Prevention of Crime: An Overview of Gated Communities and Neighborhood Watch
Edward J. Drew & Jeffrey M. McGuigan
For centuries the criminal justice system has worked in a very simple manner: take away the "criminals" and put them behind gates and walls segregated from the rest of the population. This method holds true today, except now people are voluntarily surrounding themselves with concrete and metal fences to escape the so-called "criminals" of society. Americans are scared and residential society is slowly beginning to show it. More and more people are moving into and raising families in "gated communities."
Gated communities are residential areas with restricted access designed to privatize normally public spaces. These new residential areas occur in both new suburban developments and older inner city areas for the purposes of security and segregation. "Terrified by crime and worried about property values, Americans are flocking to gated enclaves in what experts call a fundamental reorganization of community life"(Dillon, 1994, p. 2). The developers of gated communities brilliantly market their projects as safer, friendlier, and more economically stable then traditional urban or even suburban neighborhoods.
The gating of a residential area is not a new phenomenon. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, kings and other royalty provided gated enclaves for their families and loyal followers during times of siege and pestilence. "Fortified with towers, moats, and drawbridges, they stood as formidable reminders of class distinctions" (Dillon, 1994, p. 6). In the late nineteenth century, St. Louis developed a large network of private gated streets for its beer barons, most of which still exist today. Since the real estate boom in the late 1980's, this rapidly growing phenomenon of gating off communities has become more prevalent in today's society.
Types of communities
Gated communities come in three different types: lifestyle communities, elite communities, and security zone communities. All of these community types differ in their inhabitants, but they all serve the same basic service, to keep unwanted individuals out. Lifestyle communities provide security and separation for leisure activities and the amenities offered inside. These lifestyle communities include retirement communities, leisure communities, and suburban "new towns." The lifestyle communities offer residents the chance to engage in a wide variety of activities close to their own homes. Activities inside these communities can include golf courses, horseback riding, and many other "leisure" activities for residents.
The second type of a gated community is known as an elite community. "These communities are primarily occupied by the rich and famous, the top one fifth of Americans"(Tucker, 1998, p. 3). These developments focus on exclusion and status. In these communities, the primary focus is on image. The gates represent a barrier of status to all who are outside and looking in. Security is another major concern due to the resident's status within the community. Like lifestyle communities, the developers of the elite communities build walls and gates as a marketing strategy.
The final type of gated community is the security zone community. Unlike the other two communities, security zone communities are gated by the residents themselves and can somewhat represent a "fortress" mentality. "The fortress mentality is perhaps clearest here, where groups of people band together to shut out their neighbors"(Tucker, 1998, p. 3). Many of these new communities are located in inner city and lower income neighborhoods where the residents see crime increasing. The fear of crime and outsiders is the major reason that these people gate themselves in.
The walls and fences that surround them primarily protect these new communities, but many other security measures are used as well. Inside may be surveillance cameras, infrared sensors, motion detectors and armed guards. "St. Andrews, a gated community in Boca Raton Florida, spends over a million dollars a year on helicopters and canine patrols"(Dillon, 1994, p. 3). A few communities also contain bollards to keep non-residents at bay. Bollards, mostly used in airports and other high security areas, prevent the tailgating of vehicles by raising metal cylinders up out of the ground to impale vehicles that try to slip by.
In many communities including some is San Antonio, Texas, entry into these communities is difficult: "to enter you pass through a metal gate where a uniformed guard bearing a neighborhood ranger badge and a .38 pistol checks for your name on a visitors list" (Diamond, 1997, p. 3). These security measures are very important for the residents of gated communities, and they will protect themselves at great costs.
Private communities provide their own security, street maintenance, parks, recreation, garbage collection, and other services. The residents of these communities pay dues for all of the services rendered. "One family pays homeowner dues of $85 a quarter to keep up the swimming pool, recreation center, basketball court, baseball diamond wood structure playground, and three miles of jogging path"(Diamond, 1997, p. 3). Many times, this security can become extremely expensive. "At $10 an hour, a low figure, the annual cost for 24-hour security covering one gate and one guard is $87,000" (Dillon, 1994, p. 8). If this figure is multiplied by many guards, more gates, services, canine patrols, cameras, and escorts, the cost is dramatically higher. Each homeowner is assessed a portion of this cost.
As some scholars see it, the United States is being transformed into a nation of walled-off enclaves, or gated communities. These new residential communities are being built at record rates. By 1997, an estimated 20,000 gated communities, with more than 3 million units, had been built across the country, with the concentration mostly in metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas, and Miami. The gated community population in America, now eight million Americans, is growing at a fast rate. Eight out of every ten new urban projects are gated. According to a survey by consultant Arthur Anderson, "New home sales in master-planned communities, which are usually walled off and gated, rose 17 percent in 1992" (Dillon, 1994, p. 2).
Different parts of the country are building these communities at different paces. It seems that the phenomenon of gated communities has really picked up in the South and West. As many as 15 percent of new homes in the South are being built behind walls; in the West, 10 percent; and in the North these new communities are being built at a rate of 3 percent. These numbers are slowly increasing in all areas of the country.
The concept of gating off a community has many critics. Some people believe that they accomplish their purpose of keeping the population safe from crime, while others argue that they tear away at our delicate society. But regardless, Americans are still flocking to these new communities for safety and security reasons.
Pros of gated communities
Many people believe that there are great benefits to raising a family inside a gated community. According to members of a gated community in San Antonio, "I'm not scared here by myself; I'm not scared to have my kids here by themselves, I wouldn't feel that way in a non-gated community"(Diamond, 1997, p. 5). Many of the residents of these enclaves seem to have the same view. They feel a sense of safety that they never felt when they lived outside the gates. Another supposed benefit of gated neighborhoods is the sense of community they generate. "One might expect greater community spirit or tight-knittedness in gated areas because they have such clear boundaries, as well as homeowner associations and other vehicles designed to include members in the social structure of the community"(Blakely, 1995, p. 3).
Other advocates for these new enclaves love the fact that there is no longer traffic throughout the neighborhood and they feel safe about letting their children play in the streets at night. Others also feel that they know their neighbors better and have more of an opportunity to chat with them. Still others love these new communities because the private facilities are much better than public works. "Between 1980 and 1990, federal funding to cities and states slipped from 25 percent of total revenues to 17 percent" (Dillon, 1994, p. 5). The property values of gated communities are also higher than those outside the walls. Some real estate experts estimate that the gates can easily add $50,000 or more to property values.
Cons of gated communities
Many individuals strongly believe that gated communities are affecting our society in a negative way. Some scholars believe when people wall themselves off from others, they are cutting themselves off from the mixed, open society that is needed for a social and political democracy. According to Edward J. Blakely, Ph.D., "The thing that is most worrisome for me is this kind of 'forting up,' turning our backs on what I think is the nation's civic destiny-a more heterogeneous, open society"(Tucker, 1998, p. 1).
For many years, the United States has been a society that seeks to make everyone equal. We want to bring all the races together, and we want everyone to be on the same levels economically, but this gated trend is moving us in the opposite direction. Rather then being involved in an open society, gated communities tend to foster segregation. They also promote privatization, replacing public government with private organizations. According to Blakely, "As more private communities provide their own security, maintenance, parks, recreation, and other services, the poor and less well-to-do are left more dependent on the ever reduced services of the city and county governments" (Tucker, 1998, p. 2).
According to a study conducted by the city of San Antonio "such economic segregation could divide the community in ways similar to the divisions caused by racial segregation in the past year" (Diamond, 1997, p. 4). There are also many legal ramifications of closing off streets to the public. In 1991, a group called Citizens Against Gated Enclaves sued the city of Los Angeles for allowing residents of prominent Whitley Heights to gate public streets against outsiders. The superior court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, stating that "the city owes a duty to the public not to allow gates on public streets"(Dillon, 1994, p. 7)
Do they work?
The major question that is asked of gated communities is "Do they really keep crime rates down?" The answer seems to be yes, but only by very little. The city of Miami reports that "some forms of crime such as car theft are reduced, at least immediately after the streets are closed. However, data indicates that the long-term crime rate is at best only marginally altered" (Blakely, 1995, p. 1).
In gated communities, the trend is that crimes against the person go down and stay down in controlled access developments. This occurs because perpetrators do not want to go to an area that they are unfamiliar with and where it might be hard for them to make an escape. "According to preliminary research, crimes such as burglary drop in the first year or so of gating, but then rise back to the level of the areas outside"(Diamond 4).
Many people believe that the residents of gated communities are living with a false sense of security. According to Ed Cross, a real estate broker, "It's a marketing gimmick; it's a fad" (Diamond, 1997, p. 5). The codes to unmanned gates are also given out to numerous people who do not live in the community but have frequent access, such as pizza delivery boys. Many also argue that the communities cannot be as safe as they advertise. Many individuals wonder how far a security guard, who receives $9 an hour, will go to enforce internal laws on the private property. The security is only as good as the people who provide it.
There is also an issue on access to the communities by emergency vehicles. With more communities being built, and more security codes being used, it is becoming more difficult for emergency personnel to access the gates. "In East Lake Florida, rescue workers must rummage through a briefcase containing as many as 50 separate gate-opening devices for unmanned entries"(Diamond, 1997, p. 5). Many rescue workers also complain of time lost in maneuvering over-sized emergency vehicles into narrow gates.
No matter what the statistics show, gated communities are becoming more popular each year. People are abandoning their old neighborhoods to start new lives behind closed walls where they feel safe and secure. Old "neighborhood watch" programs are being abandoned for these new safe enclaves. The neighborhood watch programs have been proven to reduce crime if properly run by the community. In some cases these "watches" can be just as safe as living in a gated community.
The concept of neighborhood watch has proven to be one of the most effective ways to reduce crime. The idea centers on neighbors recognizing suspicious activities and reporting crimes to police. Through Neighborhood Watch techniques, neighbors can help police catch rapists, muggers, drug dealers, kidnappers, or others who pose a danger to the safety of their community. And, most importantly, they keep an eye out for each other.
History and Development
Neighborhood Watch began as a response to a rise in home burglaries in the late 1960's and early 1970's. Although initiated by citizens, Neighborhood Watch rapidly became associated with police programs. In 1972, the National Sheriffs Association formally endorsed it as a tool to educate neighbors to recognize and report crime.
The National Association of Town Watch estimates that at least 20,000 organized neighborhood groups exist today that use watch techniques. The Neighborhood Watch approach is usually most effective in middle class neighborhoods where the majority of residents own their homes or have children-factors that go along with low turnover. Apartment buildings and neighborhoods with many renters can use watch techniques, but because of the relatively high number of people moving in and out, it takes extra organizing and persistence to be successful. Still, it can be done if there is a stable core group committed to the concept of Neighborhood Watch.
In low-income neighborhoods, the Neighborhood Watch idea can also be effective, but problems such as unemployment, deteriorating housing or a relatively large number of drug abusers can threaten to overshadow it.
An effective tool for some Neighborhood Watch programs to use is a citizen patrol. It usually is up to the community in correspondence with law enforcement to decide whether a patrol is needed. Citizen patrols utilize volunteers who walk or drive an area on a regular basis to report incidents and problems to the police and provide a visible presence that deters criminal activity. They are in no way police officers; in contrast, they carry no weapons, are non-confrontational, and always plan their work with the local authorities. A citizen patrol, as the NCPC (1999) reports, can cover a neighborhood, an apartment complex, a business district, or a park. They contact the police dispatcher through two-way radios or cellular phones.
Cellular phones seem to be a good tool for Neighborhood Watch groups to use to fight crime. Over a nine-month period, use of cellular phones by Neighborhood Watch groups in 11 areas in Florida caused a decrease in burglaries, robberies, and thefts.
Florida International University researchers found the following statistics within the combined 11 neighborhoods:
- Burglaries decreased 33 percent, from 341 to 229;
- Robberies decreased 24 percent, from 42 to 31;
- Thefts decreased 9 percent from 77 to 70.
In addition, the response times to in-progress events appeared to be faster by the police, according to many participating volunteers. As the Public Safety article (1996) reports, the project brought neighborhoods and local police officers closer together. As Fred Taylor, director of the MetroDade Police Department states, "The use of phones appears to have a displacement effect. Criminals avoid neighborhoods with active cellular crime watch groups as opposed to neighborhoods without such a program" (p. 20).
Another effective citizen patrol is in Washington D.C.'s North Lincoln Park neighborhood. Together, this neighborhood has banded together and patrols the streets in orange hats, distinguishing themselves as patrollers. The movement to make the neighborhood safer was started 10 years ago and today has over 20 "orange hat" groups in the nation's capital. Black and whites alike participate in these groups, picking up litter around the neighborhood and noting license numbers of cars suspected of involvement in drug dealing, as the American Survey (1994) reports. The orange-hat groups do seem to be appreciated by people because they help keep drunks and drug-dealers out of the area, and report a 7 percent drop in street crime from a year ago (American Survey 1994).
Another effective method for neighborhoods to use to help prevent crime is through environmental design. Crime prevention through environmental design is focused on how to design or redesign the built environment to reduce opportunities for crime. Practitioners of CPTED, as Brennan and Zelinka (1997) note, generally refer to three principles: natural surveillance (placing physical features, activities, and people to maximize visibility); natural access control (through the judicial placement of entrances, exits, fencing, landscaping, and lighting); and territorial reinforcement (using buildings, fences, pavement, signs, and landscaping to express ownership).
An example of CPTED in action is in Arizona. In Phoenix's Isaac neighborhood next to an Interstate highway interchange, Brennan and Zelinka (1997) report, criminals have used the area for years. Over a 60-acre neighborhood, prostitution, drug sales, and burglaries have long encompassed this area. In 1995, city departments and Isaac's Neighborhood Action Committee began coming up with ways for reducing crime. Assistance for the project came from the neighborhood services department, the street transportation department, and the planning department. With local residents providing input, the group came up with a plan for making the neighborhood safer by closing one street, making another one-way, and removing damaged edifices. Since the time that the CPTED plan has been implemented, residents have indicated that crime in the neighborhood has been greatly reduced (Brennan & Zelinka, 1997).
Communities can prevent crime in their neighborhoods. For neighborhoods to have an effective Neighborhood Watch program, they should be organized and have contact with local authorities. Watch groups should distinguish themselves, like the orange-hat groups in Washington D. C., and let the criminals know that a group is present and on the look-out for would-be criminals.
It has been shown that watch groups using cellular phones lower crime rates. Using cellular phones to contact authorities to report information is an excellent fast deterrent to criminals. Watch groups interested in using cellular phones should contact a local phone provider for donation information. CPTD is another way for neighborhoods to reduce crime. Assistance with the local government and input from local residents can reduce the crime in an area by using principles such as maintenance, good property management, and activity support.
Overall, a neighborhood watch program can be a great thing for any neighborhood. It brings the community together and helps to reduce serious crime at the same time. If a successful neighborhood watch program is effectively carried out, then there is no need for people to segregate themselves in gated communities. Until society can begin to change and work together to prevent crime, gated communities will continue to appear more and more in our society, leaving the neighborhood watch programs with no neighborhoods to watch.
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