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Le périurbain : quelles représentations ?

Unlocking Miami’s suburban gated communities: a semiotic and iconographic approach

Les complexes résidentiels sécurisés dans l'espace périurbain de Miami : Une approche sémiotique et iconographique
Franziska Pufe


Since the end of the 1990s, gated residential neighbourhoods have moved into the focus of an interdisciplinary scientific community. Asking why they have loomed in the last two decades, the majority of publications find the answer in an increased fear of crime, a widened socio-economic polarisation and a wish to privatise public goods. Arguing from a constructivist and critical point of view, chiefly with respect to the ideas of the new cultural geography, I assert in the context of Miami that these generalisations have to be challenged, particularly since there are many to be found in suburban spaces.

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  • 1  I thank the anonymous reviewers as well as my colleagues Vera Denzer and Frank Feuerbach (both Uni (...)

1On my daily commute to the University of Miami I came across a perseverative phenomenon: residential neighbourhoods with road closures, gated entrances, restrictive prohibition signs, surveillance cameras and guards watching ordinary incidents, people and cars. Moreover, I was surprised at how different the gates’ designs and embellishments were. My curiosity aroused, I drove towards the entrances. In most cases I was asked by the guards to leave the property immediately if I did not have an invitation from a resident. These observations reminded me of the book Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States, by Blakely and Snyder (1997), a well-cited publication and major starting point for the vast debate on gated communities.

2Studying the literature on urban geography in the last decade, it becomes apparent that gated communities are a much debated issue. While some of the scholars engage in examples from a variety of countries (e.g. Blandy, 2006; Blinnikov, 2006; Coy and Pöhler, 2002; Glasze, 2002; Low, 2003) showing how gated communities have become a global phenomenon, others try to shed light on theoretical arguments to explain why they have sprawled since the 1990s (e.g. McKenzie, 1994; Webster, 2002). Even though a lot of work has been done, the publications often leave their audience with the impression that gated communities are primarily evidence of increased fear of crime, a widened socio-economic polarisation and a privatisation of public goods.

3Arguing from a constructivist and critical point of view, particularly with regard to the ideas of the new cultural geography, these generalisations have to be challenged. The interpretation of gated communities is not stipulated; i.e. the meaning of a built environment or landscape can change over time or, rather, vary concerning the spatial and social context (Jackson, 1989; Cosgrove, 1984; Cosgrove and Daniels, 1988). In this regard, architecture and the built environment as forms of communication are open to various interpretations and meanings attached by different actors at different times.

4Furthermore, it is striking that previous studies on gated communities have primarily used standardised questionnaires or structured/semi-structured interviews mainly asking why residents have moved into them. Methodologies, such as semiotics and iconography, which are able to ask for diverse representations attached by residents, have not been applied so far. Moreover, developers and architects and their important role in the constitution of gated communities have been treated as more or less incidental by these studies.

5Taking these observations as a starting point for research, I would like to show in the context of Miami’s gated communities that there are diverse representations to be found when approaching them with semiotic and iconographic analyses and when focusing on a diverse group of people (i.e. residents, developers and architects) in a suburban context.

The context

6Miami is a hot place in a dual sense: Miami’s temperatures are constantly high by reason of its geographical location close to the equator. It is also a vibrant city, well known as a place for tourists and the rich and famous. However, the latter aspect has not always been the case. Although the first settlers arrived in 1821, nothing in the way of urban development took place then. This is due to the fact that Miami was hardly connected by train or other means of transport until 1896 (Muir, 2000). Thanks to technical advancements such as the drainage of the Everglades and the establishment of a railroad network, Miami became the goal of many Americans looking for a new homeland or holiday destination far away from the stuffy and industrialised cities of the northeast. With this development, the population increased dramatically: while Miami was inhabited by only 1,680 people in 1900, it had grown to almost one million by 1960 (U.S. Census of Population of Florida 1975, cited in Blume, 1979). This growth further escalated with immigration waves, mostly from Cuba, Haiti and Venezuela. In this regard Miami underwent the “most dramatic ethnic transformation of any major American city in this century(Grenier and Stepick, 2002: 3). In 2000, Latinos and Hispanics accounted for over 57% of the total population (2.3 million) of Miami Dade County (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000).

7Miami has not only changed in terms of population but also economically. These days Miami has functions of a global city due to major transnational economic activities in Latin America (Sassen, 2000; Sassen and Portes, 1993). Beside this economic progress, however, Miami is known as the third poorest US city by reason of the 396,000 people who live below the poverty line (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000). At the same time, Miami houses the wealthiest community in the entire country (Fisher Island, with a per capita income of $236,000 in 1999) (ibid.). Furthermore, Nijman (2000) notices among other phenomena, like a weak social contract, a loss of a common identity and excessive materialism, particularly an increased number of privatopias such as gated communities.

The boom of gated neighborhoods in Miami

  • 2  The Sun Belt is the geographic south of the United States, which includes southern and southwester (...)

8The appearance of gated communities in the United States was rare until the 1980s. Since then, Blakely and Snyder (1997) have observed a construction boom. In 1997 they estimated 20,000 gated communities in the United States. However, this number has long been exceeded because gated communities, as established forms of residential suburban developments, have increasingly spread from the Sun Belt2 to the north and northeast of the United States.

9A mapping of 200 gated communities in Miami which I conducted in May 2007 showed that only a few date back to the 1980s. In fact, the data collection points out that Miami has been accompanied by a gated development construction boom, particularly during the 1990s. Furthermore, the local newspaper Miami Herald did not start to mention gated neighbourhoods until the early 1990s (e.g. “Gated-access communities come in many price ranges”, Miami Herald, 27.06.1993). Departing from these findings, Miami’s gated communities can be regarded as a relatively new phenomenon.

10On the basis of the mapping, it also became clear that Miami’s gated neighbourhoods primarily concentrate in suburbia. While only a few exist in areas which developed during the early suburbanisation phase (inner suburbs), such as Coral Gables or Coconut Grove, the vast majority lie in corporations, like Doral, Aventura or South Miami, which were built during later expansion phases (outer suburbs). Doral is exceptional among other suburbs in Miami. Here, lots of gated communities cluster along the streets (Figure 1) and even more are planned to be built. Open neighbourhoods, public parks or cultural attractions such as museums, theatres and sports stadiums hardly exist. Only some shopping centres and office parks open up the homogenous area.

Figure 1. Walled street view in Doral

Figure 1. Walled street view in Doral

Source: Pufe, April 2007

Zooming in to Miami’s gated communities

11My first visits to gated communities in Miami aroused the same impression as that found in the literature: they are residential environments with access restricted to only a few people. This is ensured by means of fences, walls and guarded entrances. From the outside it is impossible to get an idea of what they look like or what happens within. On a first glance, this leaves the impression that the people who live inside do not want to be disturbed or observed or, rather, that they are, afraid to be victims of crime. A study by Atkinson and Flint (2004) in the British context has shown that gated communities primarily appear as urban forms of crime prevention. So did the research carried out by Durington (2006) in South Africa and Low (2003) with examples from the United States. However, Grant’s (2004) and Wu’s (2005) studies in Canada and China came to a different conclusion. There, walls are low and guards and cameras do not exist. In their point of view the gates rather symbolise socio-economic differences and stable investments. In this paper I would like to carry these interpretations much further: the mapping of the gated communities in Miami has shown that the gates are not only equipped with guards and cameras; to me, their very different designs were much more significant (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Different designs of gates in Miami

Figure 2. Different designs of gates in Miami

Source: Pufe, April 2007

12In this regard the pictures provided by way of example demonstrate that the gates do not operate only as ordinary functional barriers. They are designed and embellished attractions. Theoretically speaking, the gates seem to connote ideas and evoke stereotypes about wild nature, majestic realms and tropical landscapes, or maybe inspire the feeling of coming home. From this angle, gated communities appear as something attractive, eye-catching and narrative. These ideas further rely on somebody’s cultural background and are determined by someone’s experience, knowledge and collective identity. In this light they are no “homogenous or seamless web[s] of restriction(Robinson, 2003: 5), but movie screens which broadcast different stories told and read by different people.

Unlocking the gates

13With regard to the above insights, gated communities do not represent spaces of fixed meaning. According to Jackson (1989) and Cosgrove (1984), interpretations vary with respect to different social, cultural and temporal contexts. Questions of how space provides answers and causal laws about society and culture within are thus not of interest in this paper. Instead, people and their actions, i.e. their making sense of the world, come to the fore.

A new social geography

14Most notably, Werlen has been concerned with a reconception of space in German social geography for years. Werlen (1995, 1997) argues that, in contrast to former traditional societies, today’s social systems deal with globalised circumstances of late-modernity, i.e. a pluralisation of narratives, high social and spatial mobility, the mixing of cultures and the loss of traditions. From his point of view this cannot be captured through studies on space, which ask for universal laws. Werlen instead proposes to examine people’s actions of how they make sense of the world and cope with globalised uncertainties and discord. In line with Giddens’ structuration theory (1984), Werlen points out that everyday human actions stand in dialectical connection with the social system, i.e. social structures are not only shaped by individuals; they are also the basis for any action. In this regard, space becomes only a frame and, without a closer examination of human actions, it loses significance. Summarising these conceptual ideas, Werlen (1995, 1997) develops the theoretical framework of a “Social Geography of Everyday Regionalization”, which aims to identify daily human actions that constitute and give meaning to space.

A semiotic and iconographic approach

15The question of what space can mean to individuals and how this can be explored methodologically has been discussed by geographers since the 1970s (Blotevogel, 2003). By then, space (in particular landscape) was interpreted as the result of human actions whose traces gave a direct link to a superorganic culture within (Duncan, 1990). Space was thus seen as an objective and real entity. With a renunciation from this positivistic approach, geographers such as Duncan (1990), Cosgrove (1984), Jackson (1989), and Cosgrove and Daniels (1988) started to establish a constructivist mindset in cultural geography. On that note, cultural studies on space search for different perspectives on how landscapes can be described and perceived in relation to different temporal and social contexts. Respectively, people and their daily construction and perception of space become important. Both are carried out by means of ongoing and changeable interpretations, reinterpretations and often powerful practices. From this, it follows that language gains a hegemonic position, because it facilitates the construction of meaning. Not until then do the material elements in space become relevant.

  • 3  The method was mainly influenced by the art historian Erwin Panofsky. Particularly Cosgrove and Da (...)

16Based on the fact that gated communities (including gates, architecture, houses, streets, landscape design, etc.) are produced by architects and developers and at the same time are received, used and interpreted by residents, they can be seen as symbolic texts and images through which these people communicate. In short, gated communities as built architecture are forms of communication, which send out different messages. According to Ipsen (1997), these messages are expressions of the collective ideas and values of certain social groups. A way to track down these messages is the use of semiotic (i.e. study of signs) and iconographic3 (i.e. study of images) analyses. In combination they are able to connect signs and images not only with their denotative (functional), but also with their connotative (social, cultural), meanings (Gottdiener and Lagopoulos, 1986).

The gates unlocked

17In practical terms, the semiotic and iconographic analyses were carried out through a collection of photographs from the inside and outside of two gated communities. In comparison to other field methods (such as mapping or observation), this facilitated a direct visualisation of the signs and images to be found in the built environment. However, the research process carefully took into consideration that photographs are two-dimensional and technically produced. They only display spatially and temporally limited details of reality. In this regard, it must be pointed out that selective processes by the photographer underlie the pictures, thus influencing the observer.

  • 4  Due to the limited access to gated communities in general, it was challenging to interview more pe (...)

18Following the collection of pictures, interviews were conducted with seven residents, two architects and developers4. Every interviewee was asked to freely interpret and give meaning to the pictures of the relevant gated community.

  • 5  To protect the anonymity of the interviewees, I do not use the names of the communities.

19The gated communities analysed5 are located in the suburban space of Miami Dade County. They each stem from different construction phases and lie in separate areas. While the first (GC1) is located in Coconut Grove, a prestigious area with only a few gated communities and built in the 1980s, the second (GC2) is one of the innumerable gated communities to be found in Doral, which was mostly developed in the 1990s. GC1 houses wealthy people who have already retired. GC2, on the contrary, is inhabited by middle-income households with kids. As a start, the signs and images of GC1 and GC2 can be described and visualised as follows.

Signs and images of splendour and misery

20Residents of GC1 must pass a big red archway (Figure 3) in order to reach the guardhouse, which is staffed and equipped with cameras and a gate. The community accommodates 75 semi-detached houses. Each house is located in a sub-unit of ten houses that face each other in a circle (Figure 4).

Figure 3. Entrance to GC1

Figure 3. Entrance to GC1

Source: Pufe, May 2007

Figure 4. Arrangement and design of the houses in GC1

Figure 4. Arrangement and design of the houses in GC1

Source: Pufe, June 2008

21The community has a pool, tennis courts, a barbecue area and other areas (e.g. benches, boat dock, promenade) in which to be active, meet others or relax. As welcoming as these places seem to be, each has signs with rules of conduct, warnings and advice. The community is neighboured by the ocean and a central public highway and is conspicuously clean and well-kept. Particularly the landscape design seems to keep up with natural settings. One exposure, for example, reminds one of a small river in a tropical forest (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Small river in GC1

Figure 5. Small river in GC1

Source: Pufe, June 2008

22GC2 contains 109 detached houses, which are arranged in two rows around a lake. At the entrance, the community presents a guardhouse (Figure 6) equipped with numerous warning signs and cameras.

Figure 6. Entrance to GC2

Figure 6. Entrance to GC2

Source : Pufe, June 2008

23When entering the community, residents are confronted with another barrier and further signs, which block the view and access to the lake. Behind the gate, a wide street leads to the single-family houses (Figure 7).

Figure 7. A house in GC2

Figure 7. A house in GC2

Source: Pufe, June 2008

24GC2 does not appear as a community that focuses on leisure or outdoor activities. The pavements are narrow and children have hardly anywhere to play, except for the lake in the middle of the community. The use of this, however, is extremely restricted. All over the water area residents are confronted with prohibition signs (Figure 8).

Figure 8. Restrictive signs at the lake in GC2

Figure 8. Restrictive signs at the lake in GC2

Source: Pufe, June 2008

25With respect to the central question of this paper it is important to ask at this point which different meanings producers (architects, developers) and consumers (residents) attach to the symbolic elements (gate, architecture, landscape design, etc.) of their gated community.

Architects and developers

26In reference to the meaningful interviews with the architects and developers of GC1 and GC2, it became apparent that different visual and design strategies were applied. In neither case was crime and its prevention at the forefront. In fact, both communities were built to transmit a certain message, one that should attract prospective purchasers and give residents a more or less pleasant and liveable environment.

27According to the developer, by the time GC1 was built, neither a gated community nor a neighbourhood existed in Miami that was specifically designed for wealthy people whose children have long moved out. Hence, the developer came up with the idea to build a community which should accommodate empty nesters who are not too old for an active lifestyle and who want to live in a peaceful and caring area that is contained from the urban environment. The architect therefore chose an architectural style which from his position follows the design of small villages on the Mediterranean Sea. In this respect, the architect and the developer see the wall and the guarded entrance as barriers which ban other architectural styles and the urban life outside. From their point of view, the prevention of crime and the residents’ security are secondary aspects.

28Taking the interpretations of the producers together with the signs and images to be found in the community, GC1 initially offers the message of an ageing society whose older people are no longer embedded in traditional families. At the same time, GC1 refers to an active lifestyle and a get-together of people with the same interests and values. Both are enabled through a consciously designed environment; in other words, producers have used a designated stereotype in order to evoke a particular notion, namely the picture of a Mediterranean village, which refers to certain feelings and impressions (e.g. warm, caring, familiar, relieving, social).

29GC2 was designed by a Cuban architect. From his point of view, the guarded entrance simulates the same images as those found in the early gated communities of California; i.e. residents should feel as if they live in a very special and luxurious place. With reference to the houses, the architect wanted to send the message of a new modern lifestyle which, from his assertions, means to entertain family in a private atmosphere and to design homes that go in the opposite direction from traditional houses with formal rooms and public places around them. Therefore, the community accommodates no playing areas or other spaces to meet. The architectural style, which he describes as Mediterranean, has been chosen by the developer. The architect criticises this for being a bit of a fraud, because other typical elements such as porches, sun roofs and wind catchers, which are more expensive, are missing. In fact, the architect states that the Mediterranean style is more a component of a mass production of houses in gated communities, particularly in Doral. From his point of view, even the lake was not a special landscape element to enhance the attractiveness of the community. It was rather a functional need in order to drain the swampy underground. However, waterfront houses are sold for higher prices and, therefore, generate a premium to the developer.

30With regard to the interviews and signs and pictures within, GC2 on the one hand offers the message of a move away from traditional ways of living (formal functional rooms, social life on the street, etc.) towards a new modern and entertaining lifestyle behind closed doors. On the other hand, however, the architect critically translates the gated community as a sign of capitalistic mass production which he refers to the era of Fordism, a time of accumulated needs and desire for residential social advancement.

31Both interpretations confirm the argument that the built environment of gated communities offers more than one story. Nonetheless, it becomes even more interesting to take into consideration how residents interpret their community in order to see if they find identical or different representations.


32Residents of GC1 interpret the prohibition signs as well as the guarded entrance as imperatives to feel safe from the urban world outside. After further enquiries, this interpretation does not bear on an explicit fear of crime but on a general distrust towards complex city life. Entering the community through the gate, residents feel as if they are coming home. They underline this feeling with their impression that the houses, the architecture and the surroundings remind them of the same warmness and peace to be found in little villages on the southern French coast. Moreover, residents positively compare the design of GC1 with a tropical forest, not only due to the rich vegetation, but also because of the noises from the water and the twittering birds. The community thereby becomes a relief from the artificial and complex city. However, it must be mentioned that residents do not see the community itself as an artificial construct that is based on eclectically-combined designated stereotypes (tropical forest and Mediterranean village). Even so, they read their surroundings as a private, careless and familial place which enables them to escape from the urban life outside and which supports a comfortable sunset for their lives as well as a social environment comprised of people with the same interests and values. With regard to these interpretations, the community does not only represent protection against crime. Instead, it becomes a strategy to retire from the fast-paced city and to cope with the loose family bonds of late modernity.

33Compared to residents of GC1, the inhabitants of GC2 interpret their community very negatively. What becomes very striking during the interviews is their subliminal displeasure about the missing possibilities of any outdoor activities and social interaction with others. Although the gate is interpreted as a sign of luxury and residential advancement, residents of GC2 bemoan that each gated community in Doral looks the same and thus appears as a very dull and meaningless place. In this regard the interviewees signify Doral as a factory of mass-produced gated communities which string together along endless streets. On the contrary, however, people in GC2 associate the consistent design and prohibition signs with ideas of uniformity and equality very positively, which gives a deep insight into their origins, because most of the residents in GC2 were born in a variety of Latin American countries. The picture of the standardised environment provides equality and belongs to people with the same migration background. Moreover, the community becomes a scene for romantic fantasies of wild nature: while residents observe birds and fishes, the lake in the middle of the community gains recreational value. However, the lake is still not seen as a place for social interaction. Instead, people prefer to rest in their little gardens behind the fences of their houses.

34With respect to these given meanings, it is striking that residents of GC2 see their community in quite a contradictory way. In spite of their partly positive interpretation (luxury, equality, romance), GC2 does not represent a promised land (exclusion, dullness, unsocial environment). Concluding their final impressions it is not surprising that residents more than once mentioned that they aim to move into another neighbourhood without gated communities. With regard to the statements given by the architect, who himself migrated to the United States, the gate and the community here represent a negotiation of people who have not yet found their place in the American society and who use a gated community on the very outskirts of the city as a temporary solution to compensate their discord.


35The semiotic and iconographic analyses of the gated communities discussed by way of example show that they can exceed previous representations found by other studies, such as fear of crime, socio-economic polarisation and the wish to privatise public goods. Both communities were built by producers with a variety of design concepts at different times and both are inhabited by distinct social actors with varying life courses. The attached meanings and interpretations of the signs and images to be found inside and outside are, thus, enlaced with different collective ideas. In line with Werlen (1995, 1997) both communities point to general uncertainties towards late modern faults which express themselves in different spheres and times of social life. In order to track down the different messages, semiotic and iconographic analyses become indispensable, because they are able to uncover subliminal meanings that cannot be seen through mere observations of space.

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1  I thank the anonymous reviewers as well as my colleagues Vera Denzer and Frank Feuerbach (both University of Leipzig) for their useful comments.

2  The Sun Belt is the geographic south of the United States, which includes southern and southwestern states like Florida, California and so forth. The region is particularly known for extended summers and mild winters.

3  The method was mainly influenced by the art historian Erwin Panofsky. Particularly Cosgrove and Daniels (1988) confirm it as an adequate approach to examining symbolic landscapes.

4  Due to the limited access to gated communities in general, it was challenging to interview more people. In this regard the study can only be rated as illustrative, but can still be seen as an indication and starting point for further examination.

5  To protect the anonymity of the interviewees, I do not use the names of the communities.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1. Walled street view in Doral
Credits Source: Pufe, April 2007
File image/jpeg, 76k
Title Figure 2. Different designs of gates in Miami
Credits Source: Pufe, April 2007
File image/jpeg, 132k
Title Figure 3. Entrance to GC1
Credits Source: Pufe, May 2007
File image/jpeg, 628k
Title Figure 4. Arrangement and design of the houses in GC1
Credits Source: Pufe, June 2008
File image/jpeg, 1.5M
Title Figure 5. Small river in GC1
Credits Source: Pufe, June 2008
File image/jpeg, 580k
Title Figure 6. Entrance to GC2
Credits Source : Pufe, June 2008
File image/jpeg, 1.5M
Title Figure 7. A house in GC2
Credits Source: Pufe, June 2008
File image/jpeg, 1.4M
Title Figure 8. Restrictive signs at the lake in GC2
Credits Source: Pufe, June 2008
File image/jpeg, 474k
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Electronic reference

Franziska Pufe, “Unlocking Miami’s suburban gated communities: a semiotic and iconographic approach”Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 5 | 2009, Online since 25 April 2010, connection on 07 July 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Franziska Pufe

Franziska Pufe is a PhD student at the Institute of Geography of the University of Leipzig, where she studies residential gated communities. Email:

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