Gated communities – an oxymoron?

Gated communities have been a controversial topic of debate in Brixton in recent years. Features writer, Keith Lewis, looks closer at their surprising history, alongside some of their pros and cons…

Most weeknights throughout much of the eighties Margaret Thatcher would drive from Westminster, through Brixton, bound for her neo-Georgian home in Dulwich. To some, her choice of house – which boasted high security gates – was symbolic of the increasing polarisation of a nation under her rule.

Gated homes, and larger gated communities, are perhaps more topical now than during those Thatcher years. This is especially true in Brixton. Their controversy hasn’t waned and yet their popularity across the capital has increased, with many people believing they are one obvious sign of an area’s changing demographic.

In local author, Alex Wheatle’s short Guardian video he walks past the Brockwell Gate development on Tulse Hill. Wheatle suggests that its development was a sign of the shift occurring in Brixton and it has to be said, this is hard to argue against. But why do they arouse such controversy?

In recent history, gated communities have unsurprisingly thrived in countries with extreme wealth inequality – most notably Latin American and some Asian countries. In her book, Ground Control, Ann Minton says that the stereotype of a gated community is of luxury living “where the super-rich can live in peace and tranquillity.” She goes on to argue beyond this, however, and suggests that nowadays they are far more commonplace.

Interestingly, despite Thatcher’s seemingly prophetic choice of gated home back in the eighties, it was during New Labour’s tenure that gated developments became more commonplace in the UK. And far from being the exclusive domain of the super-rich seeking control over their own security, it appears that gated communities have indeed become more accessible.

David Blunkett, Home Secretary at the time, personally sought the expansion of gated communities so as to make them more accessible. He saw them as a way to improve social cohesion and security. At the same time, however, Ian Blair, Deputy Commissioner of the Met, expressed unequivocally that this was a dangerous idea, saying they are “invidious for social cohesion.”

New Gated Development on Dalberg Road, Brixton

New Gated Development on Dalberg Road, Brixton

Nonetheless, in the UK they have become increasingly popular and we bear witness to this fact in Brixton. A common place statement is “not another gated community’ and I for one have caught myself thinking it. To me, the term “gated community” has always sounded a bit of an oxymoron. The idea of cutting yourself off from the outside world, through fear of crime, or aspirations of exclusivity, does seem to sit uncomfortable with the wider notions of community.

However, not everybody sees it this way. One resident of a modest privately owned gated community was keen to point out to me that as part of an old warehouse, the gate was an original feature of the building. More importantly, she said, the children who lived within the block were able to play out in safety, free from the dangers of London’s busy roads. This would not be possible without the gates.

Blunkett’s personal enthusiasm for gated communities came from the US-born concept of Defensible Space. Its premise is to give residents a sense of control and ownership over a community. Thus, Blunkett was advocating a kind of micro-level localism through self-contained communities that would take pride in, and look after, their immediate locality.

One such example might be the St. George’s Residence on Railton Road. It is a council-owned residence. The well-kempt communal space is an oasis of greenery and is the proud domain of residents, who have formed an association to tend to it.

Even the residency’s urban entrance area out front has a piece of artwork hanging on an outside wall and a modern mural painted onto the large metal storage container in the grounds. Such communal aesthetic pride, particularly in unowned properties, is undeniably unique. I spoke to one long-term resident who told me proudly that she wished everybody could live in this type of gated environment, because of these benefits.

The other claim around defensible space is that it repels the possibility of crime. If this were true then can living in a gated community have a detrimental effect on communities at large, by increasing resident’s fear of crime and the outside world?

It is argued by some that the defensible space concept has often been used as an excuse to create gated communities by private developers. There is certainly no shortage of examples to choose from in Brixton.

Artwork outside entrance to St George's Residence

Artwork outside entrance to St George’s Residence

I made some enquiries. The homes in a new, gated development off Dalberg Road have all been sold. I was told by one of its agents that, in general, gated communities such as this tend to sell for a bit more because of the added security and the fact that they often come with a parking space.  So, the addition of a gate on the front of a development is undoubtedly a good investment for a developer.

All sorts of effortlessly disparaging words like notorious, or edgy, have been used to describe areas of London (including, of course, Brixton). But because of the economic ripple effect of increasing urbanisation, are people quite genuinely being driven into areas that they would not have considered a few years before? Could it be argued that gated communities lure middle and upper income groups into more urban areas, therefore?

Certainly, there seems to have been a surge in private developments that promote themselves as gated. And they definitely sit on a higher branch of the socio-economic scale, even if not right at the top of the tree.

One thing is clear. We cannot talk of gated communities without being aware of their history and their different contexts. But it does seem obvious that whilst they are more widely available, certainly in terms of private housing, they still remain an accessory that is unaffordable to most, whatever has caused the surge in their popularity.

Posted on May 10, 2018 in Uncategorized

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