Please fence me in

The allure of gated communities is built on a simple premise: Gates keep criminals out and desirables inside. It's an idea that has appealed to many. But is it valid?

For visitors to Marsh Landing development, stopping by to see a friend involves more than driving up to one of the large, expensive homes.

The first stop comes at a gatehouse, where a guard checks the day's list of expected guests. Unanticipated visitors must wait until the guard calls the homeowner and gets clearance. Only then are approved guests issued orange passes that allow them to enter this private 1,100-house neighborhood.

The limited-access, or gated, lifestyle of Marsh Landing is one chosen by roughly half the residents in this region southeast of Jacksonville, Fla. The allure of such developments is built on a simple premise: Gates keep criminals out and desirables inside.

It's a concept that has appealed to many over the years. Nationally, the number of people building or buying behind gates grew rapidly in the past few decades to about 4 million today, according to some estimates, with maybe twice as many behind walls or fences that give the appearance of being gated.

And builders continue to construct gated communities. After all, by putting a gate on a new project, a developer can quickly and inexpensively make a statement with a memorable entrance.

But gating has now lost some of its original cachet. Since gated communities are no longer new, they are not so special anymore. And they don't necessarily deliver the increased safety that attracted buyers in the first place.

Urban planners and academics are also raising questions about the long-term social impact of gated neighborhoods: Will privatizing traditionally public spaces lead to an erosion of civic engagement? Will gates that clearly delineate neighborhood boundaries heighten the sense of social, economic, and racial divisions that already exist in society? And will children who grow up in gated communities come to depend on walls and gates for a sense of security?

Questions like these hang in the air, waiting to be studied, as first-generation gated communities mature and new ones are created.

Do gates provide safety?

What has been answered, so far, is the question of whether gated communities provide the level of safety that has long been implied. The answer: not really.

There is no definitive study, for example, that proves gating significantly lessens crime. The fact is, upscale communities like Marsh Landing generally are in areas that already enjoy low crime rates. What crime does occur here is limited to things such as vandalized mailboxes or garage thefts that insiders, including teens and contractors, are as likely to commit as anyone else.

Living behind a gate does provide residents with a perception of greater safety, however, and it does discourage some criminals.

"Just having the gates, psychologically, is going to deter some burglars," says Chris McGoey, a California-based security consultant. He acknowledges that the real focus in these places is on discouraging drive-through robberies, speeding, and unwanted traffic and solicitors.

Regardless, many residents still say that they feel more secure, because the gates protect them in ways that are not immediately apparent.

Seniors such as Cali McClure, a resident of Lake Barrington Shores in Lake Barrington, Ill., appreciate the presence of friendly guards at the entrance. "As a single woman, it's nice when you drive in late at night," she says. "It's just like somebody greeting you when you come home."

And as Marcia Hodgson of Marsh Landing points out, the gates do provide more privacy. "You don't have people selling you vacuum cleaners or magazines or trying to talk you into their religion," she says. "And if somebody like the Girl Scouts come to your door, you know it's a kid from the neighborhood."

For Dan MacDonald, a retired salesman from New York, Marsh Landing appealed because of "the landscaping standards and the look of it." Unlike unzoned areas where stately homes may sit alongside double-wide trailers with abandoned cars in the front yard, the subdivision, with its lagoons and carefully laid out green spaces, has the feel of a manicured private park.

Even as gated subdivisions have lost their sense of newness in most parts of the country, they appear here to stay. This is partly because of their inherent appeal in a security-conscious culture, and partly because they project an air of exclusivity, which sells well in a society that imitates the wealthy.

But while gated communities have not lived up to the hype, they may not deserve some of the criticism they have gotten, either.

For instance, some experts have wondered if these communities might rally their residents to vote against tax hikes to fund needed community services and to pay for schools.

Observes Bruce Maguire, a county commissioner representing Ponte Vedra Beach, "If you live inside a gated community, you have to ask yourself, 'Why would I want to pay another $500 a year in taxes, because [the local government] won't be paying for my streets, my park, my landscaping, so what benefit am I getting?' "

Even so, Mr. Maguire says he has not seen the gated communities he serves acting as a monolithic voting bloc.

Municipalities aren't in a hurry to create hurdles to gated development, since it means more tax revenue without the need to pay for streets and other infrastructure. This is why Tracy Gordon, an analyst with the Public Policy Institute of California, says gated communities should retain their appeal in her cash-strapped state.

Some governmental resistance to gates exists, but whether it constitutes a real countermovement is hard to tell. The main thing for some jurisdictions is to ensure that gated communities have sufficient reserves, lest they become overwhelmed by infrastructure repair costs and turn in desperation to public funding to bail them out.

"Local governments are looking at these things and saying, 'If we allow these communities to have their own streets we may be inheriting a burden in the future, as the community ages,' " says Edward Blakely, coauthor of "Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States."

Another concern about gated communities has been that people who lived in them might disengage from the rest of the world. As Steven Bodzin of the Congress for the New Urbanism puts it, "Gated communities are seen as the ultimate manifestation of a lot of bad trends in American real estate, including increased segregation by income, the loss of true public space, the loss of the commons, where democracy is supposed to flourish."

Part of the American dream?

But Sharon Aardal, who lives in the Blackhawk development in Danville, Calif., disagrees with that assessment. She enjoys "access to all kinds of things right outside the gates. I don't feel isolated in that sense at all."

The main drawback she sees in living in a gated community is the perception others have, and she once did, that residents are snooty. "That was my reluctance," she acknowledges, "but I found it's not that way at all. This is a delightful community."

The American dream, says author Blakely, is to find a great neighborhood "because we really are a communal people. There's this urge to find the dream place, the dream house, the dream neighborhood. Gates give the illusion that somehow you can control this."

Historically, walled cities were built to protect those in power and their communities. They can be traced, according to "Fortress America," to the Romans, who erected walled communities in England in 300 BC to maintain order.

In the United States, gating dates to two periods of high immigration, says Blakely, who suggests that the influx of new peoples leads to efforts to insulate established residents. The first occurred in the late 1800s, when cities were industrializing, and the second was after the Vietnam War. Planned retirement communities in the 1970s helped drive gated-community development focused on lifestyle, prestige, and/or safety.

Today gated communities are most prevalent in the Sunbelt states - Arizona, Texas, Florida, California.

To counter the popularity of gated subdivisions, some urban designers are working on new models of community that emphasize compact, mixed-use development, walkable spaces, public commons, and interconnectivity between residential and commercial spaces.

In Marsh Landing, people get together at individual homes or the golf club, where putting greens, not town greens, facilitate much of the social interaction.

One resident without golfing privileges concedes, "We're living in a very nice place, but sometimes I feel like I'm living on an island."

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