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Systemic impacts and sustainability of gated enclaves in the City, Pretoria, South Africa, Feb.28-March 3, 2005

Towards a theory of urban fragmentation: A cross-cultural analysis of fear, privatization, and the state

Pour une théorie de la fragmentation urbaine : peur, privatisation et rôle de l'Etat au prisme de l’interculturalité
Setha Low


This paper employs a cross-cultural analysis to explore regional and national variations in residential gating and enclosure as a first step in developing an integrated theory of urban fragmentation. Utilizing data from the urban and suburban United States, Latin America and China, a series of dimensions are compared: 1) domestic architecture, 2) urban/suburban settlement pattern, 3) the role of the state, 4) governance, 5) citizenship, 6) cultural meaning, 7) identity, 8) provision of goods and services, 9) taxation, 10) degree of privatization, 11) cultural pattern of social sanction, and 12) fear of crime and others. This comparative analysis locates culturally meaningful and theoretically significant distinctions among the regions and provides data for the development of explanatory models in which each region varies along a dimensional continuum. At the macro-level of analysis, the impact of globalization and flexible accumulation with increased local heterogeneity, increases in inequality and changes in perceived crime rate emerge as the major underlying factors in the fear of crime and others found in all three regions. At a micro-level, differences in cultural meanings are explained by local social and political contexts, while provision of goods and services and governance depend on club realm economic explanations.

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peur, privatisation, État
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1Youqin Huang and I recently completed a comparative study of gated communities in the United States with neighborhood enclosures in China (Huang and Low, forthcoming). We argued that the two major discourses, fear of crime and club realm economics, do not adequately explain cultural, political, and historical differences in sociospatial and governance patterns. For example, gated and walled communities have always existed in China, but not in the United States, yet both regions have fragmenting urban development. Further, the expansion of private communities is supported by neoliberal states retreating from the provision of housing and social goods as well as by Chinese cities where state control of housing is still strong. These inconsistencies suggested that a new approach to the available data was necessary to include both developed and developing nations in the same explanatory model.

2This paper expands the original argument by adding the Latin American case and employs a multidimensional, cross-cultural analysis to explore regional and national variation as another step in generating an integrated theory of urban fragmentation. Utilizing data from the urban and suburban United States, Latin America and China, a series of dimensions are compared: 1) domestic architecture, 2) urban/suburban settlement patterns, 3) the role of the state, 4) governance, 5) citizenship, 6) cultural meaning, 7) identity, 8) provision of goods and services, 9) taxation, 10) degree of privatization, 11) cultural pattern of social sanction, and 12) fear of crime and others.

3Summaries of the socio-political and cultural dynamics of gating are reviewed drawn from personally collected and published data in the United States, Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, and China. Gating is an urban and suburban phenomenon, therefore most of the evidence is drawn from studies within cities: New York City, Los Angeles and San Antonio in the United States; Mexico City, Lima, Peru, São Paulo, Brazil, and Buenos Aires, Argentina in Latin America: and Beijing and Shanghai in China. Generalizations are made to characterize the national or regional patterns of gating for comparative purposes, but which might not be accurate for every gated community in a region.

4The comparative analysis locates culturally meaningful and theoretically significant distinctions among the regions and provides data for the development of explanatory models in which each region varies along a dimensional continuum. For example, the research suggests that there are differences in the emotional and cultural drivers for walled and gated private communities such as status anxiety in the United States, physical security in Latin America, and collective identity in China. Another difference is along a continuum of state involvement in the production of gated and private communities, from strong state support in China, moderate state involvement in the United States, to little or no state involvement–the retreat of the state--in Latin America.

5These analytic dimensions provide the basis for a layered model of urban fragmentation based on a better understanding of the social, political and economic factors that produce gated communities. At a macro-level of analysis, the impact of globalization and flexible accumulation, with increasing heterogeneity, increasing disparities between rich and poor, and perceived crime, emerge as the major underlying factors in the fear of crime and others found in all three regions. At a micro-level, differences in cultural meanings are explained by specific social and political contexts, while provision of goods and services and governance depend on club realm economic explanations. The paper concludes by encouraging further comparison to expand grounded theory from empirical data.

Definitions: Gated Communities, Barrios Privados y Cerrados and Enclosed Neighborhoods

6A “gated community” in the United States is a residential development surrounded by walls, fences or earth banks covered with bushes and shrubs, with a secured entrance. In some cases, protection is provided by inaccessible land such as a nature reserve and in a few cases, by a guarded bridge. The houses, streets, sidewalks, and other amenities are physically enclosed by these barriers and entrance gates operated by a guard, key or electronic identity card. Inside the development there is often a neighborhood watch organization or professional security personnel who patrol on foot or by automobile. Gated communities restrict access not just to residents’ homes, but also to the use of public spaces and services–roads, parks, facilities, and open space-- contained within the enclosure. Communities vary in size from a few homes in very wealthy areas to as many as 21,000 homes in Leisure World in Orange County, California–with the number of residents indexed to the level of amenities and services. Many include golf courses, tennis courts, fitness centers, swimming pools, lakes or unspoiled landscape as part of their appeal, while commercial or public facilities are rare.

7In Latin America, gated communities have the same designs and methods of restricting access as are found in the United States, but retain a much wider variety of terms to characterize these relatively new residential developments. Barrios privados and barrios cerrados, private and closed neighborhoods, are terms used in Mexico and Peru, urbanizanciones privadas, private urban developments, is used in Argentina, Venezuela and Costa Rica, while condomínios horizontales and condomínios exclusivo, horizontal condominiums or exclusive condominiums, refer to apartment and housing complexes in Brazil. In the literature these terms are frequently used interchangeably, but the generic term “closed communities” occurs rather than “gated communities” or “walled communities,” since most Latin American housing was traditionally walled and gated. It is the neighborhood enclosure and the master-planning with amenities of the new residential developments that is remarked upon in these countries.

8The label, “gated community,” also has been used to refer to upscale housing complexes in Chinese cities that appear similar to those in the United States (e.g. Giroir, 2004, 2005, Wu and Webler, 2004; Miao, 2003). However, most housing complexes in Chinese cities, including lower income housing, are walled and gated. In the context of China, an “enclosed neighborhood” is a better term for describing a residential development with surrounding walls, fences or earth banks covered with bushes and shrubs. Entrances are guarded by security personnel or by the watchful eyes of senior members in the neighborhood. Some Chinese enclosed neighborhoods include swimming pools and fitness centers, while other have only minimal amenities. Youqin Huang (Huang, 2005; Huang and Low, forthcoming) argues that the enclosed neighborhood in China is a broader concept than the gated community, since gated communities in Chinese context refer only to those that copy a U.S. designed model for upper income residents.

The Gated Community in the United States

9Contemporary gated communities in the United States first originated for year round living on family estates and in wealthy communities such as Llewellyn Park in Eagle Ridge, New Jersey built during the 1850s, and as resorts exemplified by New York’s Tuxedo Park developed as a hunting and fishing retreat with a barbed wire fence eight feel high and twenty-four miles long in 1886 (Hayden 2003). Another early resort was Sea Gate in Brooklyn established with its own private police force in 1899. The architect and real estate developer Julius Pitman designed the majority of St. Louis’s private streets between 1867 and 1905 borrowing from the English private square to create exclusive residential enclaves for the business elite (Beito 2002)

10Planned retirement communities such as Leisure World built in the 1960s and 1970s, however, were the first places where middle class Americans walled themselves off. Gates then spread to resort and country club developments, and finally to suburban developments. In the 1980s, real estate speculation accelerated the building of gated communities around golf courses designed for exclusivity, prestige and leisure. Gated communities first appeared in California, Texas, and Arizona, drawing retirees attracted to the weather. Currently, one-third of all new communities in Southern California are gated, and the percentage is similar around Phoenix, Arizona, the suburbs of Washington D. C. and parts of Florida. In areas such as Tampa, Florida, gated communities account for four out of five home sales of $300,000 or more. Since the late 1980s gates have become ubiquitous, and by the1990s common even in the northeastern United States. Gated communities on Long Island, New York were rare in the 1980s, but by the early 1990s almost every condominium development of more than fifty units had a guardhouse (Low 2003).

11The number of people estimated to be living in gated communities in the United States increased from four million in 1995, to eight million in 1997 and to sixteen million in 1998. By 1997, there were in excess of twenty thousand gated communities with over three million housing units. In 2001, the U.S. Census Household Survey found that 7 million households, approximately 16 million people or 6% of all households, were living in gated and walled residential communities.

Explanations of Gating Based on American Examples

12There is extensive debate as to why gated communities have become so popular in the United States. Arguments range from supply-side claims that financial benefits to developers, builders, and municipalities drive gating’s success, to demand-side proposals that home buyers preferences and a discourse of fear are the principal motivating factors.

13From a broad political economic perspective, the gated community is a response to transformations in the political economy of late-twentieth century urban America (Low 1997). The increasing mobility of capital, marginalization of the labor force, and dismantling of the welfare state began with the change in labor practices and deindustrialization of the 1970s, and accelerated with the “Reaganomics” of the 1980s. This economic restructuring and relocation of global capital produced political changes with far reaching social consequences.

14The shift to the right during the Reagan years intensified an ideological focus on free market capitalism. Power, wealth, and income all tilted toward the richest portions of the population. While the income share of the upper twenty percent of Americans rose from 41.6% to 44% from 1980 to 1988, the average after-tax income of the lowest ten percent dropped 10.5% from 1977 to 1987, producing an increasingly bifurcated class system (Phillips 1991). These economic and political changes intensified already existing inequalities of neighborhood resources and services, while escalating housing prices left more families homeless and without health care.

15Globalization and economic restructuring also weakened existing social relations and contributed to the breakdown of traditional ways of maintaining social order. Social control mechanisms and their associated institutions, such as the police and schools, were no longer seen as effective (Devine 1995). This breakdown in local control threatened some neighborhood residents, and the gated residential community became a viable and socially acceptable option.

16The creation of gated communities, and the addition of guardhouses, walls, and entrance gates to established neighborhoods, is an integral part of the building of the fortress city, a social control technique based on the so-called “militarization” of the city (Davis 1990). In America it is a strategy for regulating and patrolling the urban poor comprised predominantly of Latino and Black minorities. Gating is only one example of this new form of social ordering that displaces and regulates people or activities rather then eliminating them. Policing and enclosures create areas where a protected group–for example, the very wealthy--is shielded from others’ behavior. A safe environment then excludes all those who are considered dangerous. But while this strategy may work for the privileged few living within the protected area, it has the drawback of diminishing collective responsibility for the safety of society as a whole.

17Racism is another major contributor to patterns of urban and suburban separation and exclusion in the United States. Cities continue to experience high levels of residential segregation based on discriminatory real estate practices and mortgage structures designed to insulate Whites from Blacks. Blacks are less likely to move to the suburbs in the first place, and then more likely to return to the city (South and Crowder 1997). Residential proximity to Blacks intensifies Whites’ fear of crime, and Blacks who are racially prejudiced are even more fearful.

18Residents of middle class and upper middle class neighborhoods also cordon themselves off as a class by building fences, cutting off relationships with neighbors, and moving out in response to problems and conflicts. At the same time governments have expanded their regulatory role through zoning laws, local police patrols, restrictive ordinances for dogs, quiet laws, and laws against domestic and interpersonal violence that narrow the range of accepted behavioral norms. Indirect economic strategies that limit the minimum lot or house size, policing policies that target non-conforming uses of the environment, and social ordinances that enforce middle class rules of civility further segregate family and neighborhood life (Merry 1993: 87). The gated community is only an extension of these practices.

19The creation of “common interest developments,” however, provided a legal framework for the consolidation of this suburban residential segregation. “Common interest development” describes “a community in which the residents own or control common areas or shared amenities,” and that “carries with it reciprocal rights and obligations enforced by a private governing body.” (Judd 1995: 155) Specialized “covenants, contracts, and deed restrictions” (CC&Rs) that extend forms of collective private land tenure and the notion of private government were adapted by the lawyer and planner Charles Stern Ascher to create the modern institution of the homeowner association in 1928 (McKenzie 1994).

20The evolution of “pod”, “enclave”, and “cul-de-sac” suburban designs further refined the ability of land use planners and designers to develop suburban subdivisions where people of different income groups would have little to no contact with one another. Regulated resident behavior, house type and “taste culture" are more subtle means of control. Even landscape aesthetics function as a suburban politics of exclusion, often referred to as making everything “nice.” The number of legal proceedings in California courts has grown as some residents attempt to deregulate their rigidly controlled environments, but litigants have not been successful. Instead, common interest developments guarantee a “bundle of goods” including security, exclusiveness, and an extraordinary level of amenities, and this promise is “nestled at the center of all advertisements for the new walled cities” (Judd 1995:160).

21Another question about privatization is whether municipal governments or proprietary developments--shopping malls, industrial parks as well as gated communities--are the most efficient institution for the provision of basic goods and services. In these discussions, modern gated communities are evaluated as “new spatially defined markets in which innovative neighborhood products are supplied by a new style of service producer.” (Webster 2001). For the people living inside gated communities it is an efficient solution because of the legal requirement to pay fees, homogeneity of community needs and desires, and because residents can choose their package of communal goods according to their personal preferences. Rather than being “taxpayers” who pay for public goods and services that are not always available, they become “club members” who pay fees for private services shared only by members of community. Thus, for some, the gated community is seen as an opportunity to experiment with new solutions for the provision of goods and services that distribute those goods more efficiently and equitably, albeit restrictively, than current governmental strategies.

22Supply-side economic factors also figure prominently in understanding the widespread expansion of these communities. Developers want to maximize their profits by building more houses on less land, and incentive zoning packages for common interest development housing allow them to cluster units and achieve this higher density within otherwise low density residential zoning areas. California and states that have experienced a property tax revolt find CID housing particularly attractive because it transfers the debt liability, building of infrastructure, and provision of services to private corporations, while at the same time the municipality collects property taxes from residents (McKenzie 1998).

23Walls can provide a refuge from people who are deviant or unusual, but they require patrolling the border to be sure no one gets in. The resulting vigilance necessary to maintain these “purified communities” actually heightens residents’ anxiety and sense of isolation, rather than making them feel safer (Flusty 1997). In some cases, the micro-politics of exclusion is about distinguishing oneself from the family who used to live next door. Status anxiety about downward mobility due to declining male wages and family incomes, shrinking job markets, and periodic economic recessions has increased concern that children will not be able to sustain a middle class lifestyle. Middle class status anxiety also takes the form of symbolic separation from other families who have fallen on hard times, families who share many of the same values and aspirations, but who for some reason “did not make it.” The “exclusivity” and “status” advertised by new gated communities is being marketed to an already anxious audience created by the economic turbulence of the 1980s. Assurances that walls and gates maintain home values and provide some kind of “class” or “distinction” is heard by prospective buyers as a partial solution to upholding their middle or upper middle class position.

24And the psychological lure of defended space and “purified communities” becomes even more enticing with increased media coverage and national hysteria about urban crime. News stories chronicle daily murders, rapes, drive-by shootings, drug busts, and child kidnaping – often with excessive and extended media coverage. An ever growing proportion of people fear that they will be victimized. Not surprisingly, then, fear of crime has increased since the mid-1960s, even though there has been a decline in all violent crime since 1990 (Brennan and Zelinka 1997).

25Crime and the fear of crime also have been connected to the design of the built environment. Jane Jacobs first pointed out that keeping “eyes on the street” is an important solution for creating safer streets and neighborhoods. Oscar Newman, who uses the term “defensible space” for this idea, argues that high-rise buildings are dangerous because the people who live in them cannot defend -- see, own or identify -- their territory. He proposes that gating city streets can promote greater safety and higher home values as long as the percentage of minority residents is kept within strict limits

26These diverse approaches depict the United States as a place with increasing reliance on urban fortification, policing, and segregation to maintain social order. A number of legal strategies such as common interest developments, rules and regulations (CC&Rs), and homeowners associations, as well as suburban design and planning laid the groundwork for the development of gated communities. Architectural solutions such as “defensible space” contributed to an understanding of how environmental design can play a role in crime prevention. And evaluating gated communities based on their economic efficiency and supply side incentives may explain why proprietary communities are growing in popularity.

Gated Communities in the United States: Empirical Studies

27Observers of gated communities in the United States have provided a few descriptions of the types of gated communities that exist and their importance for residents. Based on a national survey and regional focus groups, Edward Blakely and Mary Gail Synder (1997), identify three kinds of gated communities--lifestyle, elite, and security zone--each categorized by income level, amenities, aesthetic control and location in the region. Lifestyle gated communities include retirement communities and golf and country club developments, while elite communities emphasizing status and prestige include enclaves for the wealthy and “executive community” developments. Security zone gated communities are most often retrofitted with gates or barricades and include the “city perch”– a defensive, often chain-link, fencing of a threatened neighborhood in the center of the city, the “suburban perch”– the fencing of an existing inner suburban neighborhood surrounded by deteriorating conditions, and the “barricade perch”–where concrete barricades are used to partially close off the streets. All security zone strategies are used to block street access to reduce crime.

28These categories reflect differences in social values and motivations. For example, the lifestyle community is primarily about privatization and the provision of services. The elite community, on the other hand, is primarily about stability and a need for homogeneity. For security zone communities, exclusion and separation from the rest of society is the most important. Blakely and Synder (1997) also found that residents identified security as a very important reason for their move to a gated community. Only eight percent of the residents surveyed characterized their community as “neighborly and tight-knit,” while another 28 percent indicated that their developments were “distant or private” in feeling.

29In a regional survey of 641 gated communities in the Phoenix, Arizona area, Klaus Frantz (2000-2001) found residents said they moved to feel safer and because of their fear of crime. They take advantage of gating to stabilize their housing values and to guarantee service provision. Residents believed they have the power to control the physical and social quality of their neighborhood: “They feel that this is a way to guarantee that the community that they have bought...will not change drastically in the course of time” (Frantz 2000-2001). He also reported a range of communities types: thirteen percent were upper class enclaves, forty-nine percent were middle class, and two percent were lower middle class.

30My ethnographic study of gated communities in New York City, suburban Long Island, New York, San Antonio, Texas, and Mexico City found that residents moved for safety, security, community, and “niceness,” as well as wanting to live near people like themselves because of a fear of “others” and of crime. One explanation for the gated community’s popularity is that it materially and metaphorically incorporates otherwise conflicting, and in some cases polarized, social values that make up middle class life. For example, it reflects urban and suburban tensions in the United States regarding social class, race and ethnicity and, at the same time, represents the perennial concern with creating community.

31Architectural symbols such as gates and walls also provide a rationale for the moral inconsistencies of everyday life. For instance, many residents want to feel safe in their homes and argue that walls and gates help keep out criminals; but gated communities are not safer than non-gated suburban neighborhoods where crime rates are already low. Instead, the logic of the symbolism satisfies conventional middle class understandings of the nature of criminal activity--“it makes it harder for them to get in”-- as well as justifies their choice in terms of its moral and physical consequences– “look at my friends who were randomly robbed living in a non-gated development” (Low 2003: 8).

32Living in a gated community temporarily suppresses and masks the inherent anxieties and conflicting social values of modern urban and suburban life. It transforms Americans’ dilemma of how to protect themselves, their children and families from danger, crime, and unknown others and still perpetuate open, friendly neighborhoods and comfortable, safe homes. It reinforces the norms of a middle class lifestyle in an historical period in which everyday events and news media exacerbate fears of violence and terrorism, and stimulates nostalgia for the idealized neighborhoods of childhood. Thus, residents cite their “need” of gated communities to provide a safe and secure home, a neighborhood like where they grew up, and the kind of place you can leave your door unlocked, in the face of a lack of other societal alternatives.

33Gated residential communities, however, intensify social segregation, racism and exclusionary land use practices already in place in most of the United States, and raise a number of values conflicts for residents. For instance, residents acknowledge their misgivings about the possible false security provided by the gates and guards, but at the same time, it satisfies their desire for emotional security associated with childhood and neighborhoods where they grew up. Living in a gated development contributes to residents’ sense of well-being, but comes at the price of maintaining private guards and gates as well as conforming to extensive homeowner association rules and regulations. Individual freedom and ease of access for residents must be limited to achieve greater privacy and social control for the community as a whole.

34Unfortunately, there is no evidence that homes in gated communities maintain their value better than those in non-gated ones in comparable suburban areas (Blakely and Synder 1997). Nor is there evidence that gated communities are safer, although in Southern California they are associated with perceptions of greater safety among the upper middle class (Wilson 2000). What these and other studies do identify, though, is a desire for security and safety even in the face of low crime rates in suburban areas in the United States. What emerges from these empirical studies is an emphasis on a discourse of fear that legitimates and rationalizes the desire to live behind gates, and the use of privatization to maintain greater social control and a redistribution of public goods.

Barrios Privados y Cerrados, Urbanizanciones Privadas, and Condomínios Horizontales in Latin America

35The walling and gating of individual houses is ubiquitous throughout urban Latin America, and reflects Spanish and Portugese architectural models built throughout the colonial period and the expansion of grid plan towns and cities in the later nineteenth century (Low 2000, Moura 2003). Contemporary single family houses and family compounds are surrounded by high concrete block walls with broken glass or barbed wire on top in most urban environments (Low 2003, Moura 2003). In the countryside, a settlement pattern of walled and gated estates, fincas or quintas, owned by wealthy and middle class urbanites, and the farms, haciendas, of the rural aristocracy and upper middle class also offered models for the closed neighborhoods (barrios cerrados) that emerged beginning in Mexico in the 1960s, Brazil and Argentina in the 1970s, Peru in the 1980s. But it was not until the 1990s that an explosion of walled and gated large apartment complexes (the condomínios horizontales in Brazil), and of single family house and apartment neighborhoods in the urban periphery (the urbanizanciones privadas in Argentina and barrios privados y cerrados in Mexico) began expanding rapidly.

36The history of gating in Latin American varies by country and decade. The precursors of closed communities in Buenos Aires were built as sports clubs in the late nineteenth century to protect the wealthy from urban epidemics of cholera (Thuillier 2003). In Venezuela, the first urbanizanciones privadas were upper class developments were built as early as the 1920s, and “countries”, that is, walled country club communities built for the wealthy beginning in 1932 in Argentina (Thuillier 2003, Janoschka 2002). Currently there are about 350 gated developments in Buenos Aires, probably more in São Paulo and Caracas, and fewer in Mexico City and Lima. Unfortunately many research reports provide data on specific communities rather than the number of these developments within a given city.

37Most of this growth since the1990s can be attributed to the increasing fragmentation of Latin American cities by globalization and strict neoliberal policies. The resulting urban landscape has become “an assembly of socio-spatial and functional-economic cells such as shopping-malls, gated communities or new CBDs” ( Meyer-Kriesten, Plöger, and Bähr 2004). There are regional differences, however, with stable economic development in Chile leading to an improvement in the quality of life, compared to economic recession and greater socioeconomic inequality in Peru, leading to an acceleration in the development of gated communities and other forms of privatized spaces for the middle and upper classes.

38With neoliberalism, citizens of Latin American capitals now live in constant fear–15 of every 100,000 persons die violently, and this is a conservative number since in Colombia the death toll rises to 100 per 100,000 population. Much of this crime goes unpunished, further frustrating and terrorizing residents (Rotker 2002). Further, neoliberal policies have exaggerated social and economic inequalities that had always plagued these cities. Guano (2004) notes that by 1999 about 80 percent of the Buenos Aires population found themselves living below the poverty line, and the remaining middle class became polarized due to neoliberal policies enacted during the 1989-1999 presidency of Carlos Menem.

39Mexico is becoming an extreme case of the Latin American pattern in which the government abandons the well-being of the populace to put into place a series of neoliberal practices including financial deregulation and the privatization of governmental enterprises. The Mexican federal government has been more concerned with growth, lowering the national debt and keeping inflation under control than with providing adequate social services. Further, the misappropriation of resources and other abuses of the system within the government and embezzlement within the banking industry has reached an all time high with little to no prosecution (Sosa 2002).

40The result is that the crime rate is increasing dramatically while 43 percent of Mexican households live in poverty and half of the children are malnourished. At the same time, the police have become involved in widespread corruption. Citizens are afraid to report crimes because of possible repercussions, and of the crimes that are reported, 97 percent go unpunished (Rotker 2002).

41Not so long ago, Mexico City was seen as a relatively safe place in comparison to the rest of Latin America capitals, but from 1990 to 1995 reported murders rose 50 percent and robbery incidents increased six-fold. Kidnaping, once rare, rose to 1,500 per year. Some experts blame it on the increasing gulf between the rich and poor, while others fault the discredited justice system and inefficiency of crime-fighting institutions. Crime has become a career not just for criminals, but for police officers who are now the main organizers of drug dealing, car theft, kidnaping, piracy and truck hijacking. Murder is rampant in Mexico City’s suburbs where the new rich are building elaborate homes next to established slums (Dillion 1998, Smith 1999).

42It is in this volatile environment that wealthier families have begun to gate themselves in. First individually, house by house in better neighborhoods, and then in groups of three or four houses on a street. Currently gated communities have flourished both in the northern and southern sectors of Mexico City, and even in the city center poor areas have closed off their streets.

43Interestingly most Latin American countries grant no legal status for the planning and development of barrios cerrados. New developments are built privately and internal governance or collection of fees for services is provided informally by the residents or in large master planned developments, by the developer. In the province of Buenos Aires, law number 8912 was passed in 1977 to allow the building of “countries,” country club gated communities, with recreational facilities and low density housing (Thuillier 2003). But most barrios cerrados, especially those with more houses and fewer amenities are built without any juridical recognition (Thuillier 2003). In San Juan, Puerto Rico, law number 21 allows the closing of city streets to improve security, but is contested by surrounding neighbors who argue crime then is pushed into their areas (Rivera-Bonilla 1999). In Mexico City public access laws forbid the gating and blocking of streets, nonetheless, barrios cerrados continue to be developed and retrofitted streets with gates are prevalent. Retrofitted urban streets and neighborhoods are currently the major form of gating in Lima, even though the obstruction of public thoroughfares is illegal.

Barrios Cerrados in Latin America: Empirical Studies

44There are a number field studies and one survey of the relationship of fear of crime and others and gating in Latin America (Giglia 2003, Thuillier 2003, Janoschka 2002. Caldeira 2000, Rivera-Bonilla 1999, Carvalho, George and Anthony 1997). The most complete is by Brazilian anthropologist Teresa P. R. Caldeira (2000) who has studied the increase of crime and gating and breakdown of human rights in São Paulo since the 1970's. Relying on an analysis of crime statistics, demographic and socioeconomic indicators of urbanization, key informant interviews with journalists, public authorities and human rights activists, and open-ended interviewing of residents concentrated in three neighborhoods, she set out to understand the complex ways that crime, fear of violence, and disrespect of citizenship rights have “intertwined with urban transformation in the last two decades to produce a new pattern of urban segregation” (Caldeira 2000:1)

45Caldeira (2000) compares a poor, working class neighborhood on the periphery, a lower middle class neighborhood close to downtown, and an upper middle class neighborhood in the western part of the city to demonstrate how cross-class experiences of fear and crime differ. She is interested in the “experience of crime” as it disrupts meaning, and the “talk of crime” that symbolically reorders it, and how this talk legitimates social segregation. Ultimately, she argues, the talk of crime and the inability of the state to protect its citizens from crime contributes to the failure of democracy in Brazil.

46By tracing the history of urban spatial changes and economic crises from the 1940s to the1990's, Caldeira (2000) identifies the social and political forces producing fortified enclaves. One example of a fortified enclave is the closed condominium, the most desirable type of housing for the upper class. High-rise residences, and especially closed condominiums are transformed into prestigious homes through the mediation of advertisements and the real estate and construction industries. An “aesthetic of security” has evolved based on walls, fences, and guards that

...together with the valorization of isolation and enclosure and the new practices of classification and exclusion, are creating a city in which separateness comes to the forefront and in which the quality of public space and the possibility of social encounters have already changed considerably (Caldeira 2000:296)

47A second Brazilian study of condomínio exclusivos (CEs), private condominiums, was undertaken by a team of architects and planners in Alphaville, one of the world’s largest gated community with 25,000 inhabitants located 23 kilometers outside of São Paulo (Carvalho, George, and Anthony 1997), CEs are groups of single-family detached houses or apartment buildings with clubs and commercial centers surrounded by walls and controlled access. They first appeared near major urban centers in the 1970s as part of the middle and upper income exodus to outlying residential areas where lower income people had been settling since the 1940s. Because there was no longer a physical separation of these social classes, gated and walled developments started to be built.

48Máyra Carvalho, R. Varkki George, and Kathryn Anthony (1997) investigated the consequences of gating in terms of residential satisfaction, arguing that if residents are very satisfied that the trend towards gating is likely to continue. They found residents were highly satisfied with living in the community based on the appearance and quality of their homes and maintenance of community, but were disappointed in the level of safety provided. Despite walls and gates, their satisfaction with safety from urban violence and their sense security was well below their expectations.

49A study by the anthropologist, Ivelisse Rivera-Bonilla (1999), focuses on the impact of Law 21 that permits residents in existing neighborhoods in San Juan, Puerto Rico to seal off their residential areas. Rivera-Bonilla analyses the three arguments used to convince neighbors who oppose gating to participate in closing off previously open neighborhoods: fear of crime, improving the “quality of life,” and strengthening community solidarity. Similar to Caldeira, she finds that talk about the fear of crime is used in many ways including as a cover for race and class.

50Cristina Patriota de Moura (2003), however, argues that fear of crime and others is not the only reason people move to condomínios horizontales; there are positive reasons as well. In her study of Goiania, Brazil, she found that unlike urban public spaces gated communities residents found the open space within the development extremely attractive. She argues that the openness of the spaces within the walls are more relevant than the closing off of the area. Guy Thuillier (2003) who studies Buenos Aires, also mentions other positive attributes of living in a gated development noting that residents like the ability to “leave their door open” and to be with people like themselves. His study found the same nostalgia for the past that I found in gated communities in the United States.

The “Enclosed Residential Neighborhoods Quarters” in China

51Enclosed neighborhoods and walled enclaves are embedded in the symbolism and built environment of China (Huang and Low, forthcoming). As such, one can conclude that Chinese gated communities are nothing new, but simply a continuation of enclosed work-unit territories (dai wei) and the walled low-rise courtyard houses and residential neighborhoods found traditionally in villages and urban neighborhoods as well as the best known example, the Forbidden City, the imperial center of Beijing. But when examined more closely, there are actually two kinds of gated residential communities emerging in urban China: private high-end developments such as the Purple Jade Villas in Beijing and the Fontainebleau Villas in Shanghai that developed in response to rapid globalization, Westernization, market liberalization, and increasing social inequality (Giroir, 2005, forthcoming; Miao, 2003), and gated apartment and condominium complexes not unlike the enclosed former work-unit residential neighborhoods for the middle classes (Wu and Webber, 2004; Wu 2005).

52These two distinct kinds of gating draw upon different architectural, cultural and economic models and reflect the divergent sociopolitical forces at play. The high-end versions imitate the architecture and design of gated communities in the United States, for example “Orange County” and “Sun City,” an hour north of Beijing draw their inspiration from a faux Los Angeles and attract upper income residents who desire the image of an American lifestyle (Aaen 2003). These developments are funded by private-public partnerships with builders imported from the West to house new elites who have benefitted from the liberalization of the state controlled economy and increasing incursions of capitalism. The second version is an indigenous form, evolving from the jiefang system of enclosed courtyard housing complexes for extended families or clans that were surrounded by walls and guarded entrances, and the work-unit compounds that were constructed with walls, gates and often security guards, to house state employees (Huang and Low, forthcoming, Wu 2005). This second type of walled and gated complexes should be considered enclosed neighborhoods and are a continuation of an architecturally distinct, territorially defined, and collectively identified model of housing that is wholly indigenous (Huang and Low, forthcoming; Huang 2005).

53Because of the differences in their evolution it is difficult to characterize the gated communities of China summarily. Researchers instead need to look beyond the architectural form and investigate the different economic and social contexts of their development (Wu 2005). Wu (2005) points to the shift toward market-oriented governance as the distinguishing characteristic that Chinese gating shares with Western housing developments, but also notes that the function of gating has changed in the post-reform period. Yet many researchers trace a trajectory that begins with the walled and gated courtyard house and lineage villages, public housing complexes and workplace living quarters (“workers new villages) built in cities after 1949, and the massive housing developments since the economic reform of 1978 (Huang and Low, forthcoming; Wu, 2005, Miao, 2003).

54Since the 1988 housing reform, newly built private housing estates have expanded, with conventional walls and gates and additional high-tech security such as intercoms, surveillance cameras, and automatic door closure and electronic card identity systems (Huang 2005). These gated communities are much larger in population and land area, and have a more standardized layout than their American counterparts (Miao 2003). The numbers of these developments is also growing rapidly, for example in Guangdong Province there are 54,000 gated communities covering over 70% of the residential areas (Miao 2003). In many cases, smaller, new luxury housing developments are added as in-fill projects, or traditional housing and “new villages” are retrofitted with gates (Miao 2003).

55Yet despite the increasing number of gated communities and economic liberalization, state control of housing has not been relinquished. In addition to monitoring the housing complex, that was the role of the self-organized Homeowners Associations, the government has launched a campaign of “community building” with “Community Committees” and “Community Service Centers” established to better serve the public (Huang and Low, forthcoming; Huang 2005). These committees and centers function like the previous Residents’ Committees by controlling the population through state intervention. For the government, gating has become a tool for controlling crime and ensuring social stability and political control (Miao, 2003). With increasing inequality and skyrocketing crime rates, the government has sanctioned, “enclosed residential quarters” as the basic unit in planning and implementing residential construction (Miao, 2003, Huang and Low, forthcoming). While there is a debate on whether gating actually reduces crime in Chinese cities (Huang and Low, forthcoming; Zhang 2001; Miao, 2003), it is clear that the government has adopted gating as a new means to achieve social stability and political control, regardless of its increasingly privatized production.

Enclosed Residential Neighborhoods: Empirical Studies

56Unfortunately there have been no anthropological field studies of Chinese gated communities published in English. Studies of the architectural and cultural influences on individuals developments are by Guillaume Giroir (2002, 2003, 2005, forthcoming) who has spent the past five years working on aesthetics of the “golden ghettos” of China, the Purple Jade Villas in Beijing, and the Fontainebleau Villas in Shanghai. Rather than theorizing their development, he is interested in the territorial demonstrations of the use of Western architectural and Chinese landscape elements found in these luxury residential enclaves.

57The phenomenon of luxury villas in Beijing is quite recent with the first project, the East Lake Villas, opening in 1989. But there has been a surge in this type of housing with an increase from 9,000 units in 1995 to 22,000 in 2001 (Giroir, 2005). These communities bring together foreign expatriates such as executives of Western multinational corporations and diplomats with heads of large China-based firms. Based on a questionnaire of 1600 potential home buyers by the real estate agencies in Beijing only 2% wished to buy a villa, with the majority of those respondents making such a purchase as an investment or to have a holiday home. The leisure facilities and available activities play a major role in attracting residents; the Purple Jade Villas provide two common outdoors swimming pools, one that turns into an ice skating rink in winter, four tennis courts, and a golf course is being built (Giroir 2002, 2005). There is also a green belt of park land with artificial lakes stocked with carp and Wuchang fish for enthusiasts. Most of the 180 hectares of open space are meadows that can be used for large receptions and garden parties lined with trees as wind breakers, but the central element of the community is the club house that screens members by charging an annual fee of $1800 per year and $70 dues per month.

58The Fontainebleau Villas in Shanghai differ from the Purple Jade Villas in that the Western influenced architecture and the names of the housing complexes are placed with a setting designed according to Chinese principles of garden design and fengshui. As such, the landscape of 400 hectares with the 170 villas planned is to be 70% park land with a network of surveillance cameras monitored by private police. The majority of the residents are Chinese, although some are overseas Chinese. The architecture was inspired by the Ancien Regime in France, the Chateau de Fontainebleau, and the French style villas were designed in “the French aristocratic style” according to the architects (Giroir forthcoming). Nonetheless, the French architectural style is made more “Chinese” in this setting. For example, the roof of the villas are not covered with slates, but with a blue color analogous to the palaces of Imperial China, and the landscape is made up of elements of Chinese classical garden design and poetry, such as three rounded rocks painted black or a small teapot of terracotta set on a rock to represent the importance of the villas as a retreat for the elite residents.


59It is clear from these findings that residential enclosure in China differs both in social production and social construction from gated communities in the United States and Latin America based on profound differences in their architectural, political, and cultural histories. For example, gated and walled communities have always existed China and Latin America, but not in the United States, yet the regions exhibit similar patterns of gated urban development. Further, the expansion of private communities is supported by Chinese cities where state control of housing is still strong, and not supported in the United States and ignored in Latin American where state support of housing is rapidly deteriorating because of neoliberal policies.

60Utilizing the data presented, various dimensions can be compared to illuminate differences and to search for insights into national and cultural variations in the gating phenomena. The following chart arrays a preliminary analysis of the identified patterns of gating/enclosure:

Comparison of US gated communities, Latin American “communidades cerradas”, and Chinese “neighborhood enclosures”


United States

Latin America


Domestic Architecture

Single family houses, townhouses, apartments

Extended family house around patio, apartments

Courtyard house, work-unit complexes

Urban/Suburban Settlement Pattern

Urban street grid with houses facades open to the street; suburban houses with open yards; garden apartments

Urban street grid with

individual houses surrounded by walls; apartment complexes surrounded by walls.

Urban street grid with courtyard housing surrounded by walls; apartment complex surrounded by walls

Role of the State

Ambivalent, local governments may use gated communities to reduce financial burden, Federal government and citizens oppose gating as discriminatory

Neoliberal governments’ withdrawal of the state from provision of urban goods and services, especially policing, generates need to replace these services

State encourages the building of enclosed neighborhoods as a strategy to maintain stability, reduce crime, and expand political control


Community interest developments (CID’s) with C,C,&R’s and HOA

Public laws apply, only Buenos Aires and San Juan have laws, informal organizations function like HOAs but have no legal mandate

State controlled governance groups including Residents’ Committees, Community Building Committees, and HOA


Succession from local citizenry, reinforces insiders/outsiders

Deteriorating sense of citizenship through demise of the state

Reinforces national citizenship through expansion of the state

Cultural Meaning

Community by contract, stabilizes status anxiety, nostalgia, emphasizes insiders/outsiders

Confers prestige, increases status, nostalgia for the good life, openness

Confers Westernized, modern status


individual , emerging form of place identity, reinforces class identity

Reinforces and upholds class identity

Collective identity of lineage, work or lifestyle

Provision of Urban Goods and Services

Some municipalities and township face problems of providing adequate services

Breakdown in the provision of goods and services because of neoliberal policies

State provides most services, some private provision in gated communities


In Northeast concern with tax increases, in states with tax caps inability to provide services, in Sun Belt concern with taxes paid for inadequate services

Taxation may be an issue but not written about, in Buenos Aires public taxes are very low, and few people pay them

Taxation is not an issue

Degree of Privatization

Total privatization including the use of contract law and private governance (HOA) for disputes

Varies by country, usually housing is private, but governed by public laws

Mixed model of private construction, private-public construction, and state construction

Cultural Patterns of Social Sanction

Moral minimalism, niceness, HOA provides control

Gossip, niceness, internal organizations developed to provide social controls

Residents’ Committees, HOA, Building community committees, and state intervention

Fear of Crime and Others

Major reason for moving (70-90%) even though low levels of crime

Major reason for moving with high levels of crime, fear of street people and drive-by shootings

Reason given for state backing of gating

61The result produces a layered model which goes beyond the discourses of economics, privatization, and fear, and includes the role of the state, cultural context and meaning, as well as historical development. Each dimension varies based on the emergence of gating and enclosure within distinct historical, political and cultural periods and in response to diverse socioeconomic conditions. And while gated community researchers have verified that there is considerable variation and difference in the meaning and function of these residential developments, we have not adequately theorized this variation. What could explain the degree of variability found by arraying the data in this way?

62Perhaps the most persuasive argument that cuts across the three regions is Chris Webster’s public goods analysis of gating as a way to create a limited public or “club realm” that produces the most effective way to distribute goods and services. From the supply-side, the club realm perspective explains how multiple urban forms evolving in a variety of contexts function in similar economic ways. But I would argue that these fragmented communities do not work the same way, even economically. Looking at the taxation and governance dimensions, in Latin America, the barrios cerradas have no legal status or ability to collect fees and to provide services. Informal organizations develop in an attempt to redistribute good and services, which argues for the power of the club realm thesis, but in most cases, the private communities still depend on the public services. Part of the reason that the club realm argument may not work is that the economic and legal boundaries of these communities are so porous. Looking at the “provision of goods and services” dimension, the club realm works well for the U.S. case and Latin America, but the Chinese example gives “private” and “public” different meanings that also must be considered.

63There is also the problem that the more comprehensive economic and supply side models do not adequately address the cultural meanings, personal identities, psycho-social drivers, and socio-political reasons that residents choose to live there. It is in the development of a better demand-side argument, that the cross-cultural comparison is more helpful. At first glance, the data are puzzling. Why would enclosed enclaves evolve where there is a history of walled and gated domestic architecture (China and Latin America) as well as in countries where zoning and construction guidelines placed single family houses in open, suburban landscapes or with porches and windows facing the urban street? Why is gating and enclosure encouraged by the Chinese state and opposed or ignored in the Americas? What can explain the differences in the cultural meaning and sense of identity conferred by these residential developments, from concern with prestige and status to representations of modernity?

64At the micro-level tracing the differential trajectories is beyond the scope of this paper, although I intend to continue working on local explanatory models. Clearly, variations in cultural meaning, sources of identity, state participation, and citizenship draw upon contemporary socio-cultural and political transformations. But it is significant that one dimension is the same for all three regions--the fear of crime and others. The discourse of fear appears in every case regardless of the level of crime or heterogeneity in the regional population. This reoccurring finding in all the studies suggests that regardless of the many explanatory models that might be developed for individual dimensions--and the anthropologist’s argument about the importance of considering cultural variation–it is fear that must be explained. One answer is that fear is actually culturally constructed in each region, but although the language and a reliance on a global discourse of fear makes people sound the same, it refers to quite distinct phenomena. And this might well be true, in that the crime rates vary widely in the US, Latin America, and China. Equally plausible is that fear of crime and others has little to do with the rate of crime, but with increasing levels of crime, which is the case in Latin America and China. But in most of the U.S. crime rates are dropping, so maybe we should examine perceived crime rather than actual crime rates. A third answer, and the most significant I believe, is that fear is a reflection, even the embodiment, of the impact of globalization and increased heterogeneity on the local population. Unlike crime, heterogeneity is increasing in all three regions, although the kind of heterogeneity (racial, ethnic, class or urban/rural) is different in each. The fear of crime--common in local discussions by gated community residents--is usually a rationalization for another kind of conversation about the influx of new people who are different, who do not hold the same values and behave in unpredictable, often unacceptable, ways. It does not matter whether the heterogeneity is about newcomers moving into a neighborhood, rural people coming to the city, or the urban poor moving to the suburbs, it has the same result. In many cases, especially in the U.S. and Latin America, this discussion also is encoded in the talk about “niceness,” nostalgia for the past, and finding a place one feels comfortable.

65The most important part of the impact of globalization and flexible regimes of capital accumulation, however, is uneven development within cities, regions and nations, and an epidemic of rampantly increasing inequality. Ultimately, it is the increase in social and economic inequality that underlies the fear of heterogeneity, and the insecurity of capitalism that underlies the fear. With the widening gap between rich and poor, everyone feels more insecure, and as status and class anxiety escalates, so does the desire for living in a homogeneous and socially predictable place.

66This argument returns us to the role that globalization is playing in urban deterioration and fragmentation, where the rapid flows of capital, and its destructive forces, are reconstituting a splintering urbanism. At a macro level, it is our best explanation for the fragmentation we are seeing. And although it is not a new explanation, its linkage to the discourse of fear and the underlying increase in heterogeneity provides a more coherent theory for the demand-side of the equation. This analysis is just a beginning, and fragmentary at that. I feel we need to take this comparative project more seriously, and work through these dimensions. By working through different examples, I argue we will be able to develop a theory grounded in our data of both the demand and supply sides of gating and other forms of urban fragmentation.

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Setha Low, « Towards a theory of urban fragmentation: A cross-cultural analysis of fear, privatization, and the state », Cybergeo : European Journal of Geography [En ligne], Dossiers, document 349, mis en ligne le 02 octobre 2006, consulté le 21 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Setha Low

Ph.D., Professor of Environmental Psychology and Anthropology, 46 Landfall Road, East Hampton, New York, 11937, United States of America, Telephone: 631 32 7348, Fax: 631 329 7358

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