The ‘Gate’ in ‘Gated Communities’

By Renard Teipelke

The network Architects for Architects and Plattenvereinigung hosted a panel discussion (on Wednesday, August 24th, 2011, at the former Tempelhof Airport in Berlin) titled “Gated Communities – Are we heading toward a two-tier society?”

The panel, moderated by an architect, included a researcher, a developer, another architect, and one local politician. The title gave hope to an interesting discussion on gated communities in Germany and specifically in Berlin. However, I could not be satisfied by the outcome. The panelists threw in all the catchwords possible: gentrification, class system, public housing, social exclusion, parallel society, federal funds, upper class elitism, ghettoization, political corruption, profit making, South Africa, retirement homes, rural idyll, Southern Germans, capitalist investors etc.

Even though many of these aspects are interrelated and relevant to the topic, the gated community has been – correctly – treated in academia as an individual topic by itself. You will not get a better understanding of gated communities when you mix up this topic with gentrification or public housing.

Leading expert in the field, sociologist Andrej Holm, made an important point by differentiating between the planning approach of analyzing gated communities with respect to their physical features and the sociological approach of focusing on the social constitution of a gated community.

To make a long story short: It is the gate that is the focal point of the analysis – from an architectural, political, economic, or cultural point of view. The gate – by its function – separates the residents from the others. The gate – by its physical feature – is the starting and end point of the fence/wall often surrounding a gated community. The gate – by its symbolic meaning – is the entrance to an exclusive world in/next to the everyday life.

Sociological studies show that the homogeneity of its residents is a key feature of a gated community – no matter what the architectural form and structural features of it are. This could have been a good starting point by Holm for the panel discussion – but it was not picked up by the panelists. The discussion circled around the question which projects in Berlin qualify as gated communities. Without any doubts was it important that the panelists sought for the causes that led to the state government’s failure to provide decent and affordable housing. It was also relevant to clearly state that the public housing associations have been highly inefficient and decision makers have been selling out public ground solely with respect to the highest bid (disregarding development, design, maintenance, or social aspects).

Though nothing new, it was also important to underscore that homogeneous housing projects in Berlin (as well as everywhere else) are not unique to the upper-middle class. But the panelists did not deal with one important feature that might have helped to grasp the gated community logic: Why do particular groups of citizens (increasingly) seek each other in order to move into a (in whatever sense) gated community to enjoy homogeneity? Why have we had more mixed housing and neighborhoods in the past? And how can we convince citizens that they are still worth supporting and living in?

The panel identified that, in Berlin, there are not really gated communities (as you will find them in South America, the US, or other highly unequal societies). But there is gentrification. There is spatial segregation of people of different socioeconomic backgrounds. And there is definitely a lack of politics. A dangerous inactivity, helplessness, and/or incompetence by decision makers in government and the political arena. Thus, keeping an eye on physical or symbolic gates might be the best concerned people can do right now.

Moderation:

  • Alexander Walter (architect, Netzwerk AfA)

Panelists:

  • Andrej Holm (sociologist, Humboldt-University Berlin)
  • Willo Göpel (URBANSPACES Development Ltd.)
  • Florian Köhl (architect, FAT KOEHL Architekten)
  • Astrid Schneider (member of the construction and housing committee, State Chamber of Berlin, political party: Bündnis 90/Die Grünen

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