Gated communities : a new form of urbanity and a real estate product born of peri-urbanization

The case of the urban area of Los Angeles

Manon LAUTARD, Pierre-François GALPIN, 209

Gated communities are a relatively recent debate in urban research. A growing phenomenon since the 1980s, the construction of communities (condominiums) enclosed by walls and whose access is limited by guarded gates has developed strongly in the United States, and in recent years has spread to the Old Continent.

This is a phenomenon often described as being specific to American cities, and more particularly to cities in California, Florida and Texas. The urban planning of Los Angeles has been much criticized for decades, especially about the establishment of these gated communities. Of the 215 gated communities in California, 191 are located in the Los Angeles metropolitan area  and account for 10% of the new housing market.

The interest in this topic is related to various debates : the privatization of space, the social segregation and racial, the broken social bond and renewal, the security madness or the emergence of a new form of city. (New Urbanism These theories and debates each attempt to define gated community, but the diversity of cases inevitably results in a diversity of models and definitions. Is there a single model of gated community ? If so, what are its specificities and what developments (theoretical and concrete) has it assimilated?

The bibliographical references that we have selected are the products of researchers in geography, sociology and urban policy from the 1990s and 2000s.

City of Quartz is one of the fundamental works in urban theory ; Mike Davis draws a historical, political and social portrait of Los Angeles, denouncing the processes of exclusion.

The collection The City compiles numerous articles on Los Angeles, and is based on the same research themes as Mike Davis : racial segregation, urban sprawl, social inequalities.

The article by G. Lazar is a review of the book Fortress America by E. Blakely and M. Snyder. It presents both its major contributions and its weak points, notably the reduction of their assumptions.

The article by R. Le Goix attempts to find new angles for apprehending and studying gated communities : no longer focusing solely on the segregation they represent, but also on their economic dimension, as a «  real estate ".

The book Voluntary Prisoners of the American Dream exhaustively traces the history of gated communities and analyzes them through numerous approaches.

F. Mantovani’s empirical research on the case of Dreamville in Bologna is an opportunity to question the new forms of peri-urbanization and the idealized way of life of gated communities.

C. Ghorra-Gobin’s article on Los Angeles analyses the urban, political and ethnic structure of this city during the 20th century.

The two articles from the «  Los Angeles  » dossier of the journal Urbanisme are two studies of gated communities from the point of view of urban revitalization and the type of sociability created.

The article by I. BARAUD-SERFATY defines the new characteristics of the financialized city, gated communities being one of its manifestations.

I- Different definitions of this new form of housing

This first part presents the different answers of the authors to the question : what is a gated community ?

First definitions: problems of segregation and isolation.

Urban thinking in the 1990s, particularly in the case of Los Angeles, focused a great deal on inequalities, both economic, social and ethnic. Los Angeles is thus referred to in the collection of articles The City as the first American city, whose major characteristic seems to be the privatization of spaces and the growth of inequalities. Few references are made to gated communities as such. However, the implicit definition they establish underlines a process of racial and social segregation resulting, in part, from a strong wave of immigration that the city has experienced since the 1960s. C. Ghorra Gobin analyses the structure of this multi-ethnic city, whose political culture seems to be one of mosaic without assimilation. This is reflected in the privatization of public spaces in the form of gated communities.

City of Quartz seems to be one of the major works about the gated communities of Los Angeles. Mike Davis uses expressions such as «  white wall ", «  fortress ", or «  fortified cells of the affluent society ". The sociologist insists on several of their characteristics. Firstly, associations of owners - typically WASPs - coming together to defend common interests, they are gradually transforming themselves into communities barricading themselves from the rest of the city and the neighbourhood, in the name of a feeling of insecurity and fear of foreign threats.

Fortress America, a reference work on closed communities, shows that these new forms of habitat are developing in all American states. Gilbert Lazar defines them as «  residential areas with limited access, designed with a desire to privatize public spaces and control entry ". The authors establish several typologies. The communities are differentiated according to the social categories of residents : luxury housing estates, retired people, and middle and working classes ; or according to lifestyles : leisure-oriented, elitist communities, motivated by fear of crime and security.

Seeking new definitions and new issues

F. Mantovani wonders about the creation of a Commun Interest Development, as an answer to an ideal place for those who have decided to abandon the city. These communities, in which housing spaces are planned in great detail and completely privatized, are the consequence of the emergence of new lifestyles and occupy a utopian function: the advantage of « living in the city » without its disadvantages, the dream of a better life through a new urban form.

Stéphane Degoutin sees in the growing development of this way of life a double opportunity to live in a protected housing estate and to belong to the same community of interests and values. The closed housing estate only houses members of the same ethnic group or generation : private Asian, Hispanic, black cities are then created…

Thus, authors of the following decade, such as R. Le Goix, accepted the previous definitions of gated communities ; they remain accepted by all as «  enclosed residential neighbourhoods, with controlled public access ". Nevertheless, they bring new dimensions to the debate. Since the form of the protected community is generalized to many cities in the United States, it seems more difficult to define its specificity. But it must now be seen as a «  real estate product  » sold by real estate developers.

II- The gated community as the object of the study of the community bond and the segregation/integration debate in Los Angeles

The second debate related to the study of gated communities in Los Angeles contrasts the rather traditional argument of community shrinkage with that of a new form of social bond.

The argument of community shrinkage

It is mainly the pioneering authors who defend this position : Mike Davis and Edouard Blakely. Indeed, both authors seem to agree on the fact that gated communities are built in opposition to their neighbours, demonstrating a desire for individualism, exclusivity and demarcation.

According to Blakely, «  On est dedans ou dehors !  » seems to be the watchword of the gated community. There would therefore be no process of integration of the community thus separated from the surrounding neighbourhoods, but rather a process of segregation. The «  fortress effect  that Mike Davis talks about is the architectural manifestation of this process. According to him, Los Angeles is the first city in the United States to have defined zones reserved exclusively for the construction of single-family homes for well-to-do families. These houses, at first separated from their neighbours by their spatial positioning, are then surrounded by walls and closed doors; a veritable « architectural glacis » that cuts off the citadel from the other surrounding neighbourhoods. An «  Armed response !  » plaque placed in front of the houses is intended to dissuade any stranger from illegitimately entering the property. Mike Davis reminds us that these « islands of pleasure » can only survive thanks to the existence of lower classes locked in ghettos and barrios, located at their gates.

Cynthia Ghorra-Gobin defines Los Angeles as oscillating between the desire for a centrality that reflects the complexity and heterogeneity of the cultures involved, as well as the multi-ethnic character of its population, and the maintenance of a tradition of territorial conquest, which translates either into the phenomena of secession by referendum or the privatization of public spaces in the form of gated communities.

This phenomenon of confinement is coupled with a process of belonging. One is excluded from the community, or one belongs to the group. This is what Blakely develops in his typology of the motivations of residents of gated communities. They all want to control their streets and their neighbours. But some seek recognition of a certain social status, others seek ultra-private, protected and secure places. Some residents see it as a place fully protected from crime and delinquency ; others seek a new way of socializing, through recreational clubs for community residents only. S. Degoutin and R. le Goix analyze 25 television series representing gated communities. The series The O.C. takes place entirely within this gated community. It shows the « golden bubble » of social reproduction and the private networks that the characters frequent, such as the private high school, or the parents’ charity dinners that create a club-like sociability.

The argument of the increasing complexity of the residents’ motivations…

According to Le Goix, the social characteristics of the neighbourhood where the gated community is located are not at odds with those of its residents. There is a genuine link between the community and its environment. Based on the census tracts (census by neighbourhood), he observes how gated communities fit into their social environments. Sometimes a community may be present in several census tracts, or there may be several communities in one census tract. Thus, a single gated community cannot be strictly localized in a single neighborhood. On the other hand, each neighborhood responds to a segment of the real estate market ; thus a community must be integrated into it, as it cannot form a segment in its own right.

Gilbert Lazar informs us that «  few residents make the deliberate choice to live behind doors  » today, they are attracted to housing for other reasons such as services offered or location. Moreover, developers seem to claim that the existence of safeguards and access restrictions does little to help the sale of real estate. The security logic has not disappeared, however, because once they have moved in, residents appreciate the security of their privacy provided by gates and doors.

F. Mantovani shows how the gated community can be the dream of a new life. La città perfetta is the myth between rationality and utopia of these developments. The motivations for habitat therefore go beyond the material and security benefits offered by these communities, it can be a real aspiration for a change of life.

III- The gated community as a new tool for understanding the city of the 21st century?

The aim of this last part is to challenge traditional concepts defining the city, and to import new ones based on the example of gated communities.

The public / private relationship

From a traditional point of view, gated communities are characterized by the privatization of public spaces. Davis denounces certain specific privatization practices, for example the community of San Marino (Beverly Hills) which closes its parks on weekends to prohibit access to immigrant families (Asian and Hispanic). Discussions were under way about a possible reopening on Saturdays for those who could prove they lived in the neighbourhood. Blakely complements this by presenting gated communities as a « symbolic threat to the civic spirit, » as communities that do not care about public, collective issues are made up of selfish individuals whose sole interest is in preserving private spheres. S. Degoutin explains that «  for every form of public space of the European type, there is a private equivalent in Los Angeles. There is little street lighting in the streets because cars have headlights. There are few public benches because the Angelinos prefer to stay quietly in their cars ".

However, other authors believe that it is necessary to go further than this general privatization. For, gated communities often consist of public initiatives: construction by developers supported by local governments. They can be taken as an example of a new form of governance, a partnership between the public and private sectors, a new urban planning initiative that is not opposed to urban management. C. Ghorra-Gobin takes the example of her study of the community of Raintree in Culver City (40,000 inhabitants near Los Angeles). She wishes to show the contribution of the gated community in the urban revitalization of the city. A political agreement was reached between developers and governments because it allowed the rehabilitation of a brownfield site and the welcoming of new well-to-do residents to balance the budget. It believes that these developments are capable of limiting the urban sprawl of Los Angeles. Similarly, the article dealing with the case of New Port Beach explains how, in 2001, this community annexed a territory managed by the county but not incorporated, to create an airport for the use of 12,000 inhabitants.

Finally, it is possible to see these communities as a form of government involving private interests. The principle of co-ownership implies that its power functions almost like that of an assembly, where each member can give his or her opinion. But the co-ownership of gated communities seems to be stronger than a traditional building co-ownership. It shows a distrust of local government. Indeed, the services and facilities usually offered by the city (garbage collection, road maintenance, police…) are offered by the community instead of the local government. Blakely defends this vision, and questions the sense of belonging of these residents to the community in which they live. However, Gilbert Lazar sees it as a double participation : «  engagement in local public governance and in their own private owners’ associations ".

Economic actors define the city

According to Renaud Le Goix, gated communities must be studied today as real estate, products of « real estate marketing ». Services are in a way a «  added value of closure ", sales arguments of real estate developers. It is then necessary to look at both the selling price of a house, as well as the various associated charges. Le Goix states that the value of buildings in gated communities is about 10% higher than that of conventional housing estates. Residents are therefore aware that they have to pay a higher price in order to live « safely » and « communally » as well. The costs associated with condominium ownership are in the order of several thousand dollars per year, plus local taxes. Thus, Lazar denounces some owners who want to obtain a more favourable tax treatment, arguing that they pay directly for the services offered by the residence. Since they do not fully use local public services, they feel they deserve special treatment.

Le Goix bases its article on an innovative argument : the gated communities system protects against fluctuations in the real estate market. Closed condominiums guarantee the durability of the real estate heritage on the one hand by excluding their access to populations deemed «  undesirable ". On the other hand, «  property values are higher within the fence  » than in the neighbourhood. The author observes the evolution of these values according to neighbourhoods ; overall, prices in closed communities have increased while those in their neighbourhood have decreased or stagnated. While prices in the real estate market are very heterogeneous, they are relatively homogeneous for the communities. They are ultimately a safe investment for real estate developers ; demand is also increasing.

I. Finally, Baraud Sarfaty shows us how striking it is to see how risk, which is a fundamental notion in finance, increasingly structures thinking about the city. Gated communities can for example be analysed as a form of risk coverage. In a sense, the financialized city is perhaps above all the «  risquophobic  city.

The peri-urban / downtown problem

Gated communites are commonly studied as a real estate phenomenon originating in the peri-urban area, also known as the urbanization front. F. Mantovani explains the peri-urban by the end of the «  città materiale«  , of the concrete city and thus the need to recreate a «  city  » space with the characteristics of the ideal city. Several reasons can be found for this spatial positioning, including the fact that residents are looking for calm, and protection from violence (identified as being in the city centre). According to Le Goix, the urbanization front is one of the most dynamic real estate markets today. Developers have a vast amount of space available to them, necessary to provide all the recreational and security amenities of closed communities. In Los Angeles, they have established themselves on the coastline, on hills or in valleys, « looking for a niche, away from noise and traffic, » yet most are located near major transportation routes. Thus, this physical closure would consist less in creating self-sufficient neighbourhoods than in «  distinguishing oneself in the social and ethnic fabric of the city ".

Moreover, gated communities are nowadays located more and more in the city centre. They no longer affect only the upper classes, but also the middle classes, who are more inclined to live in the city centre for financial and ideological reasons. In Voluntary Prisoners of the American Dream, S. Degoutin uses the example of the Medici residence, a real fortress in downtown Los Angeles, directly connected to a highway entrance, to support this point.

Finally, C. Ghorra-Gobin asserts that gated communities are a suitable tool for recycling the urban fabric while at the same time densifying it. This form of housing is therefore developing in all areas of the city and has even become a tool of urban policy. However, she qualifies this statement by the need for elected officials to require social housing in these communities in order to establish a minimum of diversity.

To conclude, these authors note that the frames of reference that allowed us to think about the city are exploding. At the same time as the city is changing, we need to renew our reading grids. The theme of gated communities thus becomes a subject of study encompassing the urban, political and social changes of recent years. This new form of habitat is no longer a separate case, opposed to the traditional city, but becomes symbolic of the urban evolutions observed. Analysing this housing phenomenon raises many questions, including those of sprawl, ethnical-spatial segregation, trust or mistrust towards public authorities and new forms of governance.


  • BARAUD-SERFATY, Isabelle, “Capitales et capitaux : Vers la ville financiarisée ? » in Revue Le débat, n°148, 2008

  • DAVIS, Mike, City of Quartz – Los Angeles, capitale du futur, La Découverte, 1997

  • DEGOUTIN, Stéphane, Prisonniers volontaires du rêve américain, Paris, Éditions de la Villette, 2006

  • DEGOUTIN, Stéphane et LE GOIX, Renaud, « Comté d’Orange : des stéréotypes aux sociabilités de club » in dossier Los Angeles, Revue Urbanisme n°361, juillet-août 2008

  • GHORRA-GOBIN, Cynthia, Los Angeles : le mythe américain inachevé, CNRS Éditions, Paris, 1997

  • GHORRA-GOBIN, Cynthia, « Culver city : un centre résidentiel fermé redynamise la ville » in dossier Los Angeles, Revue Urbanisme n°361, juillet-août 2008

  • LAZAR, Gilbert, « L’essor des villes fortifiées – À propos de Fortress America : Gated Communities in the United States », in Futuribles n°243, Éditions Futuribles, Juin 1999

  • LE GOIX, Renaud, « Les gated communities à Los Angeles, place et enjeux d’un produit immobilier pas tout à fait comme les autres », in Espace Géographique n°4/02, Éditions Belin, 2002

  • MANTOVANI, Francesca, La città immateriale. Tra periurbano, città diffusa e sprawl : il caso Dreamville. Edizioni Franco Angeli, 2005

  • SCOTT, Allen J., SOJA, Edward W. (dir.), The City – Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the Twentieth Century, University of California City Press, 1996

To go further

This reading note was produced as part of the Master’s Degree in Territorial and Urban Strategies (2009) at Sciences Po Paris, under the direction of Gilles Pinson.