Gated communities are perceived to be safe havens in a world of risk and uncertainty, but new research from the United States challenges received opinion and suggests that, although opportunistic burglaries may be minimised, the risk of other crimes could be increased. The study, one of only a handful to investigate the crime statistics relating to these housing developments, reveals the unexpected reality behind the security gates.
Research published this month in the journal Justice Quarterly confirms that homes in gated communities are subjected to fewer burglaries than those in non-gated communities. However, there is evidence that these communities not only push crime to other, less secure, neighbourhoods, but also present an increased risk of other crimes, including "intimate partner violence."
Lynn Addington, associate professor in the Department of Justice, Law & Society at American University, Washington, and Callie Marie Rennison, associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado, Denver, conducted an extensive literature review and a detailed study of data from the US National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) and the US Census Bureau's American Housing Survey in the preparation of their paper, "Keeping the Barbarians outside the gate? Comparing burglary victimization in gated and non-gated communities."
The authors conclude that, in the United States: "… gated communities do lower the odds of experiencing a residential burglary even when controlling for housing unit factors such as tenure, income, and geographical location as well as individual characteristics such as age [and] race."
Acknowledging that worries about security and crime, as well as fear of crime, are consistently among the top reasons cited for living in a gated community, the authors are keen to emphasise that, statistically, burglary is a rare event. They also discuss the wide-ranging impacts of gated-community living. For instance, homes in gated communities are generally more expensive than their non-gated counterparts, but there are concerns regarding limitations of access for emergency personnel such as fire fighters, ambulances, and police. There is also a question of the costs incurred by wider society as a result of reduced participation in the overall community and local government, reduced diversity and the potential for crime to be displaced to other areas.
Crucially, the authors emphasise that people living in gated communities may be at greater risk of other crimes, such as intimate partner violence, bullying, or violent assault in or near the home, because the victim is "locked in" with the offender. In addition, gated communities may also be at greater risk from minor offences, such as vandalism committed by bored and over-controlled adolescents.
Their study also lays to rest the perception -- strengthened by reality TV shows in the United States such as "Real Housewives of Orange County" -- that such communities are exclusively for the rich. The American Housing Survey upon which the research is based has been collecting data specifically about gated communities since 2001. The definition of "gated communities" used by that survey is broad, ranging from expensive and exclusive residential developments and retirement complexes through to public housing "projects" and trailer parks.
Addington and Rennison stress that although upper- and middle-class households may actively choose to live in gated communities, many people on low incomes have fewer housing choices, with no option but to live "enclosed in public housing projects." But even "exclusive" developments are frequently of mixed tenure, with owner-occupiers and long- and short-term rentals all being common.
The authors are clear that their ground-breaking study is exploratory in nature, and there are limitations with the data they consulted. They therefore highly recommend that further research be conducted to address the role of gated communities on other crimes beyond burglary. Their study also emphasises the need to include considerations about the diversity of gated communities and their residents in future research projects and policy discussions.
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