Stéphane Degoutin, Georg Glasze, Renaud Le Goix
Territory, control and enclosure
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English version of a paper originally published in french in
Revue Urbanisme #343 (july/august, 2005).
Review of the
international symposium « Territory, control and enclosure: the ecology of urban fragmentation », Pretoria, march 2005.
version française de cette page
german version of this page

It is rather unusual to meet television crews at a social sciences conference. The symposium « Territory, control and enclosure » that was held in Pretoria (february 28th to march 3rd, 2005) attracted journalists from the local press and television: the sprawl of “security villages” and “street closures” is, indeed, a very sensitive topic in the post-apartheid political context, in which the physical appropriation of the territory rises particular attention. At the same time the conference took place, the South African Human Rights Commission was concluding a survey on the phenomenon of street closures, in order to determine whether this kind of developments were in adequation with the South African Constitution (1).

Pretoria, South Africa. Photo by Stéphane Degoutin

A conference on social control of urban territories in the South African context

The conference was focusing on the social control of urban territories and the processes of spatial divisions, and aimed at examining these phenomena in one of the regions where they are the most salient. The present urban growth in South Africa was largely put into focus, and the conference included a workshop for developers, urban planners and politicians. The conference also included a field tour, which has been the occasion to see how widely the phenomenon has already spread. The participants discovered a climate of insecurity and an urban landscape under close control, which at first sight reminds of science fiction stories which illustrate the vicious circle of excessive security control.

The concentrations of gated communities in South African city suburbs are extremely high, and the security measures anything but symbolic : high walls topped with barbed wire and/or electric cables and armed security brigades likely to intervene in less than 60 or 90 seconds in case of intrusion. Yet, the situation in South Africa is unusual: the spreading of street closures and walls is not only due to developers, but also to a strategy coordinated by local and national authorities. Indeed, the developments which streets belong to the public domain are allowed to incorporated as owners associations (« Section 21 Companies ») and to build a dissuasive entry gate. Yet, they are not allowed to deny access to anyone. This paradoxical absence of access control is nonetheless compensated by a systematic recording of movements (identity controls to access the development, video cameras filming the vehicles registration numbers, etc.).

The conference, organized by Karina Landmann (CSIR, Pretoria), had a great success. The number of participants (a total of 85) made possible very intensive – and occasionally passionate – discussions. Many young researchers came to Pretoria, including many South Africans, but also Europeans, Northern Americans and Latin Americans. A “student workshop” was a rare occasion for Ph.D. candidates to confront their theoretical and methodological conceptions with more experimented researchers. Nevertheless, with the exception of Edward Blakely, author of the now classic Fortress America (1997), one could notice an almost complete absence of black researchers, notably from South Africa.

The interest manifested by the press and television reveals the importance of this subject in the South African context, where the issue of gated enclaves revives the still burning issue of colonization and apartheid, but also brings the question of a context of endemic violence where the fear of crime is in everyone’s mind, everyday. The very fast growth of enclosures took place in the 1990s, after the abolition of apartheid and the establishment of democracy. They reiterate the principle of physical separation of the population that was characteristic of the apartheid system.

Several months before the conference, several associations had requested the South African Human Rights Commission to check whether gated communities and road closures respected the constitution. The Commission submitted its report soon after the conference ended. It noted that enclosures are reminiscent of the apartheid era and represent “an urban design that works against the notion of a united society. [They] cause social division, dysfunctional cities and lead to the further polarization of our society.”(2). »

For those in favor of private enclaves, it is the government’s inability to maintain the citizens’ security that forces them to ensure their own defense. This point of view was expressed in its purest form, during the conference, by the economist Fred E. Foldvary : « If we regard the prime function of government to be the protection of persons and property, then a high crime rate implies government failure. […] The private enclosure of space is a market reaction to this government failure (3). »

Yet, even their advocates consider street closures as a temporary measure intended to deal with a crisis or transition situation(4)– but it’s the kind of temporary solution that might remain in the urban space for the long term.

A partir du sujet fédérateur des gated communities, qui était le thème central de la première conférence à Hambourg, en 1999 (voir encadré), la réflexion des chercheurs s’est ouverte à de nombreuses questions dialectiques, pas nécessairement exclusives ou contradictoires :

Privé / Public
Inclusion / Exclusion
Sécurité / Insécurité
Territoire urbain / Communauté
Ouvert / Fermé

Ces questions étaient aussi au centre des débats à Pretoria.

(In)security and territorial control

Since the first conference in Hamburg in 1999 (5), which was focused on the topic of gated communities, the researchers’ reflections have broadened to many dialectic questions, which do not necessarily exclude nor contradict each other (Private /Public ; Inclusion / Exclusion ; Security / Insecurity ; Urban territory / Community ; Open /Closed ). These questions were at the center of the discussions at the Pretoria conference.

Many contributors have questioned the relations between (in)security, control of the territory and urban growth; and analyzed the new kinds of urban governance expected to create security (public-private partnerships, private security services, or even nonprofit organizations involved as “para-policing agencies” (6)).

Using a neo-Marxist perspective, several contributors have argued that, in a context of increasing social inequalities, the security measures serve the interests of the political and economical elites first. Other contributors, using a cultural approach, argued that (in)security is, always, a social and discursive construction. South African researchers, for instance, have exposed brilliantly, the way many white South Africans use the secured and socially homogeneous housing developments as “comfort zones” to preserve their identity in a country where they now represent a political minority.

Types d’enclosures

Different types of enclosures

The fuzziness of the concept of gated communities still remains, even if a recent multiplication of studies and papers has allowed to get a better understanding of enclosed neighborhoods and private urban governance (7). Yet the northern American model has been under close investigation and is now the best known and understood, with the risk of being considered as universal (8). Nevertheless, an impressive diversity of private urban developments can be observed all around the world, from purely residential developments without any collective amenity, to private cities of more than ten thousand inhabitants, with schools, office spaces, etc. Gated communities may include detached houses as well as building complexes, lower-income housing as well as luxury estates. They may be located in so-called dangerous urban zones or not, as infill developments in urban areas as well as new suburban development. Finally, the fencing may be a soft or a hard enclosure (9). A relevant classification should focus less on the morphology than on the social functions of the neighborhood.

El Salvador, Peru. Photo byJörg Plöger

Setha Low (10) and Matthew Durrington (11) focus on cross-cultural analysis and how different contexts lead to comparable residential developments : “gated and walled communities have always existed in China, but not in the United States, yet both regions have fragmenting urban development. Further, the expansion of private communities is supported by neoliberal states retreating from the provision of housing and social goods as well as by Chinese cities where state control of housing is still strong.” (Low, 2005). Such inconsistencies stress the need for an explanatory cross-cultural modeling of the diffusion of gated enclaves, both at the macro-level of analysis (the impact of globalization and increased inequality) and at a micro-level (local social and political contexts, fear of others, etc…).

Private vs. Public ?

A strong opposition divided the lecturers in two camps, opposing sociological and anthropological papers (usually critical) to neo-liberal views trying to demonstrate at a local scale the economic efficiency of private provision of collective goods such as streets or public amenities. This point of view promotes direct local democracy, relying on a private association of owners, as the best structure of governance for collective goods in residential developments. It is nevertheless instructive to compare these private bodies of local government with local public authorities. Gating a neighborhood can be seen as a market-based pre-emptive attempt to protect it against the spillovers of urban residential and industrial developments (crime, increasing through traffic, free-riding of the amenities, urban decay and decreasing property values due to unwanted land-use). From a theoretical point of view, such communities, ruled by property rights and contractual agreements, may be refered to as ‘club economies’. Chris Webster demonstrates that such residential communities are instrumental in securing the provision of a standardized set of services and amenities to residents (club members) with consensual lifestyle and common needs for collective services (residents sharing the same kind of housing, same leisure facilities and having the same level of satisfaction for their urban landscaping). Nevertheless, the State and the public bodies of government are still regulating the negative spillovers of this kind of developments, for instance by the means of fiscal redistributions (12).

Indeed, the issues of local impact and long term consequences of gated communities are critical, as they question the even principles of urban sustainability. Karina Landman thus proposed an analytical framework of their spillover effects and long term negative retroaction loops in terms of urban planning, local financial stability, outcomes of street closures on traffic, interactions between security features and new criminal strategies, etc (13). But the risk might also rise inside the walls : to be sustainable, the model of private urban governance might forecast the financing of services in spite of the cost rise due to the obsolescence of infrastructures and amenities managed by the property owners association. The liberal hypothesis assumes that the operating costs of private governance are paid for by the increase of property values. This is confirmed for instance in South Africa, where gated communities values are usually higher than in regular neighbordhoods (14). But long term studies demonstrate that failure of property owners associations occurs when costs are raising above a sustainable level compared to rapidly decreasing property values, especially in legacy large enclaves in the United States (15).

Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Photo by Stéphanie Boufflet and Marc Brabant

Another set of arguments against the traditional critical presentation of gated enclaves was proposed by two south-american sociologists, Francisco Sabatini and Rodrigo Salcedo. They oppose the “unchallenged conclusions of the Los Angeles school” and its view of a “fragmented and inequal city”. Analysing a deprived neighborhood in Santiago (Chile) in which a “middle-class” gated community has settled, they demonstrate that the residents show a good level of satisfaction due to the presence of richer neighbors : the development of a gated community has provided, in the surrounding neighborhoods, better public transportation, street lighting, police patrols, improved streets, services and amenities. Similarly, secured apartment complexes in Santiago have often settled in popular neighborhoods, where land is cheaper, providing new functional and social interactions between the different classes of society, and acting as means of reducing the segregation level.


Further developments of the research network require a deeper investigation of what seems obvious and visible. The community of researchers can not satisfy itself with descriptions of gated enclaves which would be either unconnected with theoretical investigations, or limited to a local-scale of investigation, both of which would lead to tautological discourses (“enclaves are producing fragmentation”…). Lecturers also consider the need to widen the historical perspective on territorial control and its underlying social processes. Urban historians are thus welcome to attend the next 2007 conference in Paris.

As a concluding remark, the confrontation of various epistemological perspectives and professional field experiences has produced a high level of interaction, vivid discussions and controversies, which were considered fruitful. Abstracts of Pretoria contributions are available on the research network website (, and four special issues of international journals gathering thematic selection of conference papers are in progress.

© Stéphane Degoutin, Georg Glasze and Renaud Le Goix 2005

A research network: private urban governance & gated communities

The Pretoria Conference was organized by an international and interdisciplinary research network on "gated housing estates as an international phenomenon", which was established in 1999 in order to facilitate the exchange of information between academics working in this field.

The first activity of the network was an international workshop held in Hamburg in 1999. Several of the papers presented at this workshop were then published in a theme issue of Environment and Planning. Then, at the 97th Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers, in New York, members of the network presented their research on gated housing estates in Asia, North and South America as well as in Europe.

In 2002, the focus of the network was widened to encompass the question of urban governance at the local scale. Are more and more cities being split up into privately managed enclaves and a neglected rest? What is the economic, social and cultural background of this so-called "fragmentation of the cities"? What consequences can be observed? More than fifty researchers from four continents discussed these topics at the conference on "Private Urban Governance" in Mainz. Several major contributions will be published in 2005 (Georg Glasze, Chris Webster and Klaus Frantz, Private cities – Global and local perspectives, Routledge). A few papers on private and guarded housing estates in Europe are already accessible in a trilingual theme issue of Geographica Helvetica.

The discussion went on in September 2003 at a conference on "Gated Communities: Building Social Division or Safer Communities" organized by the Department of Urban Studies at Glasgow University, and in February 2004 at a symposium "The Privatization of Urban Space" jointly organized by the Universities of New Orleans and Innsbruck.

Back (1) Republic of South Africa Human Rights Commission Report, « Road Closures / Boom Gates ».

Back (2) ibid.

Back (3) Fred E. Foldvary, « Private communities as the natural benchmark », Pretoria conference, 2005.

Back (4) Republic of South Africa Human Rights Council Report, « Road Closures / Boom Gates ».

Back (5) See boxed article at the end of this paper.

Back (6) Volker Eick, “Space Patrols: The new peace-keeping function of nonprofits in Los Angeles and Berlin”, Pretoria conference, 2005

Back (7) Karina Landman, „The storm that rocks the boat: the systemic impact of gated communities on urban sustainability”, Pretoria conference, 2005.

Back (8) This is mostly because pionneer researches about gated communities were initiated in the US, with books like Mike Davis’ City of Quartz (1990) and first analysis of private urban governance by E. McKenzie (1994) and E. Blakely et M.G. Snyder (1997).

Back (9) Guillaume Giroir, „“Hard enclosure” and “soft enclosure” in the gated communities: some theoretical perspectives and empirical evidence in China“, Pretoria conference, 2005.

Back (10) Setha Low, « Towards a theory of urban fragmentation : a cross cultural analysis of fear, privatisation and the State », Pretoria conference, 2005.

Back (11) Matthew Durington, « Race, space, and place in suburban Durban, An ethnographic assessment of gated community development », Pretoria conference, 2005.

Back (12) Chris Webster, “Territory, control and enclosure”, Pretoria conference, 2005.

Back (13) Karina Landman, “The storm that rocks the boat: the systemic impact of gated communities on urban sustainability”, Pretoria conference, 2005.

Back (14) G.R Altini, O.A. Akindele, “The effect that enclosing neighbourhoods has on property values”, Pretoria conference, 2005.

Back (15) Renaud Le Goix, “The impact of gated communities on property values: Evidences of changes in real estate markets”, Pretoria conference, 2005.

Retour (16) Rodrigo Salcedo et, Francisco Sabatini, gated communities and the poor: Functional integration in a context of aggressive capitalist colonization of lower class areas“,Pretoria conference, 2005.