Saturday, February 28, 2009

Gated Communities or Sitting Ducks ?

The ‘gated communities’ response is such a direct antithesis to current trends and efforts to create inclusive societies, that one wonders at the response. It seems to me very much akin to the ‘flyover response’ – flyovers that fly over problems rather than solve them. Gated communities shut themselves inside, believing that the world begins and ends there, and wonder why social degeneration is happening and urban security risk is increasing.

We need to understand the genesis of Gated Communities. It has been a response of the ‘aggressors’ against the ‘natives’ – in Brazil, in South Africa, in Europe, in Israel, in parts of India, - evident is that the ‘encroacher’ needed to feel ‘safe’. The response has a certain mindset behind it, with an inbuilt streak of guilt of an occupier and fear of the resulting backlash from the ‘victims’.

Can such design responses in a historically critical context become a mainstream design response? The basis of many of the current problems have been precisely that – a mainstreaming of short-term, very contextual responses – whether be it Gated Communities or Urban slums. Can a response that might have seemed relevant to a South African white man in an Apartheid situation where he should well been afraid of a black repurcussion, possibly be a relevant design response in Urban India in its Mumbais and Delhis? Yet that is what we see. And while walls around cities, world over are coming down, we are happily putting walls around communities.

Over time what will happen to us in India, will be what has happened to the West. We will keep out the ‘social trash’ – the doodhwalas, the maid servants, the vegetable vendors, the newspaperwalas, the service and maintenance guys – make it so difficult for them to exist within accessible environs, that in the long run, these poorer communities will find employment elsewhere and will eventually leave these Gated Communities to their devices. And like in the West, we will slowly find ourselves having to wash our own dishes and clothes, sweep our homes, repair our plumbing, etc.etc.etc. We might also begin feeling a false sense of security. False, because Gated Communities, isolated and not networked, will be much more vulnerable to people who might want to take potshots at them. It is much easier after all to target a fortress than a neighbourhood. And it has been shown time and again that any security that can be put in place can also be equally undone.

And then when the discrimination, alienation and separation is complete, and social outrages and rages build up, we shall cry out in panic at the backlashes we face and we will wonder why our designs are not working.

Who can be held responsible for mainstreaming these kinds of anomalies? What kind of reflection process does the designer go through before proposing a design? What kind of help, support and alternative viewpoints are considered to understand various dimensions especially in construction of societies? How are the ecological, economics, politics, social impacts, psychological long term repercussions of what is proposed evaluated? What kind of consultations happen or opinions taken before we take up what will eventually lead to social engineering?

Can the architect throw up his/ her hands and believe that s/he is not responsible for cities – that they after all only build buildings and not cities. And they are not just buildings after all – they are collections of buildings that become neighbourhoods, collection of neighbourhoods that eventually become cities.

Does the architect has no control over his/her decisions? Are they becoming blasé and giving up and withdrawing into individual shells for the next fantastic project. What stops them from becoming a pro-active community that is able to put its imagination and head together and influence change? They do have solutions – and saying that 99% of the structures are anyway built without architects is just a cop out. If they influenced 99% of what they DO build, it might be the vehicle of change that is needed.


  1. Your blogs on architecture have been an interesting read. Personally, I have always been fascinated by the design of spaces and how it affects the human psyche and vice versa.

    More and more I am coming around to the point of view, that the way we design our spaces (pvt or other wise) is in some sense a reflection of how our internal psychic space is designed. Be it materials used, the curves,the lines or the structure..

    The gated communities are perhaps a reflection of our fear of facing what is - our shadow ( dark, dirty and disowned) and an urge to exist in a cocoon of ones own making.. comfortable in one's own alienation..

  2. Thanks, Vishy. I do like your comparison of wanting to live in a cocoon and a rejection of the shadow side.