Gates, sprawl, and 'walking while black'

  • The Retreat at Twin Lakes

    The Retreat at Twin Lakes

    An aerial view of the development, at the center of the image, and the automobile-oriented surroundings. Source: Google Maps

Robert Steuteville, Better! Cities & Towns

The nation is justifiably horrified at the recent tragedy in Sanford, Florida, where a stocky, armed, white Hispanic Neighborhood Watch captain followed, shot, and killed a slightly built, unarmed teenager who had taken a walk to buy candy. The shooter, 28-year-old George Zimmerman, has claimed self-defense and has yet to be arrested.

Many have focused on a Florida law that allows wide firearms latitude in any self-defense situation; a lackluster investigation by police; and the racist overtones of the incident. But there is another factor: a poorly planned, exclusionary built environment.

The shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin took place in The Retreat at Twin Lakes, a 260-unit gated development of townhouses that are linked to the rest of the world (or cut off from it, depending on your point of view) by arterial roads with rapidly moving traffic and single-use commercial buildings. The development has a very low Street Smart Walk Score of 26. The Retreat at Twin Lakes is in the middle of vast central Florida sprawl—and nearly everybody who has a choice drives.

Those who don’t drive are likely to be on the economic margins or intrepid teenagers—old enough to be on their own but without wheels—who can hurry across huge crossings and ignore conditions that are miserable for anyone on foot. Walkers in this environment are therefore the recipient of pity or suspicion—in this case, the extreme suspicion that resulted in the death of Martin, who was walking to the 7-11 to get Skittles and iced tea on the evening of February 26.

The development’s gate creates a fortress mentality, with some people viewed as legitimate and others as threatening outsiders or interlopers, notes Laurence Aurbach of Pedshed. The gate is most effective for cars. Pedestrians are able to slip in and out easily through the woody buffer that separates the project from the arterial roads. Pedestrians are most feared by some residents, according to a story in the Palm Beach Post. “It’s a gated community, but you can walk in and steal whatever you want,” said one resident.

The economic downturn is another factor. The Retreat at Twin Lakes is only six years old, but its property values have declined precipitously. Foreclosures forced owners to rent out to “low-lifes and gangsters,” one resident told the newspaper. The development is now “minority-majority”—49 percent non-Hispanic white, 23 percent Hispanic, 20 percent African-American, and 5 percent Asian. This story is partly about what happens to a gated development when residents find themselves on the same side of the gate as people they fear.

Zimmerman reacted with paranoia. He had called 911—often citing minor “suspicious” behavior such as an open window or somebody looking at a house—41 times since January 2011. He was known for circling the small development with his dog, carrying a concealed, licensed 9mm handgun, and questioning anybody who looked to him as suspicious. He was also quite open about his suspicion of young black males—even when he was communicating with African-American residents. Martin was killed for being a young black male on foot, foolish enough to walk in an inhospitable environment to the convenience store for a sugar fix.

The victim could have been anyone fitting the young man's description. The Palm Beach Post quotes another young black resident who chose not to walk in The Retreat at Twin Lakes out of fear of being misidentified as an interloper. "For walks, he goes downtown," the paper reports.

This story is far from over. A call to have Zimmerman arrested is reported to be the fastest-growing petition in Internet history, with 800,000 signatures as of Wednesday. Some are asking for the Sanford police chief to be fired. Others have demanded a change in the Florida law on self-defense shootings.

In all of this agitation, the physical environment that discriminates against, and focuses suspicion on, anyone who doesn’t drive should not be forgotten. It's hard to imagine this kind of tragedy playing out today in the same way on the block of a walkable city or town.

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