Gated Communities in the United States: The Fortification of Living Space in the Light of a Transformed Suburbia

Bachelor Thesis, 2006

53 Pages, Grade: 1,0




1. A New Suburban Environment
1.1 The Old Suburbia
1.2 The Transformed Suburbia

2. Gated Communities
2.1 The History of Walls
2.2 Definition and Typology
2.3 Proliferation
2.4 Security
2.5 Community
2.6 Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions
2.7 Private Governments
2.8 Externalities

3. Conclusion

4. Outlook




High up the canyon, nestled in a fan-shaped depression dug out of the side of the western ridge by the action of some long-forgotten stream, lay the subdivision known as Arroyo Blanco Estates. It was a private community, comprising a golf course, ten tennis courts, a community center and some two hundred and fifty homes, each set on one-point-five acres and strictly conforming to the covenants, conditions and restrictions set forth in the 1973 articles of incorporation. The houses were all of the Spanish Mission style, painted in one of the three prescribed shades of white, with orange tile roofs. If you wanted to paint your house sky-blue or Provencal-pink with lime-green shutters, you were perfectly welcome to move into the San Fernando Valley or to Santa Monica or anywhere else you chose, but if you bought into Arroyo Blanco Estates, your house would be white and your roof orange.

T.C. Boyle: The Tortilla Curtain[i]

This paper is in essence a work about repetition and preservation. It gives details on the measures of Americans in order to follow their individual notions of happiness. The home, residence and place of residence alike, is essential in this process and it is our aim to discuss the most recent step in securing that this place remains what it used to be. Defined by the move of the masses to the periphery, the ideal of the suburban homeowner has persisted over the last 100 years. But this ideal now includes gates. A mayor reason for this move, that in fact so highly is against what life on the periphery used to be, is the transformed character of suburbia. Now, the gated community has become part of suburban lifestyle. It is the preservation of the old by repeating the standard measures of the old. And it is a way that more and more Americans are making use of adding to it a dimension of pre-eminent national importance.

While various other countries, among them Brazil, Argentina, France, Spain, South Africa or Australia, have experienced the same phenomenon, we want to focus on the situation in the United States. It is in America where there has been a close connection between the policies set by the process of suburbanization and the subsequent fortification of living space in the suburbs. Moreover, in the United States the phenomenon has in some parts of the country developed into a mass movement and has thereby generated sufficient scientific attention.

On the one hand, we embark by trying to shed light on the relations between the new character of suburbia that has seen the arrival of urban problems, and the ongoing proliferation of walled neighbourhoods. But the focus is undoubtedly lying on the analysis of gated communities itself; those neighbourhoods that progressively hail the private realm in order to keep unwanted problems out. And those neighbourhoods that so frequently bear antagonisms that seem to work against the desires of the residents.

Chapter one begins with an overview of the suburbanization process, exploring the different phases of the move to the periphery and the character of the traditional American suburb. It continues with the description of the processes that leads to a transformed suburbia describing how characteristics previously associated with the city have reached the fringe. Further, follows an examination of the early methods on how to fight those new suburban problems.

The next section, chapter two, is devoted to the trend of suburbanites to wall themselves off. It reveals how suburban ideals and the change of suburbia have contributed to the rise of walled neighbourhoods. In this context the internal characteristics of gated communities, their consequences on its residents as well as on the people not living behind gates are being discussed.

Chapter three adds final comments on the standards set by the suburbanization and adopted in the gated communities while chapter four examines as to how the development of gated communities might look like in future.

1. A New Suburban Environment

Suburbia is not any more what it used to be. The antagonism between suburban and urban has in many parts lost its validity in today’s America. Since the last third of the 19th century people in relevant masses were flocking to the urban periphery in search for the virtues of a semi-rural life opposed to what they had been experiencing in the city. Those people had come to live according to the ideals of the traditional American town. They wanted their own spacious house, peaceful and quiet environments, community and safety; they were predominantly white, middle-class and living in the nuclear family. Millions of Americans took part in the process of suburbanization, which was ironically dubbed the most peaceful mass movement in recent history. But it was also a movement of exclusion. Ethnic minorities, low income employees and people not living in the traditional family setting were for a long time not part of it.

However, when this mass movement of homebuyers was followed by economic entities of various kinds, the character of suburbia began to change fundamentally. A process of stratification in economic status, race and lifestyle was initiated. The suburbs were not bedroom communities any more. They became places where people sleep, work, shop or amuse themselves. Likewise they became places that reflected the circumstances previously only associated with life in the city. Crime, congestion, pollution and social diversity have penetrated the periphery making the reasons for which people left the cities in direction of the suburbs obsolete. Nevertheless residents did not give up their ideals of how they would like to live in comfort. These ideals are only to a limited extent realisable in the suburbia as it is presenting itself to us today. But residents and businesses have come up with proposals as to how to retain the suburban life as it used to be.

1.1 The Old Suburbia

The quest for a quiet, undisturbed and clean living in a rural environment can be traced back to the ancient world. Wealthy Roman city dwellers were spending weekends and parts of the summer in their country houses outside the hustle and bustle of the city. And over the centuries the county house has developed into a status symbol. This development is as true for Europe as it is for the New World. In the beginning of the 19th century American industrialists set the tone by erecting free-standing palatial homes outside the original city boundaries. While the architecture of the houses itself was of generous dimensions, so were the gardens surrounding them. Extensive lawns were used for the pleasures of the ‘nouveaux riches’, be it playing croquet or badminton or simply taking a stroll through the park-like environments. [ii] This lifestyle, in addition to a deep-lying desire for the old American town life with its close-knit community life based on the principles of mutual responsibility, represented the initial paradigm for the coming change in how Americans lived, for the immense and unprecedented process of suburbanization.

While America, with its vast reservoir of unused land, offered the geographical prerequisites for the suburbanization, only a mixture of technical evolution of transport and building modes as well as government policies and their subsequent effects on the private market made it possible for more than ‘the lucky few’ to leave the cities.

The first phase of people moving to the urban fringe was coined by the streetcar. “The electric streetcar was vital in opening up the suburbs for the common man.”[iii] Developers were building lines from the city centres to the open land along which new houses were mushrooming resulting in a star-shaped form of the urban-suburban areas.[iv] But likewise technical improvements enabling the erection of houses on a mass scale spurred the move away from the inner-city. Balloon-Frame houses became the commonly used model that reduced the construction process for every single house to a series of defined unchangeable steps.

Between the wars, the second phase had the proliferation of automotive locomotion as its most dominant feature. Previously the users of streetcars were confined to the run of the lines they were commuting on to the city centres. But now the automobile gave them the freedom to drive wherever there was a street. This had an enormous effect: “In the seven years between 1922 and 1929 (…) new homes were begun at the rate of 883,000 per year, a pace of more than double that of any previous seven year period.”[v] And subsequently the gaps left by the star-shaped development were filled by new homes, the owners of which reaching them with their new independent modes of transport.

The phase after World War II until the early 1970s was characterized by government policies having the most resounding effect on suburbanization. The economic depression had brought almost all construction work on new houses to a halt. A national highway programme was completed to connect the major centres in the country. And in order to revive the flagging developer and real estate market, the government gave birth to the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) in 1934, making it a vehicle to insure the house-buyer’s mortgage by the state.[vi] The FHA was soon joined by, among others, an immense programme which addressed the need for new houses, particularly against the background of homecoming soldiers after the Second World War. This new initiative made it possible for servicemen to be eligible for a subsidized loan programme.[vii] The measures in addition to a further proliferation of the automobile gave the move to the suburb even more the character of a mass phenomenon.

Those post-war suburbs as they could be found after 1945 until the end of the 1960s should in this context be perceived as the ‘old suburbia’. After outlining the milestones of the move from the city, we should focus on the inner characteristics of the old suburbia. According to Jackson, suburbia during these times can be described along five dimensions.[viii] Apart from its peripheral location suburbs were characterised by low levels of density. The detached home for the single-family was ubiquitous, apartment-blocks or row houses were almost non-existent. Further, the fact that the construction of new homes was in the hand of big profit-oriented developers lead to an image of architectural similarity in those suburbs. In order to make the construction as reasonably-priced as possible and the margin as high as possible, buyers could only choose between a limited number of designs. Also, triggered by the described government measures, new homes in the suburbs were easily available for more groups of the American society. Not only the wealthy or the middle-class citizens could afford a suburban home, but also those who had limited financial resources. But what still characterized American post-war suburbs until the mid-1960s the most was their economic and racial homogeneity; a development that had its origins in the previous phases of suburbanization. With the help of the FHA private developers made use of restrictive covenants to ban a number of ethnic minorities (among them Blacks, Asians or Jews) from moving into the subdivisions they had constructed.[ix] Although this policy ended with a court decision in 1948, it profoundly influenced the real estate market for the coming decades. Segregation was one result of suburbanization and the developers’ policies. The Levitt Company’s towns are probably the most prominent example in this context and are representative for the behaviour of many other companies. A development targeted at the lower end of the market, these suburbs with tens of thousands of inhabitants offered reasonably priced homes that soonest were in the reach of Blacks. But it was only since the 1960s that those people were allowed to buy homes in one of the Levittowns. Said William Levitt: “We can solve a housing problem, or we can try to solve a racial problem. But we cannot combine the two.”[x] Thus, until this point suburbanization was predominantly ‘white flight’ from the ethnic diversity of the city to the homogeneity of the fringe.

Not only the geographical, architectural or ethnic dimensions made the old suburbia the family’s shelter from the numerous dangers and annoyances of the inner-city; economical characteristics played their part, too. Still most people had their jobs in the core city, commuting in the direction of the centre at the beginning of the day and returning to their homes in the evening. This resulted in relatively quiet streets that were mostly used by the residents themselves with people from others areas nearly being non-existent in the relevant suburban neighbourhoods.

It is the above described character of the 1950s’ urban fringe that represents the epitome of suburbia. An image that still until today so wrongly influences many people’s perceptions of suburbia; an image of a white middle-class bedroom community, with detached houses on spacious lots, generous lawns and quiet streets. And indeed, it resembled to some extent the dream evoked by the lifestyle established by ‘nouveaux riches’ a mere 150 years ago. But suburbia has developed further giving the once open land even more the characteristics associated with life in the city.

1.3 The Transformed Suburbia

Beginning at the end of the 1960s the old suburbia started to mature. It has changed its character profoundly with the effect of dissolving the previously distinct division between city and suburb. While suburbs have in some parts already lost their exclusivity-status due to the establishment of working class communities, a profound change in their character was sparked by the relocation of jobs and move of ethnic minorities into the former white-only bedroom-communities. “In many ways they have become diverse culturally, economically, and politically, much like medium-sized urban areas.”[xi] Some even speak of this change not as suburbanization “but the creation of a new city, with principles that are directly opposed to the true suburb”.[xii] Scientists who have studied these new metropolitan regions have come up with a plethora of rather imaginative labels ranging from urban villages and technoburbs to suburban downtowns, galactic cities, superburbia, disurb or edge city.[xiii]

Economic and Job Transformation

What first followed the masses of white city-dwellers to the suburbs were the retail businesses. Already beginning on a much lower level between the wars, malls started to sprout wherever there was sufficient demand, and the figures for urban residents show that there was enough demand ready to feed the economic needs of the retailers.[xiv] Spurred by rising income levels the number of suburban malls skyrocketed from 2,000 to 20,000 during the twenty years between 1960 and 1980.[xv] Not only was the daily demand of suburban residents addressed; huge shopping complexes were constructed that catered for almost every shopping wish of Americans. Prominent examples of today’s malls are the Mall of America south of Minneapolis/St.Paul, the Galleria near Houston or the Court and Plaza malls near Philadelphia. Thus, for the first time jobs in a remarkable quantity (apart from the occasional factory on the periphery) were created outside the core city, with its business centres and the factories on its direct fringe. And the suburban residents were no longer forced to go downtown in order to satisfy their desires that went beyond the day-to-day needs of buying food for the family.

The deconcentration of the retailing sector that followed the deconcentration of living space soon entailed the same process for manufacturing and office jobs. Against the background of a generally declining importance of industrial production in the United States, many new enterprises moved or started up in the suburbs. Previously open land was turned into industrial parks which offered financial incentives to the enterprises willing to invest in those localities. Subsequently, the place of employment for many blue-collar workers was no longer in the inner-city periphery, but in the suburbs themselves. “As early as 1963, industrial employment in the United States was more than half suburban based, and by 1981, about two-thirds of all manufacturing activity took place in the “industrial parks” and new physical plants of the suburbs”.[xvi] Likewise the high-tech industry was affected. Silicon Valley near San Francisco or Route 128 near Boston are the most well-known examples of those suburban economical regions. The Stanford University for the first and the Harvard/MIT complex for the latter are guaranteeing a close relationship between academic and corporate research as well as high-tech manufacturing. The recent economic developments have proven that this sector is of an ever increasing importance, adding in turn to the importance of their localities, the suburbs.

Among the companies that moved their operations suburbia were the ones that offered the classic white-collar jobs. They were previously described as the corporations with a distinct connection to the city centre, the heart of the city with its merchants, with stock exchanges. But due to the technical revolution in communication systems, an office not necessarily had to be located in the central business district of a metropolitan region. Even the companies’ headquarters were relocated to outlying areas. For instance, New York City has seen a sharp drop in corporate headquarters; host to 130 of the 500 biggest American companies, as listed by Fortune Magazine, in the 1960s their number dropped to less than 60 during the following thirty years.[xvii] In sum: “Corporate relocation in the post-war period has been overwhelmingly a city to suburb phenomenon.”[xviii]

A number of figures should illustrate the consequences of the whole decentralization process for the suburban workforce. In 1980 the proportions of suburbanites working in suburbs were as follows: 76 percent in the Northeast, 67 percent in the North Central States, 59 percent in the South and 66 percent in the West. And likewise the jobs created on the urban fringe were in turn not occupied by city-dwellers, but the residents of those areas themselves: 91 percent for the Northeast, 86 percent for the North Central States, 85 percent for the South and 80 percent for the West.[xix]

Social Transformation

In the wake of a transformed suburbia with its dramatically changed economic character, the dominance of white middle-class families was, apart from the already discussed influx of low-income whites, to some extent broken up in the last third of the previous century. Ethnic minorities have more and more gained access to suburban areas, but are still underrepresented compared to their share of the total population.

Commencing around 1970, Blacks have according to their improved overall social status found it easier to suburbanize. Although whites are still in better conditions of life, in residential and economic matters, suburban Blacks are better off than the ones in the inner-cities. But apart from this ‘traditional’ ethnic minority, immigrants with Asian, Latin American or Caribbean background now also took part in the suburbanization process. The aims of these people were in many cases the houses constructed for the less affluent whites after the Second World War; as touched on earlier, one might think of Levittown in this context.[xx]

Contrasting images of the past, in 1980 50 percent of all metropolitan, 40 percent of all Hispanics and 29 percent of all blacks had their homes in suburban areas.[xxi] Blacks made up almost 5 percent of the residents in those regions compared to 12 percent of the overall American population.[xxii]

But the suburban dominance of the white middle-class family came under threat from another angle. The American society as a whole began to show signs of stratification that further gained momentum over the coming decades. Different approaches on how to organise one’s life were developed resulting in a declining importance of the nuclear family as the only imaginable way of life. Single households, unmarried couples, same-sex relationships are just but a few of the new forms many Americans have chosen as the way they want to live. And naturally these developments changed the character of the suburbs, too. Today, “the urban periphery is no longer the exclusive sanctuary of a privileged class.”[xxiii]

Mark Gottdiener described these changes for the Long Island counties of Nassau-Suffolk, part of the New York metropolitan area. Privatown, the most rapidly growing suburb in this area, “is not characterized by suburban homogeneity. To be sure, the composition of particular communities within the township may be relatively uniform, but the area as a whole is stratified by income, housing use, race and lifestyle.”[xxiv] Although we learned that the inner-city is still a place in which many of the above described groups prefer to live (in comparison with families), the suburbs have become an environment, where these people have found a home, not at least because it has become the place where it is possible to combine workplace and home in a not too far distance; just like it is in the city.

Housing and Traffic Transformation

The influx of retail, manufacturing and service businesses and its job offerings as well as the influx of new social groups has likewise changed the housing market in post-1960s American suburbs. After the streetcar-era with its rather narrow and cramped residential areas, big lots and generous architectural dimensions became characteristic for the post World War I suburbs. Yet these were times when residential use was, with a limited number of exceptions, the main feature of the suburbs and open land was abundant.

Today, competition for the remained land has accelerated and this is not only a competition between different potential private residential buyers in search of a new home. All those new economic entities are likewise aiming at lots in the suburbs, be it for a new mall, a new site for an industrial park or a new office complex. A change of categories of land-use has been identified as clear signs of maturing and changing suburbs. Apartment blocks, condominiums and row houses have found their ways into suburbia. This has led to the fact that population densities have gone up.[xxv] In Nassau-Suffolk multifamily houses were constructed addressing the needs of young couples, aged or low income workers.[xxvi] In turn, while homeownership rates are considerably lower among the new residents, the cost of owning a house has gone up considerably. “What new homebuyers receive in housing is less than what earlier homebuyers achieved and, apparently, all at a higher cost. The new distinction between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in

suburban homeownership is not based upon income, but rather, upon time of entry to suburbia.”[xxvii]


[i] Boyle, 30

[ii] Gottdiener (1994), 66

[iii] Jackson, 118

[iv] Gottdiener (1994), 68

[v] Jackson, 175

[vi] Jackson, 203

[vii] Gottdiener (1994), 72

[viii] Jackson, 238 et seqq.

[ix] McKenzie, 58

[x] Jackson, 241

[xi] Muller, qtd. in Gottdiener (1994), 83

[xii] Fishman, 183

[xiii] Garreau, 5

[xiv] Ibid, 4

[xv] Gottdiener (1994), 86

[xvi] Jackson, 267

[xvii] Gottdiener (1994), 89

[xviii] Jackson, 269

[xix] Baldassare, 149

[xx] Ibid, 30 et seq.

[xxi] Ibid, 179

[xxii] Gottdiener (1994), 85

[xxiii] Fishman, 206 et seq.

[xxiv] Gottdiener (1977), 49

[xxv] Baldassare, 69

[xxvi] Gottdiener (1977), 36

[xxvii] Baldassare, 69

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Gated Communities in the United States: The Fortification of Living Space in the Light of a Transformed Suburbia
University of Bremen
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In this work I examine the emergence and continuing proliferation of gated communities in the United States as a result of the changed character of the suburbs. Suburban residents are now confronted with problems previously considered to be limited to urban neighbourhoods. I argue that this has fuelled the quest for living behind walls in order to preserve the suburban ideals of tranquillity, homogeneity and ample space.
Gated, Communities, United, States, Fortification, Living, Space, Light, Transformed, Suburbia
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Eike Christian Meuter (Author), 2006, Gated Communities in the United States: The Fortification of Living Space in the Light of a Transformed Suburbia, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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