From Dezeen – South Africa brought into focus with Oscar Pistorius’s newsworthiness bringing media eyes to focus for a moment on this negative aspect of South African urban life – but it is not here alone that this in their “Splintering Urbanism” Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin list this as one of the many symptoms of depressing global malaise. I have added on of the comments here – in response to what the writer saw as the one sided view expressed in this piece.
Opinion: in his latest column, Dezeen editor-in-chief Marcus Fairs discusses why gated communities are “becoming the default setting in towns and cities around the world” and asks whether it matters who owns the land beneath our feet.
From the air, it’s easier to spot wealth than poverty. Climbing out of Cape Town International Airport the informal settlements soon become a blur but the private developments remain in crisp focus, their pristine loops of asphalt standing out like Nazca lines, the bulk of their road-straddling gatehouses unmissable and their clustered tricolours of lawn, pool and villa conspicuous against the dun landscape.
Later, descending into Johannesburg in darkness, the city lights reveal the same pattern: random, dull and fuzzy in the shack districts but bright and purposeful in the secure enclaves. The British euphemistically call these developments “gated communities” but South African developers use the more straightforward “security estate”.
In one such as these, near Pretoria to the north, Oscar Pistorius felt safe enough behind high walls, razor wire, attack dogs and armed guards to sleep with the patio doors open (albeit with a gun under his bed and a cricket bat behind the bathroom door).
Pistorius lived on the Silver Woods Country Estate (shown in the aerial image above) – a “prestigious security estate” of 290 homes and still-vacant building plots set amid similar districts with names like Willow Acres and Faerie Glen. This still-growing Securicor suburb will eventually house 25,000 people.
The sleeping and bathing quarters at Casa Pistorius are now among the most familiar interior layouts of all time thanks to numerous media reconstructions of the night he shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.
Yet the urban design of Silver Woods has hardly been discussed, even though its paranoia-driven features might provide the only mitigating circumstances in Pistorius’ favour: people who live in these places clearly fear for their lives.
Like most security estates, Silver Woods has a single point of entry and departure: a covered, manned and barriered gateway, bristling with CCTV and biometric scanners and resembling a sub-tropical Checkpoint Charlie. It is connected to the public domain but not of it.
The estate is “enclosed with a solid, electrified security wall” and is planned “in such a way that it has the feel of a village.” All building work is subject to “a strict architectural and aesthetics specification”.
Yet this is a village with no facilities on offer beyond raw security: no stores, playgrounds, bars or cafes. Residents have to journey by car for all their daily needs, or get them delivered. Hinting perhaps at the fearful priorities of its residents, the estate’s website boasts of its proximity to hospitals and medical clinics first of all, before listing the distance to local schools and shops. The location of the nearest police station is not regarded as a benefit worth mentioning.
While security estates respond to violent crime they do not solve it. Despite its precautions Silver Woods has suffered “incidents” in the past. Beneath a brief statement on its website from the Silver Woods management commiserating on the Valentine’s Day tragedy a woman called Colleen has commented: “We moved to the UK to avoid the crime. While living in a ‘secure’ suburb in Johannesburg we experienced many an incident with regards safety, burglary etc. Our children were victims of hijacking attempts as well.”
Developments like Silver Woods attract universal disdain from architectural writers and urbanists. They are seen as a betrayal of civilised values and an abandonment of design’s potential to benignly regulate behaviour in the urban environment. Former Guardian architecture critic Jonathan Glancey called gated communities a “social ill” and wrote: “It’s time we opened our gates, and to shoo the fear away as we do.”
But they are becoming the default setting in towns and cities around the world – and not only for the wealthy. In the USA, the number of homes in developments secured by walls or fences grew 53 percent between 2001 and 2009 and now account for ten percent of all occupied homes.