or close the gates, and “gated communities” are a step in the evolution of home (regarding safety mechanisms). Also, some housing developments are promoted as “gated” to lure potential buyers. While first types of gated communities address people with higher income and/cultural levels and have very strict security mechanisms, at the moment, “gates” have become a way to address all buyers and are constructed by imitating the upper-class gated communities. This demonstrates that sometimes “gates” exist at the discourse level, but in reality, they might not work properly to keep the dangers out. Last but not least, the same gated community might transform into a more open development over time due to the changes in planning, demographics, and management. All might affect their security and rules that regulate the flow of in/outsiders.

What we learn from these cases is that although the image of the gated community with physical gates epitomises segregation and exclusivity, there are other forms of “gates” – some physical, some economic, and some cultural – that work equally to create segregation. These boundaries are not found only in cities but in other scales, from the home to whole towns, cities and even countries. The boundaries create inequalities of various kinds and challenge notions of the “borderless” global world.

To have fairer cities and societies, we should therefore not only examine the gates we see but rather look at all boundaries, no matter what form they take. Only then, we can create spaces where physical and symbolic boundaries will be reduced, and the gates of gated communities can start to be brought down.

About the authors: Basak Tanulku is an independent urban sociologist who specialises in gated communities, socio-spatial fragmentation, urban transformation and vacancy, alternative spaces and initiatives, urban protests and the conflicts emerging in public spaces and commons. Tanulku has a PhD degree in Sociology from Lancaster University. Simone Pekelsma is an urban geographer from the Netherlands and works at Utrecht University. Pekelsma also conducts PhD research in Radboud University on gated communities in different countries by adopting a relational and comparative approach to study them. Therese Kenna is a lecturer at the Geography Department, University College Cork. Kenna works on cities and social change, the new geographies of urban exclusion, and teaching and learning urban geography. Micaela Lois has a MA degree in gender studies, Geneva University. Lois works at the Federal Office for Gender Equality in the department of violence. Lois is also interested in gender issues within gated communities. Qoing He is a PhD candidate in Urban Geography Group in University of Amsterdam working on segregation in China. Karla Barrantes Chaves works at the University of Costa Rica, she teaches planning at the Topographic Engineering School. Karla’s work focuses on fear of crime, gated communities and planning. She holds a PhD from the Bartlett School of Planning, UCL. Cristina Handal is a recent PhD graduate of public and urban policy at The New School. In her research, she explores the intersections between physical space, social behaviour and policy. She teaches courses in urban ecologies, urban design, architecture and information design at Parsons School of Design and works at the Healthy Materials Lab.

Suggested further reading

Kenna, T, Murphy, A. (2021) Constructing exclusive student communities: The rise of “superior” student accommodation and new geographies of exclusion. Geographical Journal

Tanulku, B (2012) Gated communities: From “Self-Sufficient Towns” to “Active Urban Agents” Geoforum

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