Gated Subdivisions

avenue between two gated subdivisions in Miami

   New Urbanists have objected to gated subdivisions for years, on the grounds that they interrupt the open network of a city or town every bit as much as a factory superblock or a shopping mall superblock. There are other problems, too. Emergency services such as ambulances, the fire department, and the police take longer to answer your call if you live in a gated subdivision. Addresses are harder to find for guests. Kids are NOT safer there, contrary to the popular misconception. These issues are explained in detail on the New Urban Guild’s FAQ of the NU... but that’s not really what this week’s blog is about.

   Rather, this week’s blog attempts to discover how they got so popular and where they are likely to take us. America has had gated places for over a century, such as Portland Place and Westmoreland Place in St. Louis. From the 1880s until the 1980s, they remained the very rare enclave of the richest people in town. Most towns, as a matter of fact, didn’t even have a single one. But since 1980, an increasing percentage of American new home construction has occurred on the far side of a subdivision gate. For example, I have friends in Pembroke Pines, Florida who live in the only non-gated subdivision I can find in the entire quarter of town west of the interstate. Every other part of the quarter is off-limits to everyone except the residents and their invitees.

Meridian Avenue on Miami Beach

   How did things get this way? I’m old enough to remember watching it happen. Once, the grandest houses in town were often found on the main avenue coming into the town, such as the avenue pictured to the left. Throughout the 1960s, when I was a child, big houses were still built on the big thoroughfares, but those thoroughfares weren’t avenues anymore... they were arterials. Because the function of the arterials was solely to move as much traffic as possible as quickly as possible through town. The on-street parking shown here wasn’t allowed on arterials, and street trees were frowned upon by the traffic engineers because someone might run off the road and hit them. The parked cars were forbidden because people getting into or out of cars, or pulling into the stream of traffic might make the traffic slow down, and that absolutely could not be tolerated by the traffic engineers. The problem was that the traffic engineers engineered all of the delight out of the arterials. People often walk a block or two out of their way just for the delight of walking down the grand avenue above. But the arterials became increasingly unpleasant (and dangerous,) to the point that nobody wanted to walk along them. The houses, too, were set further back from the arterials because of how unpleasant they were becoming.

stockade fences between back yards of subdivision houses and arterial thoroughfare

   The condition changed dramatically in the 1970s. Developers finally realized that they were wasting countless acres of land because they had to set the houses on the arterials so far back from the front of the lot. They solved this problem by building subdivisions that turned their backs on the arterials. Obviously, if having your public front yard on the arterials was intolerable because they were so unpleasant, then it was doubly intolerable to have your private back yard opening to the arterial, so miles of stockade fences sprung up along the back yards abutting the arterials. Note that stockade fences were originally meant for livestock, not for humans. Another meaning of “stockade” is “prison,” for whatever it’s worth. Please note that this condition wasn’t some nefarious design foisted upon the public by some misanthrope... it is the natural result of the increasingly intolerable pedestrian conditions of the arterials.

gate and guard shack at front of gated subdivision

   The next phase came in the 1980s, and it, too, made sense. Many subdivisions were bounded by arterials on several sides, so they were almost entirely fenced. Because subdivisions in the US have been marketed since WW II primarily based on “standard of living” issues rather than “quality of life” issues, what matters most is how many bells and whistles you have. So if you’ve pretty much fenced the whole place anyway, it made sense to add a gate and a guard shack, and advertise it as a “gated community.” Never mind the fact that the things that go into the creation of real communities were largely missing... the words “gated community” made great marketing fluff. But what about real communities? Those have things like shops, and workplaces, and schools. You can actually live in a real community without leaving all the time. But the problem with a “gated community” is that they rarely if ever have enough houses to support their own shops, etc., so they become instead bedroom warehouses. Again, this is the natural result of what they became... the train of logic continues... after a short detour:

aerial photo of gated subdivision

   There is a parallel problem of gated subdivisions that doesn’t descend directly from the traffic engineers... it comes from a different sort of specialist: the production builder. Traditionally, towns had a broad mix of classes and incomes that normally occurred in a fine-grained manner. Children just out of college could afford to live in the same neighborhood with their parents, who were in their peak earning years... it’s just that while the parents might live in the big house on the avenue, the kids might only be able to afford an apartment over the square... and their grandparents might live in a little cottage just off Main Street, or maybe in a little Granny Cottage behind the house on the avenue.

   This sort of housing mix is great if you’re building a town in a traditional manner, but it’s not so great if you’re a production builder. Even the small production builders get their efficiencies out of buying lots of the same things and building the same things repeatedly. It’s major brain damage for them to try to build mansions and cottages and live/work units. Trying to build a mix of housing types runs totally against the grain of what it means to be a production builder. Production builders also derive some of their efficiency out of taking down a big swath of lots from a master developer, and then building the houses side-by-side, so they don’t have to pack up and move down the street to the next lot... they just walk next door. All of this conspires to create places like the one pictured above, where each loop or cul-de-sac is populated by exactly the same types of houses. Interestingly, a street of the same type of houses tends to become occupied by the same type of people, because those houses are engineered to a particular market segment, with a narrow income range and social range. Why is it any surprise that the biggest single complaint of suburban children is “I’m bored”? But when you put a fence around boredom and get to it through a gate, you’re creating serious isolation. It gets worse:

hedge behind house that backs onto street

   The fact that houses back up to the street rather than face the street has a number of undesirable side-effects. All production-built houses have budget limitations of some degree. It is natural to spend more money around the front door, because that’s the face of the house... leaving little money for the back... which faces the street. This creates a condition known as “mooning the street,” because the back ends of the houses are exposed to the street. Again, this is the natural thing to do when your house backs up to the street. Adding unpleasantry like this to an already-intolerable arterial further increases the isolation because you’re less likely to want to go outside your gates because the quality of the environment outside is so poor. And this isolation has serious side-effects. Once, when children, parents, and grandparents could all afford to live in the same neighborhood, life was much more interesting because you would regularly rub shoulders with lots of interesting people, most of whom were not exactly like you. Kids growing up in traditional towns tend not to be bored... nor are their parents. But when you’re warehoused in a gated subdivision with people like yourself who are in the narrow band of income to which the houses of the subdivision is targeted, you don’t see those other people as often... and it’s easier to be uncomfortable with them in the increasingly rare occasions when you’re around them simply because they’re less familiar to you now.

meat hooks at top of tall concrete security wall in Sao Paulo

   The end result of this train of specialists’ logic is perhaps characterized best by São Paulo, Brazil. The isolation and unfamiliarity there are now so intense that people of any means live in fear for their lives most of the time. You can find many old parts of town that were built before the gated subdivisions and gated towers became all the rage, but now, the people are so consumed with fear that they’ve even built high walls around the older houses, topping them with razor wire, electric fences, and meat hooks. This may seem frightening and foreign, but it’s the natural end result of the path we’re on. Where does it lead? Take a look at the following images to find out where we’re going:

vigilante in Sao Paulo subdivision

   Yes, that says “vigilante” on the back of this guy’s shirt. No PhotoShop here. There’s literally a vigilante on every block, hired by the people that live there, with the express purpose of protecting the residents. Interestingly, the vigilantes come from some of the same classes of people that they’re protecting the residents from... go figure. But before you laugh (or cringe) too much, remember that the classes of people that residents of US gated subdivisions are isolating themselves from are occupied by people like the police and firefighters that protect us, the teachers that teach our children, and the people that cook our food and serve it to us when we go to a restaurant, or that stock the food on our grocery’s shelves. So we’re not all that different from São Paulo... they’re just a bit further down the road. But we need to look very close to see if we really want to go there... because this is definitely where we’re headed if we continue to build more gated subdivisions rather than real communities.

steel garage door in Sao Paulo subdivision

   It’s not a pretty place... it’s somewhere that your front door is likely to look like this: See the little white post barely visible just over the door? that’s the post that holds the triple high-voltage wires of the electric fence that tops the wall. I’ve just posted a photo album of these and other São Paulo images, but at higher resolution so you can see what I’m talking about.

   So let’s recap: it all started with the specialists. A specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less until they know absolutely everything about only one thing. Or, some would say, the ultimate specialist knows absolutely everything about nothing at all. But in any case, the initial specialists that began the problem were the traffic engineers, who were so good at their single job of moving more cars faster, that people turned away from the arterials, which caused the stockade fences, which were then connected with gates. Meanwhile, the production building specialists were filling the gated subdivisions with houses that were all alike, because... that’s what they do best.

threatening sculpture above window in Sao Paulo

   This is a chain of perfectly logical specialists’ decisions, but it has has created an illogical result: a public realm so dreadful that people become consumed with fear. I’ll ask it again; this is where the specialists are taking us... do we really want to go there?

~ Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Wednesday, February 11, 2009 - 09:42 PM

Daniel Ashworth, Jr.

Re-entered... originally posted May 16, 2008

Hi Steve,

   You begin to touch on it a little bit toward the end of the piece, but what about the crime element? I used to be really flippant about crime, until it happened to us, twice in one week at our Midtown Memphis townhome. Now I must admit that I denigrate those who moved to the 'burbs and into gated communities a bit less.

   Here in Memphis, most of the condo development near downtown, on old urban bones no less, is gated due to the high crime rate here in town. Also, in a place like Florida, a lot of those houses are people's second homes, which means they are unoccupied about half the year. Unoccupied homes are a prime target for burglars, and having them behind gates adds peace of mind for these folks while they are away.

   On projects I have worked on, where the developer insists on having gates, I try to sell them on gating the smallest unit possible - usually at the block level, where the fence runs house to house and the alley or single drive into rear parking is gated. That way the architecture fronts the street and the streets remain interconnected and public. An example of this, which we (Ritchie Smith Associates) worked on with UDA, is University Place here in Mempis, a Hope VI project currently under construction.

   I am not being wholly apologetic about gates, but I certainly can understand some folks' desire to live, or have their second home, behind a gate. I think we can try to work with developers to find creative solutions to the security problem.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009 - 09:47 PM


Re-entered... originally posted May 17, 2008

   At CNU Austin, I was reminded of Austin's first move toward urban housing, as the gated (block scale) townhouses across from the Courtyard Mariott/Starbucks compound, but because of the block scale, the gates are less intrusive than the several blocks of gated subdivisions, Mr. Mouzon (whom I call, "the genius"). It's not the gates, it's the SCALE. In London, gates surround the greens in the Victorian neighborhoods out Queensway and Notting Hill. GATES! GREENS! They are only accessed by residents with keys (or when I climbed them with a bottle of wine with other urbanistas.) But, because they are at a human scale... so what? The gates worked and didn't deaden the area as the gates Steve describes here.

   Scale matters. The gates can both keep people in... as well as keeping people out. Gates, lights, porches, fences, trees... scale, scale, scale.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009 - 09:52 PM

Steve Mouzon

Re-entered... originally posted on May 17, 2008

   I agree with both of you on gating at the scale of the block... there are other scales, too... what about gating an entire town that's large enough to be self-sufficient? The problem is gating at the scale of the subdivision, and the damage that does, IMO.

   Security is clearly a serious issue... so much so that I believe it's one of the foundations of sustainable places. If people don't have the freedom from undue fear for their own personal safety and that of their family, and for the safety of their belongings, then they won't live there very long... and the place can't be sustained. The problem with gated subdivisions is that they exacerbate the crime problem, I believe, in the culture at large by segregating people to the point of contributing to the "us vs. them" mentality.

   Thanks for the comments... let's please keep the conversation going... that's what it's here for!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009 - 09:56 PM

Pablo Serna

Re-entered... originally posted July 18, 2008

   As someone who studied abroad in Central America (Guatemala City) I was hosted by an affluent family that lived in just such a gated community as you describe in Sao Paulo. The house even had a bomb shelter! Here is something to consider, however, in your analysis, real fear versus paranoia.

   In places like Sao Paulo and Guatemala City there are high instances of kidnapping by lower classes who find this method a sure means of gaining money. They pay off the police and in some cases the guards of such gated communities. So, as it was explained to me, THAT is the reason they live in these well-guarded gated communities. Over here, we still have a ways to go before kidnapping becomes common-place and the local police are as corrupt. The solution to this is more complicated than simply opening up the avenue, don't you think? Otherwise, a very good analysis of our growing predicament here in the U.S.

Monday, December 14, 2009 - 01:04 AM


I guess I'd second the comments here, and maybe add that the order you have things in is a bit, well, simplistic. It reminds me of the New Urbanism paradigm, which though well thought out, is not an entirely accurate view of history. New Urbanism seeks to return us to a time before these forces shaped cities, but that time is more imagined than it is historically authentic.  On the fear element, I would read "The Architecture of Fear" by Nan Ellin. Also, surely race had as much to do with suburban development as traffic engineers, if not more. And the rising inequality between a recent college graduate and their parents likely accounts for their divergent living conditions. With students exiting school with thousands of dollars of debt, and entering a job making less than they owe, I'm not sure anyone could afford to live in the same community anymore, even if there was an "entry level" housing opportunity, such as an apartment near the town square.

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