The Impact of Gated Communities on Public Life
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The paper addresses a new dwelling typology that has developed in the contemporary world – ‘gated residential communities’; the problems associated with it at a social and urban level, focusing majorly on its impact on the city as a whole. It tries to explain the notion by taking the Indian city ‘Gurugram’ as an example. Understand and analyze its problems and causes – ultimately leading to provide possible strategies that can be incorporated in designs to minimize the negative impact on the city.
Few Strategies discussed to mitigate the damaging impact are by proposing mixed use projects (currently missing in the city) that integrate retail, commercial and housing in one built form. Doing so, one creates a platform for the different classes of the society to engage with one other. It also introduces public spaces that are active throughout the day which in turn makes it more ‘secure’ for people living in the residential units. Second, the edges of these gated communities can be activated with functions that address both the residents and well as outsiders. Doing so, one revives the current ‘dead streets’ of the city and lastly, urban government policies and laws can be introduced that encourage gated communities to use amenities and public spaces provided by the city (rather than create them individually within their bounds).
What is it that we understand by the term ‘gated communities’? To put it in simple words, these are walled communities that comprise of residential units in low, mid or high-rise buildings. In most parts of the world, these are ‘luxury’ housing complexes that are branded and sold under the tag line of being ‘secure’ and are flooded with ‘private’ amenities such as lush green parks, golf courses, sport complexes, retail shops, restaurants and much more.
At a macro and urban scale, these communities cause concern for the city and its people. The incorporation of additional amenities within the walled communities’ results in the redundancy of urban public buildings and spaces that the city provides. It leads to limiting social interaction at the city level and one creates smaller islands within the city, which then, further contribute to the current growing issue of ‘social and economic segregation ‘of classes.
How does one then design for the community? Design spaces both architecturally and at an urban scale, spaces that are perceived as safe and can be used by all. To build dwellings that are secure and yet promote social interaction within communities of varied social and economic backgrounds.
Section 1 : Evolution of Gated Communities
Looking at the essence of a gated community – ‘safety’, one can trace it back to pre-historic times. Man has felt a need of feeling ‘secure’ since the beginning of civilization. One can trace back the first piece of an architectural dwelling ‘the cave’ and notice how it was in some sense made secure by keeping small openings and the rest of the surface area covered. These caves soon started growing in size and inhabited members of a certain family or community. One can relate these caves to communities that were made secure by the concept of enclosure.
One notices a second example of development in gated communities by taking into account walled cities and castles of the medieval ages. They too had large walls around, contained a community inside and was heavily surveilled through guards. These walled cities housed the entire population with their dwellings, the civic buildings and recreational buildings. As population would grow every hundred years, a new layer of wall was built to accommodate for it. As the period of dark ages emerged, the armed forces and military become more prominent and powerful, and hence, there was no longer a need for large walls that enclosed the city.
We now jump to the re-emergence of these enclaves for the same reasons, but the scale drastically changed. The 20th century saw a remarkable rise in the gap between the different economic and social categories of the city. This increased the crime rate within cities by many folds and while the rich became richer, the poor became poorer. Upper economic classes now needed and could afford ‘security’, and hence, the concept of gated communities was born as a solution to this problem. Amenities to these housing projects were added for convenience and less commutation for the buyers. They later also turned into justification pointers for the high prices of these properties.
In many cases, the term ‘secure’ is more virtual rather than physical. The psychological barriers that these communities create are much more than the physical walls or that the security surveillance does. And despite these barriers, crime does prevail in gated communities as well..
Looking back at this evolution, gated communities majorly took birth as a tool for social segregation and response to the increasing fear about violent crimes. These communities of the contemporary world have developed in two symbolic ways for two different social classes – first, communities that brand exclusivity and emphasize on a luxury lifestyle focusing on leisure, amenities and property value. Second, communities that are less admired and only promote the idea of being secure which are the majorly occupied by the middle class.
In this section, we conclude to say that the notion of being ‘safe’ has long existed since the dawn of civilization but its degree and extent have changed over the centuries. The notion of security has also changed, which has influenced the scale of these enclosed dwelling structures. The caveman needed protection from animals and nature and so re-imagined the cave as his safe haven. The gated castles and walled cities were in need of projection from other civilizations / countries, the whole city as a community still stood united. Contemporary gated communities perceive people from lower social classes as threats and so have started building walls at an extremely small scale of inclusion.
In the coming section, we explore reasons for gated communities specific to the city of study.
Section 2: A Case Study of Gurugram, India
The city of Gurugram is a satellite city of New Delhi (national capital) located in the northwestern Indian state of Haryana and is part of the National Capital Region of India. As of 2011, Gurgaon had a population of 876,900 and has become a leading financial and industrial hub with the third-highest per capita income in the country.
The city’s economic growth story started when the leading Indian automobile manufacturer Maruti Suzuki India Limited established a manufacturing plant in Gurgaon in the 1970s. Today, Gurgaon has local offices for more than 250 Fortune 500 companies. These companies brought job opportunities which in turn increased the population. Today, Gurugram is considered a ‘millennium city’. It is regarded as an urban utopia by the people, even though the city lies fragmented as privately-owned properties divide it and in turn make the city seem disconnected: both figuratively and physically.
One can categorize the development of gated communities in Gurgaon as a birth of three primary factors.
- First, the economic disparity between classes that increased by many folds once industrialization and then tertiary sector started establishing base in the city.
- Second, the need for security as perceived by many; due to the increasing crime rates in the city; also indirectly connected to the disparity between classes.
- Third, real estate developers had bought land for cheap prices during the 1970’s from farmers in and around the area.
The best way to make large profits was to go vertical and incorporate more units per land area as the city bye laws grant FAR up to 3.0. By the 2000’s, they had also understood the economical demographics of the city and realized a majority of people could afford the high prices. This resulted in a boom in high rise gated residential complexes in the city and the number has only been increasing since then. The priority of the city’s residents is not contentment but safety. And perhaps in the current scenario, they are considered synonymous.
For this paper, we take one of the most prominent parts of the city (both residentially and commercially) : The Golf Course Extension Road. The road acts as a long spine that has two layers of built use around it. First commercial and second, residential. The commercial strip has offices and retail spaces such as malls, plazas and smaller retail units while the residential patches behind have mid to high rise gated complexes.
There is also a significant role of politics in the development of more than 650 gated communities in the city. The masterplan of the city designates land use to each zone of the city. Few corrupt officials in the system change these land uses and sell informal land plots (plots that violate the city land use zoning) under other land uses to developers who further build and sell the units at exorbitant prices to buyers. This method is considered as a valuable source of revenue generation by the local government.
Section 2 A : The self-defeating purpose of Gated Communities
A bi-product of gated communities in Gurugram is the growing population of the informal squatter settlements around the periphery of the walls. Domestic help is common in the Indian sub-continent. Every household in such communities employ people from the lower classes for cleaning, cooking, driving, gardening etc. This increases their demand and people from these societies settle down around the peripheral walls of the communities. Thus, reshaping the urban fabric of the city into sectors of poor and rich that co-exist with each other.
In certain ways this bi-product further emphasizes on the need of having gated communities in the city, thereby acting as a catalyst to the chain of enclaves that are being constructed in the city. Psychologically, the visual fabric of the city (gated communities surrounded by settlements of the urban poor) also re-enforces the need of security in one’s mind.
Section 2B : The City as Islands
As discussed above, the continuous fabric of formal settlements surrounded by informal settlements no longer form a distinct boundary between the rich and the poor areas of the city. Rather, they now co-exist as small individual islands (like organisms) spread across the city as interdependent and self-sustaining fabrics.
Section 3 : analyzing ‘Security’: the two stances on gated communities and impact on the social fabric of the city
Over the years there are two arguments on gated communities, for and against the concept.
First let’s analyze the argument that supports the development of gated communities. Advocates of gated communities observe and note that exclusion of ‘out-siders’ in a gated community, make strangers more recognizable in the closed environment. Heavily surveillanced through video and guards additionally inculcate the fear of being detected and reduce crime probability. Since only a small number of people not belonging to the community would visit it on a regular day, the probability of deterring, detecting and providing assistance during an incident would increase.
For those against the above argument, state gated communities as a sham that provide a false sense of security to its residents. Studies suggest that safety in gated communities is more of an illusion than reality. Dummy cameras are installed at various positions on the periphery and inside that only intimidate potential criminals. Security guards aren’t adequate to the size of the gated communities and a lot of times they are found sleeping during duty hours. Further, irrespective of such heavy surveillance, thefts and crimes are reported in gated communities too.
Another critic on gated communities is that contemporary urban settlements promote exclusivity that eradicate opportunities for interaction between the different social classes of the city thereby worsening marginalization of the urban poor. Communities allure likeminded people that settle down together and their physical seclusion from the urban poor worsens their thinking of how they are superior and more privileged, the same thinking is then inculcated in their children from a very young age.
Section 4 : Effect of gated communities on the Urban fabric of the City
As discussed in the above sections, one can conclude that gated communities form small islands within the city. These small cities have their own public spaces that are private and reserved only for it residents. Some such spaces include shops, restaurants, lavish parks, swimming pools, club houses etc. Looking at the bigger picture, since these communities have their own leisure spaces, on the larger urban scale, they make the public spaces provided by the cities redundant. People no longer use community parks and they are left baron and lifeless. This further makes them ‘unsafe’ as now, they are occupied by the homeless citizens of the city, further emphasizing on the initial root cause of ‘safety’.
Gated communities are a form of urbanism where public land is privatized. They isolate neighborhoods from each other and urban public spaces , thus creating blank street edges with continuous walls and no fenestrations on the outside. This leads to the loss of public life on the streets and also reduces safety as there are ‘no eyes on the street’.
Section 5 : Alternate to Gated communities
It is important to note that the city of Gurgaon currently, has no constructed mixed-use project with residential and another building uses such as recreational or commercial.
From the above sections, we conclude: gated communities isolate themselves as individual islands from each other and from the city public spaces. They divide the urban fabric of the city into islands of a single land use which lacks the vibrancy and hustle-bustle of mixed-use and socio-economic varied neighborhoods. They in turn end up creating blank windowless continuous streets between each other that ultimately lead to the loss of public life and hamper the public realm of the city. They limit city experiences for the citizens, and consequently result in a highly unequal society.
Urban planners and architects today struggle to design a new typology that can reduce the need for gated communities by providing for a much ‘safer’ environment for the city and its citizens. Some means of doing so are following factors such as mixed use, high density neighborhoods with retail spaces on the roads. By proposing mixed use projects that house retail and housing in one built form. Doing so, one creates a platform for the different classes of the society to engage with one other. It also introduces public spaces that are active throughout the day which in turn makes it more ‘secure’ for people living in the residential units.
The elimination of these territories completely may not be the solution since it is the need of the hour. However, distributing the cores of activities towards the external street edges may result in a more vibrant living environment similar to a colonnaded edge on a commercial street providing an interactive public edge.
Gated communities have become a symbol of metropolitan fragmentation in the urban areas. Through this paper, one establishes and develops an understanding of the reason of wanting gated communities: security. Looking at the current scenario of the world and keeping in mind 70% of the world population will be urban by 2050, there is an urgent need to start redefining our cities.
Gated communities segregate and discriminate between the different classes of our society, although the idea is to make themselves safer, the contradictory impact that they have on the city is of making it unsafe. Further, it is adding to the economic disparity in the city, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer with no platform for the two to truly engage with each other.
This then calls for a need to design architecture and urban spaces thoughtfully such that we mitigate the difference between the societies and truly form a city that is ‘whole’.