Douwe Osinga's Blog: The gated community as the new Polis

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

The gated community as the new Polis

According to the conclusion of the international conference on private urban governance, more then half of all new homes in the U.S. are guarded in some way. This might seem like a somewhat extreme reaction on the American anxiety, but the whole trend towards gated communities could actually be a good thing and a revival of the old Greek ideal of the city-state or polis.

The most obvious feature of a gated community is the fact that it is gated. You cannot enter and exit freely; you'll have to be a member or at least get permission. Gated communities are completely built on privately held land and can therefore make the rules. But here is the interesting thing, not only can they make rules about who can enter and who can't, but they can also make rules about a lot of aspects of social conduct: how to paint your house, when to put out the garbage and how to live together. Sounds scary?

Big government is receding everywhere. Parts of society are freed from too much interference and flower. Other parts are under pressure. In a society where the central government sticks to its core duties, gated communities might take over and over rules and structure for those who need that.

Thin government plus universal gated communities produces freedom. If you don't like the rules of the community, maybe you can change them by politics. But if there are gated communities everywhere, chances are that somebody already set one up with rules you like better, just like it is online. If you don't like a certain website, there's always one that is very similar, but that matches your way of thinking better. Gated communities are implementations of different ideas about the good life and therefore philosophical experiments. We should set up one based on the ideas of Kant.

What about the poor? Wouldn't they be ignored by the gated communities and slip through the cracks of the system? To some extend, probably. On the other hand, they would form a market for gated communities on their own. Our current society tends to throw the poor with the social unfit in the less desirable parts of town. A gated community for the poor would not have the golf courses the rich have, but it might offer a save place to live and a way for those who want to get out.