Friday, 24 September 2004

Gated communities: debate still awaited At today's Safer neighbourhoods conference in London, there was scheduled a debate on the theme of gated communities, with presentations from Bill Smith Bowers (University of Westminster, LRFG) and author and journalist Anna Minton. Basically Bill was saying 'why not?' and Anna was saying 'it's a manifestation of polarisation.' But the debate never really got going. It was all a bit underwhelming and I left feeling a bit concerned at how little thinking had been done. First, the conference appeared to be to some extent a celebration of the 'Secured by Design' approach to the local built environment. So the audience was primed with a rational and thoroughly-grounded appreciation of the case for distinguishing private space from public. Fine. But midway through the afternoon seemed a bit late when, in discussion, some people seemed surprised when the possibility arose that by designing out crime one could inadvertently design out sociability. What's worrying is the sense I got that a roomful of advocates of gating, fencing and locking should not have done much thinking about the potential effects of their measures on social interaction. On today's evidence, and with one or two distinguished exceptions (such as Groundwork's Jim McManus) the impulse to focus narrowly on security measures on the basis of crime and the fear of crime holds powerful sway. New urbanism? What new urbanism? So in that context, it was weird to hear an academic, invited to join the panel, referring to London's Barbican area as a gated community without a gate. Well it seems to me, even if you overlook the possibility that on most days of the year there may be more visitors in the Barbican than residents, it's still the case that a gated community without gates isn't a gated community. It is the closed gate that is an emphatic symbol of exclusion. What concerns me is that we might not have made much progress on understanding why so many people have an instinctive resistance to gated communities. In my view it could be because that symbol is so emphatic and non-negotiable, it represents a profound challenge to pluralism and the public realm. And maybe the problem is that our appreciation of the public realm is so impoverished, and we place so little value on the spatial experience of democracy, that we don't have a response to gated communities ready in our, er, lockers. Most recent post on this theme.

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