7.11.06

FREEDOM NOT TO ASSOCIATE?

Edward J. Blakely and Mary Gail Snyder reveal their dislike of gated communities in Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States. This Book Review No. 37 will highlight a few passages that exemplify the authors' preferences and suggest some additional possibilities. Blakely and Snyder take a rather skeptical view of non-governmental approaches to governance. Consider, from page 20, how the very creation of a gated subdivision becomes an evil.
The developer appeals to the homeowners' natural instinct to preserve and protect their investments from the unwanted interference of local government -- such as zoning changes to allow multiple dwellings, commercial facilities, or group homes. Suburban neighborhoods have been transformed into collectively owned property in part to circumvent government regulation and social responsibility.
That actually existing governments might have failed either to protect homeowners' investments or to take care of the collectively owned property (the tragedy of the commons is a government failure) and that developers of gated developments might have set up more effective governance structures as a response is simply not worth considering.

It's much more satisfying to suggest, at page 35, that people who move behind the gates are somehow benighted.
Greg Alexander has argued that individuals often simply lack a "participatory consciousness." Alexander views the tensions around community in American life as a conflict between the contractarian and communitarian theories of community. The former, related to rational choice theory, views individuals as atomistic, not connected to each other except as they agree to be connected for personal benefit. In the communitarian ideal, individuals are embedded in society, connected not only through their common humanity but through the social structures they jointly create and benefit from.
Does it follow that people who choose to live in DeKalb are necessarily more sociable than people who choose to live in Bermuda Dunes? And have the authors thought through all the implications of their argument? Perhaps the real problem with a gated development is precisely the rigidity of the concept. The city or town has more potential to be an emergent system.

That appears not to have occured to the authors, however. Consider this contrast at page 169.
Sustainable communities bring together concern for the environment, social justice, public life, and private life. They are sustainable in that they do not simply meet the needs of people today but also consider the ability of their residents' children and grandchildren to meet their own needs in the future. Hallmarks of sustainable design include more compact development, environmental protection, citizen participation in design and implementation, equal access to services, concern for all members of the community, public spaces to bring people together, and architecture and zoning that promote a sense of place.

Gated communities are rarely designed to fulfill these goals. They intentionally lack flexibility. They emphasize strong covenants, conditions, and restrictions [that] make adaptive reuse difficult, and perhaps impossible. They attempt to protect the future by reifying the past. They employ walls and guards to prevent crime rather than applying integrated, holistic solutions that encourage community participation to ward off destructive elements. Gated communities do not undertake strategies to acquire and maintain adequate education, jobs, and public services -- fundamental civic goals that are the first crucial step in crime prevention. Instead of rich and vibrant public spaces, they contain, at best, private recreational facilities and clubhouses that serve a limited membership and offer a narrow range of activities rather than the entire spectrum of community needs.
As if "more compact development, environmental protection, citizen participation in design and implementation, equal access to services, concern for all members of the community, public spaces to bring people together, and architecture and zoning" are not themselves narrow, but narrow in a way that pleases the authors. And would there be as much demand for gated developments if the governments of the traditional cities and towns had done a better job of providing decent schools and police protection? (I also see a potential fun research topic: what is the effect of private golf developments on the construction of public links? Ought cities be spending tax money on the maintenance of golf courses and tennis courts? Perhaps the de facto privatization of golf and tennis has released resources for other city services.) It strikes me that Blakely and Snyder's primary complaint is that the Wrong People are making the Wrong Kinds of Master Plans behind those gates.
Their conclusion is excessively romantic and misinformed. See page 176.
Community is part of American political myth and tradition, from the town meetings of New England to the barnraisings of the American frontier. Community in this tradition recognizes that individual lives and the futures of local places are indivisibly joined to their cities, regions, and nation. We must protect our neighborhood communities because they are essential and fundamental to our democratic society. Yet protecting houses and physical possessions with gates and guards is contradictory to community building on a broader level.
I just flipped open my road atlas to New Hampshire. Near Dartmouth, I find Canaan, Canaan Street, Canaan Center, and West Canaan. Not far away I find Grafton, Grafton Center, and East Grafton. To the northeast, Rumney, West Rumney, and Rumney Depot. Each of those clusters represents a town meeting gone bad somewhere in the Colonial period. In those days, one could get away from annoying neighbors (or the cliques that sometimes dominate traditional common councils) by clearing some trees nearby. It's more difficult to do that today. To claim that gated developments are a modern rejection of a civic tradition is to mislead readers.

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