Gates and Boundaries
-- some theological reflections on gated communities

Living behind gates

I live in a gated community in east London.  You will be relieved to hear that I am not a thrusting executive living in the shadow of Canary Wharf but rather a community worker living in one of the more obscure corners of Hackney.  So how did I come to be living in a gated community?  Given that so much is being written and said about gated communities -- a quick search on the Internet, for instance, even reveals a symposium dedicated to this subject!  I thought perhaps you might be interested to hear from one of these devilish figures of the modern urban scene who has chosen to isolate himself from the 'vibrancy' of east London street life.

The truth is that I did not choose to live in a gated community.  We were in a situation of rather acute housing need when my wife and I managed to cobble together enough money to buy a tiny shared ownership house in one of the many new developments in Hackney built on an old small industrial site, rather grandly named after one of the large houses that used to grace Hackney 200 years ago. We were the first people to move in and gradually over the next year the small community of 12 dwellings filled up with a fairly normal selection of Hackney residents, a radiographer, a DJ, a care assistant -- to mention a few.  The last residents to move in were more activist than the rest of us and one soon became chair of the residents association.  This association quickly focused on security issues.  The community was a little backwater off a residential street and we began to experience problems with people using it as a private hideaway -- a boy truanting from school, people using it as a site for al fresco sex and groups of young boys playing football.  At our end of the community this caused little problem but at the other end there was more disturbance.  The idea of retaining control over who came in to the community through putting up gates quickly gained support through the lobbying of the chair of the association.  We expressed some doubts about the need for the gates but this evoked some fairly ferocious resistance from the partner of the chair so we backed off.  Crucial to making the idea of the gates a reality was a grant from the Community Chest of 5000 which meant that reasonably modest contributions from residents were required.  So in due course the gates were put in.

The gates did reduce the amount of casual nuisance in the community and there have been no substantial problems but a number of significant issues.

There has been some unauthorised access into the community by boys climbing over a wall, which has never got out of hand but the crossing of the boundary seems to make it more threatening.

The biggest potential problem is the entry system which is based on a link through to your telephone.  This requires a phone bill to be paid on a regular basis but only a third of households are contributing to this at the moment -- hardly a satisfactory situation.  It also requires one to have a landline and as far as we are concerned requires us to have a second landline -- quite a substantial extra cost.  Generally it doesn't seem to make visiting the community easy and we've had a number of situations where people haven't been able to get into see us.

The residents association has also ceased to operate properly.  The chair and his partner who made it happen and put in a lot of work to get the gates erected, suffered harassment from their neighbours and suddenly decided to leave.  Given the smallness of the community it is difficult to find a chair, secretary and treasurer to carry the work forward and solve the problems indicated above.           

Gated communities in social science perspective

Gated communities have received considerable attention in recent years.  In 2003 there was a conference sponsored by the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit which looked at the issue from an international perspective[1].  Most of the papers presented to the conference were concerned about the implications of gated communities for society as a whole -- worrying that the rich were isolating themselves in a secure world increasingly separated from the poor and the marginalised.  Gated communities are also seen as part of an Americanisation and privatisation of society, for they are, as yet, more common in America than Europe.  Much of the discourse relates to out-of-town or 'edge city' developments where leisure centres and parks were included behind the gates.  My experience is of course different as Gordon MacLeod[2] indicates in his helpful delineation of the different types of gated communities

1)           Lifestyle Communities: these can take the form of retirement communities, golf and leisure communities, and the suburban new town.

2)           Prestige Communities: representing preserves for the rich, the famous, the executive, and more generally the ‘fortunate fifth’ of the income ladder.

3)           Security Zone Communities: built primarily on the fear of crime and outsiders, divided by Blakely and Snyder into ‘perches’, city, suburban, and barricade, the latter concentrated mainly in the poorest areas). They are called perches because it is not the developers who build the gates but the residents, who are often desperately trying to maintain their neighbourhood

The Security Zone Community almost exactly describes my situation.

Whilst the mainstream of the sociological community seems to view gated communities with scepticism[3] there are voices being raised in their defence, particularly where they provide young professionals with the confidence to remain in the city[4].  I have also been struck by the number of positive comments about our small community from cab drivers and other ordinary Londoners, my anecdotal experience would suggest that they are viewed as a good thing by ordinary people and that it is only a small but influential group of left inclined professionals that are sceptical about them.  Nonetheless being on the outside of gated communities can be an uncomfortable experience.  I lived next door to one in Battersea.  Here the Livingston estate had been transformed by the council into a gated community with swimming pool and leisure centre called the Falcons.  Living next door to it in the rather notorious Winstanley estate I was struck by the complete lack of connection between the two communities and irritated that it made my journey to Clapham Junction Station noticeably longer.  I also suffered a sleepless night from the car alarm of a sports car tucked safely behind the security wall!

Theological Perspectives on Gated Communities

The church seems to have largely embraced the scepticism about gated communities[5].  In fact the gated community almost seems to become a symbol of what is wrong with the world -- emphasising that cities are no longer the unified communities of our medieval past but diverse conglomerations where everyone does as they see fit.  I suspect that this antipathy to gated communities whilst often being rooted in a theological commitment to community is reinforced by practical pastoral experience.  When I first and came to London in the Eighties there were few parts which were not readily accessible to being door knocked or leafleted but this has become less and less the case.  The church seems to be increasingly excluded even from its geographical parishes -- the gated community symbolises this in a starkly obvious way but as far as I am aware there has been no serious theological reflection on gated communities.  I began my thinking by turning to the Bible.

In the Bible gates and walls are almost universally seen as a positive phenomena as Paul Minear[6] describes

Without those walls, an ancient city would have been helpless before any invader; with them the enemy could be repelled. In passing through those gates citizens passed from danger to security, from violence to peace, from fear to confidence

Nehemiah, often seen as the archetype of urban regeneration, spends most of his of efforts on rebuilding walls and gates.  Nothing could be more important than strong walls and solid gates, this was the very beginning of community.  But, of course, it was only community for people inside the gates.  Research seems to indicate that people in American gated communities are more involved in their communities than people in traditional urban neighbourhoods[7].  They seem to provide a safe environment in which engagement with your neighbours is more possible -- at least in certain sorts of communities.  Certainly I know my neighbours in my gated community far better than any other neighbours I have had in London, although perhaps this is partly the consequence of all coming into a new development together.

But there are other images of gates in the Bible.  In the Old Testament gates are often seen as a meeting place where the elders gather to discuss and pass judgment.  This seems rather analogous to the modern-day location of the school gates where mothers meet to gossip and share news.  Here we don't encounter the shut gate but the open gate -- these are gates which allow access into a restricted space and are therefore places where people congregate and socialise.  They allow decisions to be made about when access is to be allowed and when it is to be denied.  The final gates of the Bible, however, are always open

22I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.... 25On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. 26The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. 27Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life.

Revelation 21

It is interesting that in the final vision of Revelation the walls and the gates are still in existence -- in fact they are beautified and made glorious -- the boundary is still kept, but there is no need to shut the gate because all the problems and tensions of the world have been resolved.

The Bible therefore celebrates gates.  It celebrates their strength and their resilience and the safety which they bring but it also celebrates the opening of gates.  This, perhaps, is something which modern-day gated communities forget to do

We have a strong city;

God makes salvation

its walls and ramparts.

Open the gates

that the righteous nation may enter,

the nation that keeps faith.

You will keep in perfect peace

him whose mind is steadfast,

because he trusts in you.

Isaiah 25: 1-3

The prophets were also aware that walls and gates were not an ultimate security -- that can only be found in God, but they didn't condemn gates and walls, they could be an expression of God's providential care.  This is perhaps something we need to reflect on in our irritation with people who exclude the church from our parishes, making it more difficult for us to engage with them and 'build community' or 'plant churches'.  No doubt the prophets would have condemned attempts by the rich to retreat into exclusive communities whose gates were never flung open and from where they could exploit and oppress.  But in the modern city it is not only the rich who want to live behind gates -- it is also, in my experience, an aspiration of the poor.

Towards an Appropriate Vision of Gated Communities

The city can be a very invasive place.  We have the capacity to make increasing amount of noise but build houses with ever thinner walls.  Advertising pursues us into every corner of our lives.  Dubious salesman on our front doorstep, insist that we sign on the line right now.  Even if we leave aside the contentious issue of the fear of crime I, for one, feel the increasing need to be able to control how much the outside world invades my personal space.  I don't want to live in a privatised world, I want to live in a healthy and friendly relationship with my neighbours and even, when the time and place is right, build community with them.  Yes I long for the time when the gates can be flung open wide, but sadly that eschatology has not yet been realised.  Maybe the fundamental issue is establishing what are the appropriate boundaries for any given context.

Contemporary theology is much concerned with crossing boundaries[8].  Crossing the boundaries of race and culture, crossing the boundaries which divide people from people, crossing the boundaries which cause alienation and separation.  This is all very laudable but sometimes it is necessary to create boundaries.  Working in faith based community development I am only too well aware of the problems caused by a lack of boundaries.  Lay workers, for instance, often become dispirited when there is no clear sense of boundaries between them as members of the congregation and workers for the congregation.  There often seems to be a push to create a completely inclusive, open community which sounds nice in theory but in practice is a complex morass of assumptions and disappointments.  Poor communities, in particular, generally need a clear sense of their own boundaries in order to flourish.  Williams and Warner in their study of evangelical urban youth ministry in America show how the destructive boundaries of neighbourhood and race are crossed by providing people with a new identity based on a new set of moral boundaries[9].  Similarly Bob Lupton describes an urban church which set a clear boundary around the geographical location from which church members could come[10].  This focused their attention on a particular neighbourhood and enabled them to become a force for regeneration and renewal

The Lawndale Community Church, through establishing parish boundaries, has become a powerful agent of transformation in their community. Their theology of turf, though originally somewhat mixed in motive, has caused their neighborhood to blossom

Maybe the parish system is not as irrelevant to urban ministry as we thought!

I have no doubt the people are right to question the creation and imposition of boundaries.  They can be destructive of community and the good of the city, but my reflection on my experience of a gated community is of the increasing need in the modern city to create and maintain boundaries of all sorts.  For as Caroline Westerhoff says in her reflection on the boundaries of hospitality

Boundaries afford order, protection, and identity for both people and communities.  Without the consistency, safety, and meaning they provide, we would find it difficult to undertake anything new[11]

My identity, for example, as a Christian is important to me and I start to feel uncomfortable when I find myself rebranded as a member of the faith communities in order to promote a government-sponsored 'inclusive society'.  Similarly in the noise and rush of Hackney I want a safe community into which I can retreat and I feel no guilt about that.  In fact it seems right to me to celebrate the gates and walls which I create and which make me feel safe -- even if sometimes that safety might be something of an illusion (!).  The issue, for me, is not the creation of gates and walls but my ability to open them and enjoy the social interaction which that creates.  As Westerhoff goes on to say

Once our boundaries are defined, questions of hospitality arise -- questions about the welcoming of any and all to approach our boundaries and perhaps to cross them

On a broader canvas I believe we need to stop using gated communities as a symbol for all that is bad in modern society and rather understand what is going on for the people who live in them.  They cannot be judged en masse but each particular community must be considered in its context -- some no doubt are problematic but others might just be a very valid response to a particular urban context, and maybe even provide insights into how to recreate urban community.  The particularity of individual gated communities needs to be thoroughly attended to, perhaps then a wider understanding of them can emerge and we can begin to understand what their role in modern cities might be.  Of one thing we can be sure, they are going to be an increasing fact of urban life.




[2] Gordon MacLeod Privatizing the city? The tentative push towards edge urban developments and gated communities in the United Kingdom Report for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister August 2003


[3] Eugene McLaughlin and John Muncie Walled Cities: Surveillance, Regulation and Segregation in Unruly Cities ed. Steve Pile et al Routledge 1999


[4] Tony Manzi & Bill Smith Bowers Gated Communities as Club Goods: Segregation or Social Cohesion? London Research Focus Group University of Westminster 2004


[5] See for instance Laurie Green Urban Ministry in the Kingdom of God 2003


[6] Paul Minear Open Your Eyes Bible Study Isaiah 60 St Andrews Consultation 1977 World Alliance of Reformed Churches


[7] MacLeod ibid.


[8] e.g. Patty Lane Crossing Cultures -- a beginner's guide to making friends in a multicultural world Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 2002


[9] Rhys H. Williams & R. Stephen Warner Creating Urban Evangelicalism: Youth Ministry, Moral Boundaries, and Social Diversity May 2001


[10] Bob Lupton Community-Friendly Theology March 1999 newsletter volume 11 number 1


[11] Caroline Westerhoff Good Fences -- the Boundaries of Hospitality Cowley Publications 1999