The Ungated Community

Homebuyers, in growing numbers, are trading in their white-picket fences for a guard at a gate.

Estimates indicate 9 million Americans now live in so-called gated communities, most of them in the South and Southwest. Many of these communities were designed with "smart growth" planning to cluster homes, schools, businesses, and shopping in environmentally responsible - and supposedly safe - surroundings. No doubt, they have broad appeal.

But the choice to live behind gates and walls - in a sense, beyond the traditional public realm - may often be an attempt to escape from the challenges facing American society, such as crime, noise, and traffic.

Like the 20th-century flight to the suburbs from decaying cities, gated communities offer people a place to flee from "undesirable" suburbs. This up-and-leave mentality is an abandonment of any civic responsibility for solving the problems of the larger society, such as racism.

How can poverty be tackled, when those living behind locked walls might be subtly influenced to think their mostly affluent lifestyle is relatively commonplace? How can children be raised to live in a racially mixed society when those living in gated communities typically are all of one race? How can inefficiencies, even corruption, in city and county governments be adequately addressed by those with less concern, or even need, for the services of such governments?

Broader questions - such as "How can quality education and better transportation be achieved for all, not just a few?" - can all too easily be ignored.

In fact, the move to dwell behind a wall can be harmful. Edward Blakeley, co-author of "Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States," argues that such communities further class divisions and shrink the civic sphere. Research bears out that privacy, prestige, and a greater sense of control - more often than safety - are the motives for moving to a gated community.

Thankfully, smart growth is occurring outside those gates as well, offering at least some counterbalance to this trend. For example, the smart-growth policies championed by Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening - including cutting off state subsidies for sprawl-like development - have been picked up by like-minded planners and leaders in all 50 states.

A smart-growth tool kit produced by the National Governors' Association includes suggestions on how to develop "walkable" communities or foster crime prevention through the "natural" surveillance that goes on due to increased community activity. These ideas should have wide appeal. They save money, and provide a basis for already-existing communities to be more competitive, because businesses and people are attracted to a better quality of life. Most of all, they help keep the public inside, not outside, the public realm. And that's essential for a healthy, functioning democracy.

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