Gated communities: Symbols of fear and status

Khaled Hanafy Ali, Monday 15 Jul 2019

Gated communities in Egypt

Egyptians are not accustomed to living in gated communities or isolated ghettos, and the country’s culture has always been based on people interacting and engaging with each other, strengthening the national identity and collective memory.

This was facilitated by the concentration of the population along the Nile and a slow demographic movement on a limited topography, except in a few mountainous and desert regions. Despite economic, social and urban changes over the past six decades, 94.8 per cent of the population still lives on 7.8 per cent of the land, according to the 2017 census.

However, today, population growth has created a “culture of crowdedness” which has imposed interaction, neighbour relations, and geographical proximity. While this culture has had a positive impact in terms of collective security and communal sharing, it has also limited individual privacy and given rise to behaviour like sexual harassment and urban violence.

It has also limited development, burdened infrastructure, and expanded informal areas that lack planning, security and basic utilities. The latter now constitute 39 per cent of urban areas. Alexandria tops the list, followed by Cairo and Giza, according to a 2018 survey by the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS).

Gated communities have also begun to emerge in the form of new urban areas and in the shape of compounds with villas and flats surrounded by a walls and gates that only residents and their guests can enter and are usually considered to be luxury residences.

This phenomenon has been at the centre of a heated debate among supporters and detractors. Critics assert that the gated communities contradict the idea of living alongside neighbours, highlighting inequalities in a society where one third of the population lives under the poverty line. They also erode the middle class, such critics say, and could have political repercussions by creating new categories of citizens within one society.

Supporters of gated communities argue that this is a global trend in housing that propels development, takes advantage of vacant desert areas, meets an individual’s need for privacy, leisure, good infrastructure, and proof of status that overcrowded areas no longer provide. These communities reflect the expanding role of the private sector in providing superior residential accommodation that people are responsible for developing and paying taxes for, supporters say, freeing state to focus on social housing and the problem of informal communities.

While gated communities have social, political and cultural impacts, these have not been explored deeply in Egypt where accurate data are lacking. The government is more focused on solving the problem of the informal areas, while the gated communities are seen as an ideal private housing model.

The term gated community is an oxymoron, however. Community implies the idea of interaction and connection among people to achieve individual and collective goals that create shared dependency and bolster values and trust as the pillars of social capital. But gates or walls prevent interaction with the rest of society to protect those within from imagined threats from the outside. These gates and walls are also more than simply physical; they are symbols of the closed values of those within the walls who refuse to merge with the rest of society.

This contradiction could be due to the origins of the idea of a “garden city” proposed by Ebenezer Howard at the end of the 19th century in the UK, namely the idea of building a hybrid city combining urban communities with modern values, behaviours and architecture with rural traditions and nature. These “garden cities” would be self-sustaining economically, socially and culturally, Howard thought, and the land would be publicly owned.

The garden cities were developed in response to problems such as pollution, overcrowded urbanisation, and a lack of leisure and relaxation after the Industrial Revolution in Europe.

However, the accumulating wealth of the emerging bourgeoisie, especially in the US, meant that garden cities became expressions of privilege for certain socio-economic classes, or ethnicities, such as whites who fear blacks, and the middle classes who fear the homeless and urban violence, as portrayed by US writer Mike Davis in his description of the development of Los Angeles in the US.

HISTORY OF A MOVEMENT: The trend of building gated communities appeared in developing countries as part of the influence of US capitalism in the early 1990s, including in the Philippines, Poland, China, Brazil, Egypt, Argentina and elsewhere.

The walls that were going up were expressions of class inequalities and the outcome of the new capitalism after the transition from socialism where the state implemented social housing policies. Capitalism gave a greater role to the private sector, and market policies turned housing into a commodity for those who could afford it.

This is how gated communities earned their reputation as housing for high-income households. They are not only residential areas fenced in with gates, but homes to people of similar thinking and goals, including a “trench mentality” in confronting threats from beyond the walls and meeting human needs.

Whereas Cairenes have long been adapted to living in crowded cities

A key feature of these communities is the need for individuals to live within a regulated behavioural framework with rules and a joint responsibility to pay for the maintenance of the compound. In their description of the phenomenon US authors Edward J Blakely and Mary Gail Snyder add that security zones protect residents from outside dangers such as theft and kidnapping and that they are prestige communities that set residents off from other social classes. Leisure facilities, a clean and healthy environment, shopping malls, and sports clubs are all available.

Others add that gated communities are based on identity, meaning the tendency of certain groups of a specific identity and ethnicity to live in certain areas, such as whites in South Africa.

In Egypt, there have always been gated communities, but they were limited in space and mostly built for political or security purposes, rather than for social isolation. Walls were historically built to protect against outside threats in the shape of fortified citadels, like the one in Cairo, or to exercise power by a ruling elite to send a message of authority over the country’s subjects, such as royal palaces, presidential headquarters, and modern state institutions.

Gated communities as residential areas have class connotations, and they grew up in the new cities of the 1970s and 1980s on the east and west outskirts of Cairo. They expanded in the 1990s and took on more developed formats in the shape of 6 October, Sheikh Zayed, New Cairo, First Settlement, Shorouk, and other cities.

On their creation, these cities were supposed to become new urban centres to alleviate population density, expand development, house workers and their families, and solve pollution and traffic congestion in Cairo.

As time passed, high and above-average income residents moved in to escape the pressures of overcrowded communities in other cities, especially since they seemed to have the monetary power to do so since these cities were relatively distant from Cairo and would require a car to get to.

The price of real estate was also high, making them too expensive for those on limited incomes. The average price of one square metre in Madinaty is LE20,000 and around LE12,000 in some compounds in Sheikh Zayed. Thus, population density has remained relatively low in new cities around Cairo and housed 1.3 million people, or one third of those targeted in 2016.

There were other factors at play, including the growth in capital accumulation whether due to the economic open-door policies of the 1970s or the emergence of capitalism since the 1980s. This led to an expanding role for private-sector investment in land and real estate, as well as explaining why remittances from Egyptians abroad gravitated towards real-estate investments.

Some segments of the population chose to live in gated communities either as an investment or for social status or leisure reasons, wanting to continue living in the style they had experienced in the Gulf countries.

RECENT YEARS: The growing demand for living in gated communities did not change after the 25 January Revolution, when the issue of security that followed the revolution were used by real-estate investors to drive up demand for compounds.

The pace picked up even more after the government implemented an economic reform programme in November 2016, and the state itself began investing in luxury housing in new cities such as Sheikh Zayed and the New Administrative Capital.

The increasing trend towards gated communities in Egypt is not merely a product of changing socio-economic factors and the rise of social classes that have accumulated wealth in a capitalist system. It is important to understand the motivation of individuals who move to these compounds which have redefined the concept of housing based on the needs of the individual and not the general public.

those who can afford it are now more inclined to moving to new luxurious gated communities

Accordingly, advertisements for these compounds focus on addressing consumer needs for safety, leisure, privacy and social privilege, all lacking in overcrowded Cairo. This can be viewed through the theory of US psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs”, which states that human behaviour is based on meeting needs from physiological, security, love/belonging, esteem, to self-actualisation.

A formula that explains the fortification logic of those living in gated communities and the high demand for them emphasises factors such as fear, isolation and reward. Fear is a latent motivation for people to move to gated communities based on perceived threats in overcrowded surroundings, such as of theft, crime, blackmail, child kidnapping, etc, which drives them to protect themselves and their families by moving to fortified locations that keep out those whom they perceive as a threat.

 Mike Davis coined the term “ecology of fear”, or the fear between a person and his environment, in terms of natural causes (disasters and earthquakes), but it also relates to the fear of other people and is closely related to gated communities.

This fear manifests itself in what some have called “fear architecture” or the multiplication of security cameras and gates, and it also redefines safety for those living behind the walls since compounds seem safer when compared to the outside.

Fear followed by a lack of security usually lead to greater demands for security through security patrols, cameras at gates and walls, or even inside residences. A study by Egyptian social scientist Amal Saad Saleh has revealed that the growth of urban capitalism in Egypt has increased the fear ecology both in gated communities and in Cairo’s informal areas.

The second factor, isolation, means a lack of free interaction among people and their social context since gated communities create a degree of isolation or separate co-existence among residents. While they are present in the same public space, they are separated from the rest of society beyond walls and gates.

The dilemma here is that this isolation reduces trust and opportunities to interact which are at the heart of social capital. It increases fear of the other, sometimes triggers contempt based on class and financial status, and possibly results in anti-social behaviour.

Gated communities sometimes add another layer of isolation, meaning that residents want to neither deal with the outside world nor with their neighbours, undermining trust and increasing suspicion of everyone else. This could explain the growing trend of owning dogs in compounds as a form of psychological compensation for the sense of isolation and another layer of personal security and social pride.

The last factor, reward, compensates for this isolation and fear. Moving to a gated community can have three rewards. First, there is the material one since it is a safe asset for preserving value and the investment of wealth, a part of Egyptian culture that has grown with the arrival of consumerism among Egyptian expats in the Gulf countries. Material reward is a key factor in the prices of compound real estate that mostly maintains a stable value even during a slump in real-estate markets.

The second reward is establishing status or superiority, whereby gated communities become a means of joining and expressing class privilege or even concealing one’s original class before striking it rich. The final reward is the desire to live in a regulated community with a leisurely lifestyle, seen as a social reward that is not available in Cairo.

The three factors of fear, isolation and reward feed into each other and create a culture that partially explains the thinking and behaviour of gated-community dwellers. Their fear of the have-nots, especially the urban poor, makes them more demanding of “secure isolation” or separate co-existence in gated compounds. They compensate for this materially, psychologically and socially through financial rewards, class status and social privilege.

The question remains, however, of the impact of these factors on the perceptions and behaviour of those living in the communities. Various studies have suggested several hypotheses that need to be tested on the ground in Egypt.

IMPACTS: Gated communities perpetuate inequality and deprivation since in developing countries they draw lines of social inequality between communities that have services, infrastructure and organisation and those that do not.

Some view gated communities as the opposite side of the coin to informal areas, since both reflect a retreat in the state’s role in providing housing which causes the wealthy to move to gated communities built by the private sector while the poor squat on state land and turn it into housing as a means to survive, according to sociologist Asef Bayat.

This dilemma is compounded because inequality between those who live within and outside the walls creates a gap between people’s expectations and material needs and the inability of the state to meet them, according to US scholar Ted Geier. This gap festers silently among the urban poor, who feel hostility to those in gated communities.

Deprivation further manifests itself in the relationship between those living in gated communities and the workers who go there as guards, cleaners or other employees and could become a threat to compound dwellers. The salary of a security guard in Sheikh Zayed, for example, is no more than LE1,200 a month.

There is also the threat to social cohesion. Building walls weakens connections between social strata and builds isolationist cantons that erode social capital, leading to the privatisation of public space and creating varying degrees of housing for privileged citizens and those without such privileges. The danger here is more pronounced if gated communities are based on sectarian or identity affiliations because then they become a threat to national identity.

In Egypt, there have been no gated communities based on identity, especially since they are not permitted for security and societal reasons because they could pose a threat to the state. However, there have been clusters of families from the same area concentrated in one geographical location, especially in Cairo and the new cities. This is a different model that contributes to social security and familial ties since the individual — no matter what his class mobility has been — remains in touch with his rural roots.

As the wealthy move to gated communities in the suburbs this creates further divisions. There is the developmental gap due to inequality in services and public spending, and there is the political gap due to relocating political power to the peripheries, especially as the political class chooses to move away from overcrowding and urban problems.

The impact of these gaps will depend on government policies that redistribute public funds fairly between gated communities and poorer areas.

RESPONSES: Keeping in mind these repercussions of gated communities in developing countries, Egypt’s culture can generally tame tendencies towards isolationism.

This view is based on the objective and subjective perceptions of the present writer and interviews with the residents of gated communities. There is the infiltration of the marginalised for one thing. Every gated community in Egypt has been encroached on by the urban poor, not to infiltrate them from within since they cannot afford to purchase housing in them, but by settling in the surroundings and creating interactions with residents. This has been seen in the vendors alongside compounds in 6 October and Sheikh Zayed, and car valets cornering segments of parking lots outside malls.

This is a form of the encroachment of social movements that Bayat has identified, since this trend not only includes informal communities on squatted land, but also communities that have set up outside gated communities. Growing numbers of new city residents have narrowed the gap separating compound dwellers and the marginalised, increasing mutual dependency and possibly even reviving overcrowding near the gated communities.

Sheikh Zayed’s inhabitants grew from 29,422 to 90,699 between 2006 and 2016, according to government figures.

Secondly, the isolation of those living in gated communities from public space is temporal and not absolute. They work in institutions, companies or businesses that require them to either interact with other classes or at least pass by them in their cars.

For example, moving from New Cairo or Sheikh Zayed to Cairo requires driving past and interacting with other neighbourhoods and strata of society. Some compounds now open their gates to non-residents for business reasons such as entertainment, malls, and restaurants since they cannot rely on only a small number of residents and therefore cater to consumers from outside the compound. There are also open days in the shape of markets exhibiting homemade goods especially by women, which is a socio-economic model that brings together gated community residents and non-residents.

Thirdly, there has been a perpetual cycle of fear since the fear that led residents to the walls and gates is perpetuated through the fear of workers in the compounds, making these targets for crime during times of insecurity. More importantly, the idea of safety could become an illusion in some gated communities, perhaps because the guards themselves are a source of threat to residents.

For example, the murder of a bank manager in City Compound on the Cairo-Alexandria highway in 2016, for which a former security guard was accused, showed that the compounds are not immune from crime. This was also evident in the public upheaval on 28 January 2011 when Sheikh Zayed residents came together to protect themselves and did not rely on guards. Others went to more populated areas in Cairo to live with their relatives.

Fourthly, there have been geographical extensions since the gated communities are not disconnected from Cairo but are extensions of the capital. Some new cities are only 25km or 40km away from the capital (6 October, Obour, New Cairo and Qattamiya). There is also a transportation network that makes commuting back and forth easy.

This means that staying connected to the centre of the city continues due to jobs and other reasons, and the communities become extensions or recreation areas in geographically close zones. Urban extensions in Cairo have always accompanied shifts in social class. For example, the growth of the middle classes in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s paved the way for the emergence of districts such as Heliopolis, Zamalek, Garden City, Mohandessin and Dokki. The rise of classes resulting from capital accumulation in the 1990s gave way to gated communities in the new cities, but in both cases the connection with central Cairo continued.

Fifthly, there is an adaptive social capacity in Egypt that has absorbed trends that are sometimes isolationist such as the influx of refugees or migrants. While these can cluster in ghettos or separate communes that trigger political and social upheavals in African and Arab countries, this has not happened in Egypt. Not only do government policies prohibit this, but the Egyptian social fabric is relatively open to others, as has been seen in the experiences of Syrians coming to Egypt after 2011.

Sixthly, there is the eternal class dilemma. Gated communities are not the only factor causing the erosion of social capital, undermining the public sphere and perpetuating class inequality. They are the symptoms of a structural malaise. Economic and social inequality is primarily present in education (foreign international schools vs government schools) and healthcare (private vs government hospitals). These have more impact than gated communities.

A student who lives in a compound meets friends from the same income level at private clubs and private international schools or goes to private hospitals to which the poor have no access. Lines segregating society criss-cross and interconnect, exposing the public sphere to a type of privatisation that threatens social capital.

The government must understand the impact of gated communities and raise public housing to a standard that prevents a culture of social deprivation. It must build cultural and social bridges between citizens of different classes inside and outside gated communities to alleviate class tensions, and it must exercise balanced public spending between central and peripheral locations.

It should implement architectural policies in compounds that take into consideration social dimensions. For example, some architectural studies suggest reducing the degree of “fear architecture” in gated communities by designing gates that encourage societal interactions, such as providing services for passers-by behind the walls.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Gated communities: Symbols of fear and status

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