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The Special Case of Private Communities

Perhaps the most important recent trend in housing construction in the United States is the remarkably rapid growth of private communities.

A private community is one in which residence requires becoming a member of a community association, paying fees to that association, and agreeing to abide by its rules. Private communities almost always begin as areas within a political subdivision such as a county. Planned as a whole, they are not built in conformance with the existing zoning or land-use controls but rather are developed pursuant to rezoning, the issuance of variances, or an overall site-plan review process. Essentially, the developer's architectural or planning consulting firm becomes the planner and the municipal planning agency, and the legislative body it advises becomes the judge or arbiter of the plan. Often private communities are said to be "master-planned" in that there is a single plan for the entire community. This is a somewhat different usage of the term master plan, which ordinarily means the plan for an entire city, county, or other civil division. In the great majority of cases, private communities are built in suburbia or outside metropolitan areas entirely, since that is where large blocks of undeveloped land are to be had. Private communities within established urban areas are much rarer.

In some cases private communities ultimately incorporate as separate political entities. For example, Reston, Virginia began as just described but is now incorporated as the town of Reston within Fairfax County.

Many of the first private communities were retirement communities, often with explicit age restrictions. For example, rules might stipulate that at least one member of a household be at least 55 years old and that no permanent member of the household be younger than 18 years old. More recently, however, large numbers of private communities have developed for working-age populations as well.

Many private communities are open in the sense that anyone can enter them and move about freely within them, though many community facilities such as pools and parks are open only to residents and guests. But an increasing number are now "gated," with entrance denied to all except residents and guests. As of 2009 there were over 10 million housing units just in gated communities.3 Average household size in the United States at that time was 2.6, which gives one a rough idea of how many people may have been living in gated communities. The total in all private communities was very much larger. For the developer, the private community has a marketing advantage because the buyer is getting not just a house but a complete package. That package may include physical security, often a community of somewhat similar and like-minded people, community recreational facilities, and the benefits of an integrated design. For example, many private communities have extensive systems of bicycle and pedestrian paths. These are easily integrated into a de nouveau design but are usually difficult to "retrofit" into an existing urban or suburban pattern. The complete package, or parts of the package, may be fine-tuned toward particular segments of the market. Sometimes the fine-tuning can be carried quite far. In Ladera Ranch, a large planned community in Orange County, California, there is a subdivision called "Covenant Hills" with homes done in a traditional style and with a Christian school for the subdivision's children. There is another subdivision, "Terramor," for households that the developers referred to as "cultural creatives." There the housing is more contemporary and it has, instead, a Montessori school.4

Private communities have been very popular, but they also have their critics. The key word of those who decry the trend is balkanization. Critics ask what happens to the sense of a larger community as more and more people opt for separate communities. Edward Blakely, a professor of planning at the University of California, Berkeley, argues,

It has been over three decades since this nation legally outlawed all forms of public discrimination—in housing, education, public transportation, and public accommodations. Yet, today, we are seeing a new form of discrimination—the gated, walled, private community. I call it the "forting up phenomenon."5

He then adds,

Economic segregation is scarcely new. . . . But the gated communities go farther in several respects. They create physical barriers to access. And they privatize community space, not merely individual space. . . . When offices and retail complexes are placed within the walls, the new developments create a private world. . . . This fragmentation undermines the very concept of civitas—organized community life.

If large numbers of the more prosperous withdraw to the enclave of the private community, one might ask what the condition will be of the remainder of the population that does not have the resources to make such a move. What will happen to the quality of public services and civic life in older urban places? Blakely puts it differently when he asks, "Do we really want to give up on the American dream of racial and class integration?" But the underlying argument is the same.

This view that the private community and particularly the gated community are fundamentally balkanizing and destroy a more widespread sense of community is held by many. It fits into a larger view that higher- status and higher-income people are increasingly separating themselves from the larger culture.6

Green Valley, Nevada is a private community built by the American Nevada Corporation in 1978. By 1992 it had grown to a population of 34,000 on 8,400 acres and was projected to reach more than 60,000 early in this century. Writing from a critical stance, David Guterson says,

No class warfare here, no burning city. Green Valley beckons the American middle class like a fabulous and eternal dream. In the wake of our contemporary trembling and discontent, its pilgrims have sought out a corporate castle where in exchange for false security they pay with personal freedoms; where the corporation that does the job of walling others out also walls residents in.7

How might the proponent of the private community respond to these charges? One response is simply that private communities are clearly giving many people what they want. Their success in the market leaves no doubt about that. If we believe in maximizing consumer choice in clothing and automobiles, why not communities as well?8 What the residents of new communities want is not something reprehensible, but simply what they see as a good life for themselves and their families. If one big motivation for moving to a private community is concern for the well-being and safety of one's family, just what is so terrible about that?

To Blakely's comment on class and race integration, the would-be resident of the private community might note that we now have a large amount of class and race segregation in most metropolitan areas. It is not as though private communities were destroying some Eden of integration. He or she might also note that integration may happen most easily and naturally among people who are somewhat similar in terms of income and class, as is the situation in many private communities.

This writer does not mean to pass judgment on the private community phenomenon but only to note the arguments. Clearly, this pattern of development has social implications that far transcend the matter of physical design.

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