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Over eight million Americans have sought refuge from criminals and other problems of urbanization by installing gates and fences to limit access to their communities – and their numbers are growing. Since the mid-1980s, gates have become ubiquitous in many areas of the country. New towns are routinely built with gated villages, and some entire incorporated cities feature guarded entrances. Along with the trend toward gating in new residential developments, existing neighborhoods are increasingly installing barricades and gates to seal themselves off.
Gated communities physically restrict access so that normally public spaces are privatized. They differ from apartment buildings with guards or doormen, which exclude public access to the private space of lobbies and hallways. Instead, gated communities exclude people from traditionally public areas like sidewalks and streets.
Gates – along with fences, private guards, "residents only" restrictions on public parks, policies to control the homeless, land use policies, large-lot zoning, and other planning tools – are part of a trend throughout the country to restrict or limit access to residential, commercial, and public areas. These turf wars, representing a retreat from the public realm, are a troubling trend. Gated communities are a dramatic manifestation of the fortress mentality growing in America.
The context for the gated community trend is an America increasingly separated by income, race, and economic opportunity, although people with a range of backgrounds live in gated communities. In Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States, we classify gated communities into three major categories. First are the Lifestyle communities, where the gates provide secure separation for the leisure activities within. These include retirement communities and golf and country club leisure developments. Second are the Prestige communities, which lack the amenities of the Lifestyle communities, but where the gates still are valued as markers of distinction and status. The Lifestyle and Prestige communities are developer-built, and primarily suburban. They range from the enclaves of the rich and famous to the subdivisions of the working class.
The third category is the SecureZone, where trouble with criminal activity or traffic and fear of outsiders are the most common motivations. In these cases residents, not developers, install gates and fences to their previously open neighborhoods. While the image of the neighborhood that retrofits itself with gates or barricades is of the embattled moderate-income city community, such closures occur in the inner city and in the suburbs, in neighborhoods of great wealth and in areas of great poverty. Gating is easily done in open private-street subdivisions. In neighborhoods with public streets, it is usually very controversial, as the streets must be taken over from the city before they can be gated off.
This third type of gated community also includes areas, such as Dayton's Five Oaks with street barricades that create mazes of blocked streets to reduce vehicular access and deter outsiders. Such street barricading occurs in very wealthy neighborhoods and very poor ones, in places where crime is very high and where it is low. This partial solution is used most often in cases of public streets where residents cannot privatize their streets, either because they cannot afford to or they are not legally allowed to. The street barricaded neighborhoods lack the private amenities and complete closure of the others, but are a form of gated community nonetheless. The reasons given for the gates are usually the same – to reduce traffic, deter crime, and make the neighborhood more livable. In the suburbs, gates are the logical extension of the original suburban drive. In the city, gates and barricades are sometimes called "cul-de-sac-ization," a term that clearly reflects the design goal to create out of the existing urban grid a street pattern as close to the suburbs as possible.
Some argue that gates and barricades are unfortunate but necessary. They feel that such measures are the only way for beleaguered neighborhoods to reclaim their streets and for better-off neighborhoods to protect themselves in the future.