Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
The government has called to open up private housing enclaves, but the plan is drawing fierce opposition from the public.
Along with its ambitions to finally put an end to “weird” architecture, China is also hoping to ban gated communities. In the same directive that called for stricter building standards, the State Council of the People’s Republic of China has also recommended that future residential enclaves be opened to the public. Existing gated communities would also gradually have their once-private streets integrated into the public road network. Not only would the move ease traffic congestion, the government argues, but it would also make better use of land.
But that particular part of the plan has drawn criticism from legal experts and fierce opposition from the public. Lawyers say such a mandate infringes on residents’ property rights, which according to China’s property laws, are “inviolable.” According to the South China Morning Post, the cost of roads and other shared spaces inside gated communities are factored into the price of residents’ homes, so they are essentially considered private property. China’s Supreme Court recently told the Hong Kong newspaper that they will be “paying close attention” to the directive.
Residents of gated communities themselves have come out strongly against the plan: In an unscientific poll of 20,000 people on the news portal Sina.com, roughly three-quarters said they don’t support China’s new plan. About 65 percent cited personal safety as their main concern—even though, as CityLab previously reported, there is no conclusive evidence that gates offer communities extra protection from crime. Eighty-five percent said that if their gates are opened to the public, homeowners should at least be compensated.
On top of legal and security concerns, though, there may be a deeper, cultural reason for the backlash. The popularity of gated communities took off in the 1990s, after Chinese cities began privatizing houses amid the country’s growing economy. Gated villas became reserved for the wealthy, who could spare the extra money to buy more space in a country where livable space is limited. “The amount of square meters per person has always been very low, so having more money to buy a bigger apartment is a big thing,” says Alexandra Staub, an architecture professor at Penn State University who studies housing and urban spaces in a cultural context. “It’s sort of a sign of upward mobility, so I don’t think people want to give that up.”
Enclosed communities also grant residents a sense of personal freedom and privacy, which has become increasingly valuable in a communist state. In a 2007 paper published in the journal Social & Cultural Geography, Pow Choon-Piew, a professor of geography at the National University of Singapore, examined the privacy implications of gated housing in Shanghai:
The rise of the private housing market and gated communities could thus be interpreted as the carving out of new domestic spaces that potentially increase personal autonomy away from state control. In these terms, it is possible to offer a more nuanced understanding of gated communities in Shanghai as representing not so much the bulldozing of public spaces by the private, but rather as offering potential sites where greater personal and household autonomy may be realized away from the state (albeit only for those who can afford to move into private housing enclaves).
With that, a new, more isolated, way of living emerged. Pow notes that residents were no longer close-knit with their neighbors, and many—much like here in the U.S.—barely speak to the people next door. While not exclusive to enclosed neighborhoods, he argues that this trend is particularly pronounced behind gates. And for elites, the privilege of privacy and anonymity is “equivalent to liberation.”
“For the nouveau riche in the midst of rising social inequality, the retreat into an anonymous life has even become a necessity,” Pow writes.
Yet newer villas—with plenty of lush landscapes, playgrounds, private facilities, and a promise of a better, cleaner life—have proven to be a problem for urban planners and the government, as well. To snag part of the housing market, developers have retroactively built fences around some formerly open neighborhoods.
Staub recalls a recent trip to Shanghai, where entire streets of what looked like public space was locked inside gated communities, “with shops and a post office, and just the regular stuff you would find on a commercial street, but it was behind a fence.”
“There have been public streets that have essentially been closed through having these very large areas gated communities,” Staub says. “They block off big chunks of the urban fabric so that even pedestrians can’t walk through … I can understand concerns about that, because you have to have [public] pedestrian-oriented smaller-scale areas in order to create a lively urban setting.
“If you don’t have that,” she continues, “then the urban concept pretty much dies out.”
Will banning gated communities solve this problem? Doing so at all may also be more complicated than it seems. As one law professor from the Beijing Institute of Technology argued in SCMP, “[Residents] have no obligation to open to the public, and the government has no right to intervene.”