A defining moment for gated developments
The recent slaying of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida raises important questions about the safety and benefits of gated communities.
We may never know the full truth about the incident that resulted in the shooting of the unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, but one thing that is clear — the tragedy does not reflect well on gated developments in sprawling suburbs. We may look back on the shooting as a societal wakeup to the corrosive effect of creating a landscape of exclusion and segmentation, with access designed for people in automobiles.
The creation of gated suburban enclaves took off in the US in the 1970s and 1980s. The residential population in walled-off subdivisions — especially prevalent in Florida and the Southwest — may approach 10 million households today.
But the popularity of gated developments has been waning. In the 1990s, more than a third of Americans viewed gates as an element of an ideal community. The figure declined to 17 percent by 2007, according to a GfK Roper poll. That was before the bottom fell out of the housing market and gated subdivisions were hit particularly hard by falling real estate values.
The Retreat at Twin Lakes, where Martin was shot, has been plagued with foreclosures and with conversion of owner-occupied houses to rentals. This may be the fate of many gated developments in years to come, as studies show that the coming generation wants lively, mixed-use, urban places — the opposite of gated suburban enclaves.
As the discussion surrounding the Sanford killing has highlighted, gated developments are often unfriendly to African Americans. When a residential area has a fortress mentality that perceives outsiders as interlopers, African Americans can easily find themselves under suspicion. In Martin’s case, this led to tragedy.
Physical seclusion, “worsens paranoid groupthink against outsiders,” according to an op-ed in The New York Times by Rich Benjamin, a young black man who spent two years staying in US gated developments to research his book, Searching for Whitopia. “In this us-versus-them mental landscape, them refers to new immigrants, blacks, young people, renters, non-property-owners and people perceived to be poor,” he says.
Protection by separation
Gated subdivisions are the logical extension of the suburban idea of protection by physical separation. Outside of The Retreat at Twin Lakes, you will find miles and miles of public right-of-way where nearly everyone is enclosed in metal, zipping along at 45 miles per hour. People mostly don’t walk, and if they do, one suspects that they are too poor to afford a car or unable to drive. Trayvon Martin, as a black youth without a car, was not in a friendly environment.
There are no perfect communities, however, and people are vulnerable to violent injury or death in all kinds of cities and towns.
But what are the trade-offs? In a walkable urban place, safety is enhanced by design that maximizes what Jane Jacobs called “eyes on the street.” Walkable streets offer safety through calmed traffic and transportation choice. In suburbs, safety is achieved through exclusivity at the expense, often, of community, fine-grained diversity, vitality, and options in how to get around.
As Zach Youngerman wrote in the Boston Globe, behavior is not just about character, it’s also a matter of setting. “In a place meant for people with a denser residential street, maybe the man and the boy might have felt less like they were all alone,” he says. “In a place meant for people with sidewalks and street lights, maybe they would have been less alone. Maybe a couple of neighbors could have stopped the altercation before it got out of hand.”
The built environment is a reflection of values. For a long time in the US we valued isolation and separation and produced an impoverished, automobile-oriented public realm. Values are shifting, now, toward diversity and community — with cities and towns designed for people.