Proponents of gated communities often say they are safe, neighborly places. But according to my research and that of local police departments across the country, gated communities do not have less crime than the suburbs from which they’re walled off. (One exception is car theft, which my research with Mary Gail Snyder found to be less frequent in gated communities than in non-gated ones.) We also found that residents of gated developments don’t know their neighbors any better than people in other suburban communities.
For many, the guards at the gate provide an artificial sense of safety. In our surveys of more than 1,000 residents of gated communities, many said they chose to live there because they traveled or worked long hours, so they had no time to meet neighbors and used the guards as their home security system. In fact, some responded: Why get to know my neighbors? If there were an emergency, after all, I’d just call security.
Gates and security guards also convey to residents that their preserve is outside the wider community’s laws. It is their kingdom; anyone who enters it is subject to new rules that transfer public authority to private individuals. This creates a tragedy of the commons in which vigilante security can be a result of residents’ mistrust of the suburbs from which they’ve been walled off. All Americans should think about the role gated communities play in a democracy that’s supposed to guarantee equality to all.
Six to 9 million Americans live in single-family residences in gated suburban developments, according to 2009 census data. In most respects, these compounds don’t differ from any other suburban neighborhood except for the enclosing fences, walls, and gates with guards or alarms and codes. In addition, the developments take on many aspects of communal life. Residents hire outside firms to care for their streets. They don’t use public resources to build or maintain common spaces such as roads, parks and sidewalks, and they make their own rules for community behavior. They may even impose traffic and other rules specific to their development.
Many argue that they are double-taxed because they pay for private security and infrastructure in addition to paying local taxes. Why should they have to pay for municipal police and other services they don’t use? Somehow, they fail to recognize that their guards have no police powers and that they do have to go beyond the gates for many services, such as schools and hospitals.