Gated lives: a private future?

Josh Leon is a Sacramento writer and contributor to The Next American City.

We may remember this era of development in Sacramento as the time when the region shrank from the public sphere. The latest American Housing Survey reports that secured communities now constitute 90,000 households in the region. That’s consistent with the nationwide explosion of private communities in recent decades, and may only mark the beginning of privatized modes of living.

Self-reliance for security and services may be attractive for the communities that can afford it, but it risks leaving behind those less affluent.

Sacramento’s secured communities have gates or walls to keep non-residents out and often employ private security forces. They effectively shrink the public sphere, restricting traffic, pedestrian movement and green space by consuming large swaths of land. Access often requires exorbitant fees to private-community associations that perform functions ranging from road maintenance and grounds-keeping to cable television and country clubs.

Crime is often cited as a primary reason for the growth of private communities. Whether it’s reality or perception, 58,000 households in the region report inadequate police protection. Recent upward trends in violent crime in Sacramento will only further demand. Yet concrete evidence that private communities make their residents any safer is lacking.

What is certain is that they have serious drawbacks, at least for the excluded. The growth of private communities threatens to divide a region considered one of the most integrated in the nation along racial and class lines.

Services provided by community associations in gated communities reduce citizens’ stake in public infrastructure. Granted, even the most exclusive communities still play their part by serving as reliable tax bases—that is, until they incorporate and hoard more of their tax revenues for themselves, leaving public institutions such as school systems in the lurch. Right now, a small number of newly incorporated towns are pushing that envelope. If the trend grows, total privatization of government functions could conceivably become the next phase in privatized living.

As a growing midsize region, Sacramento is at a crossroads. Either we can build on existing efforts to foster an open community with mixed cultures and incomes, or it can turn inward toward exclusive modes of living. If we choose the latter, increasingly private communities could be the next fault line between the privileged and excluded.