Thursday, May 5, 2011

"I'm just trying to get to the shops...": inside and outside the gates

Check this great little video ... as my mate Adam Holden said when he sent me the link, you could spin a whole talk on public and private space out of this!

I love the juxtaposition between private and public, inside and outside, that this little staged encounter reveals...

The driver is initially a bit confused about why she is being stopped. After all, she's shown the fake non-gated community's security guard her swipe card, and she's coming from the 'inside' ... surely her credentials to be 'inside' the space demarcated by the gates are well-established? When it becomes clear that she's being stopped because she's got no credentials for the space 'outside' the gates, she responds "but this is the street, it's public property!"

"You've made your choice -- in there, or out here, madam," responds the fake guard. By requiring the driver to provide credentials to be on the 'outside', the inside/outside distinction takes on a different meaning. The inside/private space created and secured by the gates is momentarily turned into a space of privation and confinement (a la the prison), rather than a space of privilege.

This double meaning of privacy is something Hannah Arendt wrote about in The Human Condition. For her, "the privation of privacy lies in the absence of others; as far as they are concerned, private man does not appear, and therefore it is as though he did not exist" (p. 58). And yet, "to have no private place of one's own (like a slave) meant to be no longer human" (p. 64).

I think Arendt's way of thinking about public and private can be really helpful in thinking through what's going on with gated communities. Arendt is absolutely commited to the political importance of privacy. She makes the case that there can be "no free public realm without a proper establishment and protection of privacy" (p. 66).

However, she makes a really important distinction between privacy as property and privacy as wealth. Private property, as far as she is concerned, is essential to citizenship, because it "establishes one's location in a praticular part of the world and therefore to belong to the body politic" (p. 61). But when private property comes to be equated with private wealth, the relationship between public and private changes. The protection of privacy comes to mean "protection from [the public realm] for the accumulation of more wealth" (p. 68), rather than protection of privacy as a place of one's own in order to facilitate participation in public life.

I think this gives us an interesting perspective on gated communities and their implications for urban citizenship. From this perspective, the problem with gated communities is not the construction of walls demarcating private and public, inside and outside, as such. For Arendt, a political community can't exist without boundaries between public and private (p. 63).* But with gated communities, the boundary between inside and outside is being (re)drawn through a process of expropriation in order to facilitate the accumulation of private wealth. As Setha Low has pointed out, the securitisation that is going on when communities are gated is as much financial as it is physical.

Even more interestingly, Arendt suggests that the pursuit of private accumulation of wealth not only erodes the public realm, but it can also come into conflict with privacy as a 'place of one's own'. She wrote: "the enormous and still proceeding accumulation of wealth in modern society ... has never shown much consideration for private property but has sacrificed it when it came into conflict with the accumulation of wealth" (p. 66-67). This observation rings true for gated communities. As research by Setha Low and others has found, residents of gated communities often sacrifice a good degree of their 'privacy' - particularly through intrusive by-laws and rules about how to live in, and maintain, their homes - in order to live inside the gates.

All this is not to deny or denigrate some of the fears and concerns which residents of gated communities often speak about when asked about their choice to buy in to this kind of development. While fears of urban violence are often exaggerated and/or racialised in all sorts of problematic ways, not all fears are easy to dismiss. For instance, in a recent study of gated communities in Sydney, David Hayes (an honours student at Sydney Uni) found that some residents of gated communities cited fear of their children being knocked over by cars on highly-trafficked streets as a key concern. For them, the lack of fast car traffic on the streets of their gated communities was one of their main benefits.

Instead, the point here is that we need to revive our capacity to address these kinds of issues publicly and politically, for everyone, rather than reducing the city to a marketplace where individuals are left on their own, with some accumulating enough private wealth to buy their way into secured spaces while others are left on the outside. This diminishes both public and private life.

So, like the fake security guard says, we need to tear down the gates. But once we're done doing that (easy, right?!), we'll need to re-organise our housing markets more generally. Those suburbs in our cities where the schools are great, the air is clean, the transport and other services are excellent might not all be gated ... but the housing market makes sure that only the wealthy can 'choose' to live there.

* An interesting footnote here is that Arendt also notes that historically, the public/polis has needed walls to define it, not just the private/household: "The law of the city-state .... was quite literally a wall, without which there might have been an agglomeration of houses, a town (asty), but not a city, a political community" (p. 63-4).

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