The neighborhood where Trayvon Martin died is the kind of place where people choose to live when they want to be safe – from crime, from outsiders, from economic uncertainty. Of course, it doesn’t always work that way.

Editors Note: This piece originally ran in April 2012. We are re-posting it now in light of the court verdict finding George Zimmerman not guilty of the murder of Trayvon Martin.

The shooting death of Trayvon Martin has caused an epidemic of soul-searching in the United States. In the weeks since George Zimmerman pulled the trigger in that Florida gated community, it feels as though the entire nation has been busy trying to explain to ourselves what happened and why. We want desperately to find some sort of lesson. Maybe we’re looking for redemption.

People who care about the way our cities and suburbs are built and organized have been no exception. In a post on Better! Cities and Towns, Robert Steuteville posited that “a poorly planned, exclusionary built environment” was a factor in Martin’s death.

The Retreat at Twin Lakes, where Martin died, is the kind of place where people choose to live when they want to be safe – from crime, from outsiders, from economic uncertainty. Of course, it doesn’t always work that way. By fostering suspicion and societal divisions, the argument goes, gated communities can paradoxically compromise safety rather than increasing it. And because they cut residents off from the larger community, writes Edward Blakely, author of Fortress America, they can “shrink the notion of civic engagement and allow residents to retreat from civic responsibility.”

The prevalence of gated communities has steadily risen across the United States and the world since the 1960s. Firm numbers are hard to come by, but Blakely cites census figures showing that between 6 and 9 million Americans live behind gates.

Rich Benjamin, author of Searching for Whitopia, wrote in The New York Times:

Gated communities churn a vicious cycle by attracting like-minded residents who seek shelter from outsiders and whose physical seclusion then worsens paranoid groupthink against outsiders.

I called Richard Schneider, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Florida and a specialist in place-based crime prevention, to find out what he thought of the discussion surrounding Martin's death.

The answer is, according to Schneider, that there are no easy answers. “It’s hard to make a generalization,” he tells me, pointing out that there are many different types of gated communities catering to all parts of the economic and social spectrum. Some of them are walkable; some are not. Some are racially mixed (as is the Retreat at Twin Lakes), and some are not. Some are relatively affordable -- you can find gated trailer parks – and some are filled with McMansions. Many of them are indistinguishable from any other suburban neighborhood. Did the built environment play a role in Martin’s death? Add it to the list of things we can never really know for sure about this terrible case.

As for whether gated communities deliver on one of their main selling points — protection from crime — Schneider says that research to date has been inconclusive. “It’s not a panacea,” he says about erecting gates. “You’re just as likely to be burgled by your next-door neighbor, especially if there are teenagers.” Criminals from outside are also quick to figure out how to get in. “They learn the code from the pizza guy,” says Schneider. “The effects of gating decay over time.”

Gated communities exploded in popularity in the United States during the end of the 20th century, but Schneider points out that they are an old phenomenon. “We used to call them castles,” he says.

Today, in the places where the urban population is growing fastest, such as India, gated communities are increasingly fashionable for all the same reasons that they have been fashionable here in the United States – safety, prestige, privacy, exclusivity. If urbanists’ worst fears about gated communities are true, the scale of what is happening in India, China, Brazil (where they are known as "condomínios fechados"), and many other rapidly urbanizing countries around the world is chilling.

Take the case of Gurgaon, a booming suburb of New Delhi that has sprung up from nearly nothing in the last 20 years. Now, dozens of multinational companies have located in the city, and more than 1.5 million people live there. For the middle class, gated communities are the clear choice, the only way to live the dream of affluence in the midst of a chaotic, dysfunctional, completely unplanned municipality.

In a fascinating 2009 documentary about Gurgaon, some of its most privileged residents explain what they are looking for when they settle in one of the massive residential compounds.

“I wanted safety and security above everything else,” says Shilpa Sonal, a marketing consultant who lives in a development aptly called Nirvana. “We are sensitive, we have like-minded people in Nirvana. … So we understand each other. That’s one of the best things Nirvana offers.”

The residents of these complexes rely on backup power when municipal power fails (as it frequently does), and are shielded from the sewage that runs through the streets outside the walls. In their workplaces, in their recreational clubs, in their shopping malls, they are constantly cocooned by private infrastructure. “The future is about these kinds of spaces, where one can control public activities,” says sociologist Sanjay Srivastava. “These spaces one can allow an intense interaction between people who are similar.”

The residents of Gurgaon’s glossy residential enclaves don’t need to think about the slum-dwellers just down the road, and many of them probably do only rarely. One of the women in the film is shown giving her young sons four 10-rupee notes as they set out for the swim club in their SUV. “We have to find four beggars today,” she announces brightly, explaining how helpful 10 rupees (about 20 cents) is to a member of the city’s underclass.

Shilpa Sonal is different. She participates in a program that helps to train women in Gurgaon’s slums to sew or make simple crafts that can bring them extra income. She keenly recognizes the inequity represented by the gates that separate the leafy compounds and the dusty shantytowns: “They look at us but they are nowhere near us,” she says of the people who live in tin shacks less than a mile from apartments worth half a million dollars or more. “A lot of crime is growing. The mall culture they are exposed to is something that is so unreal, they can never be a part of it. The more they see it, the more the frustration level rises.”

Her words echo the findings presented in a UN-Habitat report that Richard Schneider contributed to:

[S]ignificant impacts of gating are seen in the real and potential spatial and social fragmentation of cities, leading to the diminished use and availability of public space and increased socioeconomic polarization. In this context, gating has been characterized as having counterintuitive impacts, even increasing crime and the fear of crime as the middle classes abandon public streets to the vulnerable poor, to street children and families, and to the offenders who prey on them. Such results also tend to broaden gaps between classes insomuch as wealthier citizens living in relatively homogeneous urban enclaves protected by private security forces have less need or opportunity to interact with poorer counterparts.

Sonal likes the home she has made for her family behind the gates, but she recognizes that perhaps the walls provide a false sense of security: “It is so unreal that it is like a bubble which will burst,” she says. “How long can you keep these two things apart?”

If the case of Trayvon Martin has shown us anything, it's that a society’s problems — inequity, racism, and fear among them — have no problem getting through the gates.

Top image: Will Reese holds a protest sign in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin trial, in the Harlem neighborhood of New York. (Keith Bedford /Reuters)

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