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Fulbright Scholar Examines Gated Communities in Southern CaliforniaA baseball game on a Saturday afternoon in Canyon Lake, California.

Fulbright Scholar Examines Gated Communities in Southern California

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By Renaud Le Goix

Fulbright Summer News

[From Ann Kerr, Greater Los Angeles Fulbright Coordinator: Most of our Fulbright Scholars return to their own countries in the summer and new scholars come in the fall, but this past June and July, Renaud Le Goix came to the UCLA Geography Department for six weeks to prepare his thesis on gated communities in Los Angeles for publication. I asked him to write a summary for our Institute webpage.]

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The Suburban Paradise or the Parceling of Cities? -- An analysis of discourses, fears and facts about the sprawl of gated communities in Southern California [i] .

Renaud LE GOIX

Ph.D., Lecturer, University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne -- Department of Geography, and Fulbright Visiting Scholar (2003) at the Department of Geography, UCLA.. Permanent address: UMR Géographie-cités 8504 - 13 rue du Four 75006 PARIS (FRANCE). phone: +33/ 1 40 46 40 00 - email: -

[Version: July 2003]

A first glance at the picture catches an ordinary depiction of a normal Saturday afternoon in the suburban America. Kids are playing baseball. Parents have fun too, gathering for a community event and taking pride of their children. On the background, one might even notice the nice houses. On the right side of the picture nevertheless, the fence with barbed wires and the surrounding patrol pathway catch the eye. A no-man's land seems to separate the neighborhood from. . . the desert.

The picture was not shot in South Africa where the townships were fenced during the Apartheid, but in Southern California, almost 70 miles east of Los Angeles. "A bit of Paradise" is the official slogan of Canyon Lake, a private community created in 1968, housing 9,500 inhabitants and scenically nested along a lakeshore. It is protected 24 hours-7 days a week by a gated access control and patrolled by a private police. Incorporated in 1990 as a municipality of its own, it hence created a multi-layered local governance made of intricate public and private responsibilities. In Southern California like everywhere else in the southern and western metropolitan areas, gated communities are developing very fast and have become an important trend for both the real-estate industry and the prospective homebuyer. But the question recurs: in this security-oriented development, what are really the residents trying to escape behind their fences? And which kind of community are they willing to build.

Gated communities as an urban pathology.

Because security systems and around-the-clock gates prevent public access, gated communities represent a form of urbanism where public space is privatized. They differ from condominiums and secured apartment complexes because they include public infrastructures and spaces behind the gates, which can otherwise be used by everyone, such as streets, parks, sidewalks and beaches. Gated neighborhoods have greatly developed since the 1970s, thus becoming one of the symbols of the metropolitan fragmentation and of the increase of social segregation (Blakely & Snyder, 1997). Although such developments can be found in every large metropolitan area in the world (i.e. Latin America, South Africa, Europe and Asia), they represent in the U.S. an average of 10% of the new homes market, and more than 30% in the sprawling urban areas. Because they are managed as private corporations, and push for political autonomy and an implicit selection of residents, the outcome is increased segregation.

This urban and mostly suburban pattern -- though now quite common -- is nevertheless perceived as deleterious for the social fabric. The media and fiction writing described them as seeds of a seceding elite in a not so far future, and gated communities have become more than a kind of urban neighborhood: they are now part of a whole discourse on urban fear and urban secession. Some Sci-Fi novels (Butler, 1993; Stephenson, 1992), inspired by themes connected to urban crime and secession, set the narration within a quasi-civil war between rich gated neighborhoods and the rest of the city:

Most Sundays, Dad holds church services in our front rooms. He's a Baptist minister, and even though not all of the people who live within our neighborhood walls are Baptists, those who feel the need to go to church are glad to come to us. That way they don't have to risk going outside where things are so dangerous and crazy. It's bad enough that some people -- my father for one -- have to go out to work at least once a week. None of us goes out to school any more. Adults get nervous about kids going outside (. . .) A lot of our ride was along one neighborhood wall after another; some a block long, some two blocks, some five. . . (. . .) In fact we passed a couple of neighborhoods so poor that their walls were made up of unmortared rocks, chunks of concrete, and trash. Then there were the pitiful, unwalled residential areas. (Butler, 1993, p. 7-9)

Stephenson's vision even encompasses the broader question of the production of Southern California urban space:

Southern California doesn't know whether to bustle or just strangle itself on the spot. Not enough roads for the number of people. Fairlane, Inc. is laying new ones all the time. Have to bulldoze lots of neighborhoods to do it. But the seventies and eighties developments exist to be bulldozed, right? No sidewalks, no schools, no nothing. Don't have their own police force -- no immigration control--, undesirables can walk right in without being frisked or even harassed. Now a burb' clave that's the place to live. A city-state with its own constitution, and borders, laws, cops, everything. (Stephenson, 1992, p.6)

Movies (The Truman Show, 1998; The Sect, 1999) and TV shows (X-Files episode Arcardia, 1999) were also inspired by the gates, thus developing the argument of a social paranoia due to the security-oriented life-style. Meanwhile, the social sciences literature has focused on depicting gated communities as a new trend, and three types of arguments are now part of a general theoretical discourse inspired by postmodern urban studies. First, gated communities are described both as a physical and obvious expression of the post-industrial societal changes (fragmentation, individualism, rise of communities), as part of commoditization trend of urban public space (Dear & Flusty, 1998; Sorkin, 1992), and as a penetration of ideologies of fear and security developed by economic and political actors: municipalities, homebuilding industry, and security businesses (Davis, 1990, 1998; Flusty, 1994; Marcuse, 1997). A second type of argument presents the gated communities as a symptom of urban pathologies, among them social exclusion is considered to be preeminent. The decline of public spaces in the cities is addressed as detrimental for the poorest social classes: the voluntary gating is thus associated with an increased social segregation (Blakely & Snyder, 1997; Caldeira, 2000; Glasze, Frantz, & Webster, 2002). This shift from a city with public spaces towards an urbanization built of private enclaves is argued to be a "secession" by an elite opposed to the welfare redistribution system (Reich, 1991), given the assumption that public provision of services is inefficient (Foldvary, 1994). The debate was brought to Europe (Donzelot & Mongin, 1999; Jaillet, 1999), where gated communities are also developing, and both journalist and social scientist push the argument in a quite dramatic way, as demonstrated by the following quotation from a French newspaper (Le Monde Diplomatique). Preoccupied by the development of gated residential neighborhoods in Europe, the journalist describes the urbanism of fear in Los Angeles:

Surveillance helicopters are humming above one's heads. Concrete walls dissimulate malls as gigantic as some cities may be. Paramilitary squadrons patrol in upper-scale neighborhoods. Buildings' roofs have been super-elevated in order to protect them from being targeted by a Molotov cocktail. Los Angeles is a city haunted by the fear of crime (. . .) Future architecture uses some gadgets that could refer to James Bond movies. Cause the people loudly claim for more and more order and security. (Lopez, 1994) -- Translation: Le Goix.

The debate about gated enclaves has been lively, despite a lack of empirical arguments to sustain it caused by the difficulties to gather a highly representative sample of gated communities at a local scale. So far, empirical studies have focused on a nation-wide phenomenon (Blakely and Snyder, 1997), or on a narrow municipal scale and a few cases (Bjarnason, 2000; Lacour-Little & Malpezzi, 2001).

My research derivates from the above outline of arguments. Because of a growing interest of the consumers, the developers and the media for gated communities and private urban governance in Europe, and because of the lack of a comprehensive geographical study at a regional scale, the goal of the thesis was to provide an empirical study on a field where gated communities are numerous and old enough to build a coherent sample. It aims to provide some evidences of the impact of the enclosures within the metropolitan region of Los Angeles, based on interviews with public officials, along with a survey of 219 gated communities in Southern California integrated within a geographical information system with 2000 Census results. The question is not to describe the kind of neighborhoods inside the walls, which are just a regular Common Interest Developments ruled by a regular POA (Property Owners Associations), but to assess the impact of actually gating a neighborhood.

The sprawl of gated communities as a public-private partnership

The gated community's life-style is mainly inspired by the historical golden-ghettos found in industrial-era cities, in New York, London or Paris (such as Saint-Cloud's 1832 Montretout gated enclave in Paris or 1854 Llewellyn Park a New Jersey). Nevertheless, those enclaves are now mainly suburban neighborhoods emphasizing on a "community life-style" and security features. The promotion of these real-estate industry standardized commodities often focuses on exclusiveness, protection of families in a secluded environment, and leisure facilities and amenities, such as golf courses, private beaches, private parks and horse-riding trails (and even in one case in Nevada a private shooting-range).

In the U.S., the percentage of people living in gated communities is now estimated, according to the latest 2001 American Housing Survey up to 11.1% in the west, 6.8 in the south, and less than 3% in other regions (Sanchez, Lang, & Dhavale, 2003). In Los Angeles, the first gated developments were built in 1935 in Rolling Hills and in 1938 in Bradbury, but most of them were developed after World War II: the upper-scale Hidden Hills (1950), Leisure World, a 19,500 inhabitants retirement gated community (1964), Canyon Lake (1968)... After a fast increase of gated development in the 1970s and 1980s, this market represented a 12% average of the new homes market in Southern California, but 21% in Orange county, 31% in San Fernando Valley and 50% in the desert resort area of Palm Springs. As real-estate commodities, they are tailored to fit to specific prospective buyers. Gated communities are located within every kind of middle class and upper-class neighborhoods, and are now available for every market segment: half of them are located within the rich, upper-scale and mostly white neighborhoods, and one third are located within the middle-class, average income and white suburban neighborhoods. As an evidence of the social diffusion of the phenomenon, 20% of the gated communities surveyed are located within average and lower income Asian or Hispanic neighborhoods, especially in the northern part of Orange County and in the North of San Fernando Valley (Le Goix, 2002, 2003).

In this context, the only specificity of gated communities compared to regular Common Interest Developments (CIDs) and Master Planned Communities lies in its gating. On one hand, access control and security features represent a substantial cost for the homeowner, not only for building the infrastructures, but also for the maintenance of private infrastructures and amenities that otherwise would be public (streets, sidewalks. . .). The homeowner is granted as compensation with a private and exclusive access to sites and former public spaces. Such exclusivity favors the location rent, and can positively affect the property value. (Le Goix, 2002). For example, the lake in Canyon Lake is a public property leased to the homeowner association. Access to the lake is nevertheless granted to the sole residents, and this exclusiveness acts as a major premium of the property values. Similar predation of public resources occurs where a gated community bars the access to the beach. On the other hand, it provides the public authorities with wealthy taxpayers, at no cost, thus considering gated communities as property taxes "cash cows." As a consequence, the question does not address the CID that lies behind the gate, but the effects of gating. The gating, acting as a territorial boundary, can then be analyzed as a border between two systems: the public realm of the city as a whole versus the territory of the gated enclave.

A first consequence of the sprawl of gated communities is to blur the limit between the public realm and the private realm of homeowner association management and private space. In fact, the status of a CID allows to transfer the cost of urban sprawl from the public authority to the private developer and the final homeowner (Mckenzie, 1994), the enclosure presents many interests in regards with the financial situation of the public governments: gating, as it is assumed to favor property values, increases the property tax basis. And the erection of gates transfers the cost of maintaining the urban infrastructure to the association and the homeowner, not because they are private streets, but because they are gated [ii] . The situation remains so until the gates are taken down, which rarely happens for the moment.

The relationships between the gated enclaves and the public authorities can be thus summarized: because of the fiscal basis they produce, at almost no cost except general infrastructures (freeways and other major infrastructures), gated communities are particularly desirable for every local government, especially in the unincorporated areas in connection with a context where budget are tied to a low-resource paradigm after 1978 tax payers revolt and Proposition 13. When developing private neighborhoods, the homeowner pays the provision of public services. The sprawl of gated communities is not to be understood as a "secession" from the public authority, but as a public-private partnership, a local game where the gated community has a utility for the public authority, whilst the Property Owners Association is granted a certain autonomy in local governance, and especially in financing the maintenance of the urban infrastructure. But this user-payer paradigm represents a cost for the homeowner, charged with the property taxes, the district assessment, and the homeowners' fees, thus guarantying the social selection and the protection of property values.

Gated communities as public actors, using public resources

Nevertheless, the consequences of the exclusiveness and the user-payer paradigm in urban development are not really a secession in the plain significance of the word. It would be more accurate to qualify gated communities as predators of public resources. This can be exemplified in the municipal incorporation processes of Canyon Lake and a few others. It reveals both their political involvement, and a trend towards the use of public resources for the profit of exclusive and enclosed neighborhoods. Gated communities have incorporated as a city of their own, like Bradbury and Rolling Hills in 1957, Hidden Hills in 1961, Canyon Lake in 1991, Leisure World in 1999, or as a part of a new city. For example Dana Point incorporated in 1989, Calabasas in 1991, where a substantial part of single-family housing developments is gated. Dove Canyon incorporated with Rancho Santa Margarita in 2000.

Local affairs are shared between a private homeowners association, in charge of road maintenance, security and compliance of buildings with land use and restrictive covenants, and a minimal city, which contracts for its public services (water and Fire Department) with different public agencies, according to the system of minimal cities (Miller, 1981). Indeed, the municipality mostly acts as an extension of the Property Owners Associations. At first glance, these incorporations are motivated by two kinds of reasons, consistent with the global trend towards municipal autonomies in Los Angeles.

They intend to prevent a potential annexation by another and less affluent community looking for of an extended tax base (Rolling Hills, Hidden Hills, Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells), or they aim to promote the protection of a life style and local values, along with the local control of affairs and planning (Leisure World, Canyon Lake, Dana Point, Calabasas). But it also reveals the tendency of gated enclaves to act as predators of public resources and a shift of the use of the city services (paid by the local taxpayers, along with other public grants) to the exclusive use of gated enclaves' residents. When infrastructures are getting old, when streets need maintenance, costs are rising, and it seems increasingly difficult to raise new funding and new assessments of the property owners fees (because a 2/3 vote of the owners is required). In the elderly gated community of Leisure World/Laguna Woods for example, the incorporation was planned in order to transfer some responsibilities from the association to the city, as far it is possible to organize such a transfer without having to turn down the walls, such as sewers, trash collection and public transportations. This case is not isolated: the City of Calabasas refinanced in 2001 a $30 millions bond designed to improve and landscape the areas where Calabasas Park gated communities were built; the California Highway Patrol has been checking speed on the private streets of Coto de Caza since 2001 (Kirwan, 2001); and the City of Newport Beach offered a $18 millions improvement to the Pelican Hills/Newport Coast gated communities area in order to favor their annexation (Willon, 2001). But on the other hand, the incorporation might also be aimed to build a public entity that would be the voice and advocate of the gated community, as Leisure World did in order to fight against a project of an International Airport in El Toro. Not only gated communities find in incorporation a public funding to private issues that were previously the responsibility of the POA when unincorporated, but they also build through these incorporations there own respectability as public actors.

The spillover effects of gated communities

This public-private partnership, though financing the urban sprawl, has a social spillover and it creates more segregation.

The direct effects of gating are detrimental to their immediate neighbors. As the motivations for living in a gated community are mostly driven by the fear of crime and fear of differences (Low, 2003), scholars have closely evaluated the impact of gating on crime, although limited by the lack of empirical data, and they theoretically demonstrated that gating leads to a relocation of crime outside the gates and within adjacent non-gated communities (Helsley & Strange, 1999).

According to the data available (census data and real-estate data), I mainly focused on the socio-economic impacts of gated communities. A first kind of spillover effects of gating clearly affects property values. Gated enclaves contribute to protect the real-instate investment from market fluctuations. Property values in large gated communities have shown a better resistance during the 1992-1996 real market crisis than in regular residential ungated master-planned community in their neighborhood. It was also possible to evaluation a light though significant increase of property values within the walls compared to the immediate neighborhood in a majority of cases, and even a strong price premium for the gated community in one quarter of the cases (Le Goix, 2003). Gating a neighborhood actually helps protecting a lifetime investment (or mortgage) against urban decay. Herein lies the most well known effect of gating: its negative impact on property values in non-gated adjacent neighborhoods, and the theoretical crime redistributions. Such diseconomies may lead to a preventive proliferation of gating in the neighborhood, and former non-gated communities may have to retrofit with gates if they wish to maintain their property values, and avoid crime redistributions, thus explaining the clustered diffusion pattern (Figure 2 [not available is this version]).

In the case of Southern California, the most important externalities lies in the net increase of social segregation associated with gated communities. Socio-economic differences between the residents of gated communities and the residents of the adjacent neighborhoods were compared to all other inequalities between every neighborhood within the Los Angeles region. Where gated communities are present, local socio-economic segregation is globally multiplied by 1.4 times the average socio-economic segregation level evaluated in the Los Angeles area [iii] . Age-based segregation created by gated communities is 2.7 times higher than its average level in the area. Nevertheless, ethnic-based segregation are 2 times less important where gated communities are present than in the remainder of the urban region. Here, racial status is studied everything considered equal regarding the social-status. Beyond the empirical evidences of a local increase of segregation spatially associated with the gating of neighborhoods, another interesting fact is that gated communities are a based on status and age differentiations, while locating within very homogeneous ethnic neighborhoods. Location is yet another way to maintain the property values.

The picture of few hundred feet of barbed wires on a Saturday afternoon in Canyon Lake are meant a lot regarding the issues of the privatization of public urban spaces and segregations. In a global context where gated communities are sprawling not only in the U.S., but also in Latin America and in Europe, it seems that this diffusion process is not only supported by developers and home-building industry, but also by public authorities earning their share in the process. The consequences of this sprawl are, among others, an increase of segregation, which is finally consistent with the long involvement of public policies with segregation processes, as Massey and Denton pointed it out in the case of the United Sates (Massey & Denton, 1993).


© R. Le Goix, 2001.


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[i] The doctoral researches for this paper were founded by the CNRS (UMR Géographie-cités 8504, Paris), the French-American Foundation (Tocqueville Fellowship, 2000-01), and the French-American Commission (Fulbright Research Scholarship, 2002-03), which is gratefully acknowledged.

[ii] Such issues are documented by the 1992 decision of Hidden Hills to build its city hall outside its gates in order to allow public access to the facility without opening the gates (Ciotti, 1992; Stark, 1998). The 1994 Citizen?s Against Gated Enclaves (CAGE) vs. Whitley Heights Civic Association case banned the gating of public streets (Kennedy, 1995). In 1999 Coto de Caza rejected a project to build a public school within its gates because it would have allowed public inside the gated community (Nguyen, 1999). As a consequence, no public money can be spent for the maintenance of the private roads since they are gated; which is not the case in other CIDs where streets are private but remain open to the general public.

[iii] These figures are the average of dissimilarity indexes computed between each 2000 census block groups of the Los Angeles urban region. Three characteristics of the socio-economic differentiation are analyzed: socio-economic status, ethnicity and age (Le Goix, 2003).