Gated communities have been a controversial topic of debate in Brixton in recent years. Here, I take a look at their surprising history, alongside some of their pros and cons…
Many weeknights throughout the eighties, Margaret Thatcher drove 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.
Today though, the concept of gated homes – and the larger gated communities that they have spawned – are perhaps even more topical than during those Thatcher years. Their popularity across the capital has certainly increased, with many pointing to them as one obvious sign of an area’s changing demographic.
In a short Guardian video, Brixton-based author Alex Wheatle passes the Brockwell Gate development on Tulse Hill. He suggests that its development a number of years back was indeed a sign of the shift occurring in Brixton. This is hard to argue against and if new private developments are anything to go by then the demand for more ‘exclusive’ housing appears to be on the up. However, in some ways the Thatcher connection could be a bit of a convenient scapegoat…
Why do gated communities 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 far more commonplace in the UK.
David Blunkett, when he was Home Secretary, 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, suggesting that they are in fact invidious for social cohesion. These two juxtaposed positions highlight the raw controversy around the subject.
An initial analysis of the term “gated community” can come across as 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 uncomfortably with the wider notions of community.
Not everybody sees it this way though. 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 of this is the St. George’s Residence on Railton Road. St. George’s is a council-owned residence and the well-kempt communal space is an oasis of greenery and the proud domain of its residents, who have formed an association to tend to the environment. Even the residency’s urban entrance out the front boasts artwork, with 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 such benefits and the way that it promotes pride within the community.
The other claim around defensible space is that it repels the possibility of crime. Yet there is the argument that the proliferation of gated communities could have a detrimental effect by perpetuating a community’s fear of crime and the outside world – not to mention the notion of ‘us and them’ on the socioeconomic scale. It stands to reason that if a person is attracted by the security of a gated community, this suggests that living on a normal street runs the higher risk of being subjected to crime – even when the risk might be extremely low. Plus, it might be naive to think that these social considerations reflect the motivations of private developers and it might be argued that the defensible space concept has often been used as an excuse to create gated communities in the first place.
There is certainly no shortage of examples to choose from in Brixton. 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 estate 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 such as Brixton. But because of the economic ripple effect of increasing urbanisation and demand for London property, 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 what they might have once considered down-rodden urban areas? Well, this has been happening in London for years, and continues to happen. Gated homes and communities are an inevitable part of the narrative.
But far from being the exclusive domain of the super-rich seeking control over their own security, it seems that gated communities have become more accessible today as a type of residence. Certainly, there seems to have been a surge in private developments that promote themselves as gated, which undeniably sit on a higher branch of the socio-economic tree, even if not right at the top.
But one thing is clear. We cannot talk of gated communities without being aware of their history and their different contexts. It seems obvious that while 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.