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Gated Communities

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The concept ‘Gated Community‘, in Latin America also known as ‘Barrios Cerrados’ or ‘Barrios Privados’, is used to describe different types of fenced settlements that can today be found in nearly every country around the world. According to Vesselinov, the “physical barrier to entry” and the “restricted access” for non-residents are the two aspects most characteristic of ‘Gated Communities’ (Vesselinov 2008:538). Usually all aspects of daily life within Gated Communities are controlled by strict rules that are accepted voluntarily by the residents. “Both the sociological and the popular literature is replete with descriptions of the new gated communities, in which private security guards, high-tech surveillance systems, and warning signs are all aimed at controlling entry and keeping “undesirables” out (Marcuse 1997:246). The target groups, though, are mainly senior citizens, members of the middle class, executive staff and social climbers.


Already in the first half of the 19th century, so-called ‘Golden-Ghettos’ were established in cities like New York, London and Paris. They were built exclusively for members of the richest classes and combined a community life-style with different security features. In the middle of the 20th century, new similar living facilities were founded, predominantly in the U.S. Initially planned for a wealthy target group, they were eventually opened for a far wider section of the population and nearly all income levels. Since the 1970s, the number of fenced settlements increased significantly throughout the whole country and the model was also exported to the rest of the world, especially to Latin America. Today, ‘Gated Communities’ can be understood as the result of a globalization of fear: a fear of the urban upper and middle classes of a new urban underclass. Aside from some newspaper reports throughout the last two decades for the general public, one of the most recent critical views on ‘Gated Communities’ was presented in Rodrigo Plá’s movie thriller La zona in 2007 (Lehnen 2012).

Theoretical Framework

From a neo-Marxist macro-perspective, ‘Gated Communities’ can be identified as one symptom of the increasing widening of the gap between the rich and the poor in capitalist societies. Davis and others argue that the creation of ‘Gated Communities’ is an integral part of a project to build ‘Fortress Cities’. ‘Gated Communities’ are considered as a strategy for controlling the urban poor and separating them from shrinking middle classes and the upper class (Davis 1990, Blakely and Snyder 1999, Vesselinov 2008). From meso- and micro-sociological as well as psychological perspectives, ‘Gated Communities’ can be discussed within the framework of analyzing the sources of urban fear. As Low points out, the social concerns expressed by inhabitants of ‘Gated Communities’ include fears and prejudice based not only on class differences but also on ideas of racial and ethnic exclusivity (Low 2001). Those pre-existing fears are further bolstered by Gated Communities’ lobby groups in an attempt to bolster their target market. This development causes privatization of public spaces and leads “to a relocation of crime outside the gates and within adjacent non-gated communities” (Le Goix 2003:5). All in all, the advancement of ‘Gated Communities’ can also be seen as a “physical and obvious expression of the post-industrial societal changes” (Le Coix 2003:5).

Different Interests

Apart from concrete fear, the lack of confidence in the state and the wish to pay only taxes for personally used goods make the offers of ‘Gated Communities’ quite attractive to certain parts of the society but lead directly to further segregation. Homeowners in such fenced settlements are confronted with costs for ‘private’ infrastructure but in compensation get exclusive access to former public spaces. The municipalities are compensated for that loss of space by wealthy taxpayers at no cost. Apart from that, “[g]ating a neighborhood actually helps protecting a lifetime investment against urban decay” (Ibid.). So all in all, developers, the home-building industry and public authorities as well as homeowners within the settlements have common interests.

Gated Communities in the Americas

The ‘Gated Communities’ in the U.S. can be divided into three different types. The Lifestyle or Prestige Communities are mainly small estates in the so-called ‘Sun Belt’ whereas ‘Instant Cities’ are newly built and complete cities, generally outside already existing municipalities. The third type are Security Zone Communities, historical quarters that were fenced later. The majority of the communities are controlled by so-called Homeowner Associations (HOAs) and Common-Interest Developments (CIDs). About ten percent of the home market in the USA nowadays consists of homes in Gated Communities. They are located within every kind of middle class and upper-class neighborhoods. In 2004, between eight and thirty million U.S. citizens lived in Gated Communities.

In Latin America, different terms are used: in Argentina, they are called urbanizaciones cerradas, in Brazil condominios horizontales, in Chile condominions cerrados, in Mexico fraccionamientos cerrados and in Guatemala simply condominios (all synonyms for compound). The emergence of closed urban areas has been linked to diverse factors and varies according to the country. In the 1950’s and 1960’s in Argentina, specifically in the Buenos Aires area, people in certain social groups were looking for exclusiveness and a higher social status as well as a sense of belonging. Another reason for the emergence of gated neighborhoods was the need for the protection of particular social groups, as in El Salvador (Roitman, 2011, 31). In El Salvador, residential compounds emerged in the 1990’s, coinciding with the beginning of the political democratization towards the end of the armed conflict, as well as with the increase of criminal and social violence on a national level and important urban transformations.

In Peru (Lima), the compounds were set up, as a strategy to counter terrorism and violence. In Brazil and in Colombia, they were considered a way to deal with the escalating urban insecurity and the increase of street criminality (Roitman, 2011, 31-32). The causes and roots of this phenomenon are multiple and are to be found at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century. The closed neighborhoods, urbanizations, or compounds became a trend which expanded from the center to the peripheries. The phenomenon brought about new values and a new lifestyle (Malizia, 2011, 15). “A segregation whose main feature is the social disconnection…a rupture that can lead to a total autonomy, a fragmentation of the urban society as a union and its replacement by a series of territories which prominently signify a sense of identity… “ (Baires Rivas, 2003,3). Any definition would have to include some of the following characteristics: buildings gated within walls, barricades or fences and restricted access. They are designed as restricted, exclusive areas that offer security to their residents and prevent the access of non-residents. These compounds privatize the use of public space and are voluntarily inhabited by a social group that is homogenous in relation to the whole social structure (Roitman, 2011, 30-31).

In Latin America, there is no official data regarding the number of the gated communities that exist in each city. This is because, in most cases, this type of settlement is not considered to be something extraordinary and therefore does not appear registered as such. It is for this reason that the available data comes from the combination of data from the local governments (catastro) and the information provided by the field of researchers (Roitman, 2011, 33). The real estate agencies in their advertisements usually claim to offer the following advantages: clean air, happiness, enjoyment of nature, tranquility, security and exclusivity.


I. Exclusive compounds for the high upper class: Preferred location in the consolidated suburban territory. Comprised of individual villas with extreme security measures.

II. Compounds around built-up areas in the expanding periphery. For the upper class. Strong integration in the surroundings and use of free time. High security.

III. Compounds for the upper middle class: Suburban location, standardized constructions. Relatively small buildings. Equipment, security and common installations vary according to social class.

IV. Compounds with state help or subsidies: lower middle class and upper middle class, simple, standardized constructions, often of multiple floors. Low security measures.

V. Mixed gated neighborhoods: Various social classes. Reaction to urban problems. Blockading of roads frequently without any legal authorization and informal security measures.

VI. Apartment-blocks: Very high buildings in densely populated and central areas. For the upper middle class. Extensive communal installations and high security measures.

VII. Megaprojects: Periurban location. Different social classes and construction types. Changed Law of the Land. Infrastructure of own supplies (commerce, education, etc.). They offer the atmosphere and character of a small city.

VIII. Holiday compounds: Far away from the metropolitan area, installations for recreation. (Meyer-Kriesten & Bahr, 2004 cited in Bäbr & Borsdorf, 2012, 208).


In general, ‘Gated Communities’ can be understood as an escape for the wealthy, but also for lower income classes, from negative social developments. Because of this, municipalities have developed to consist of two poles: Ghettos of the excluded on the one side and places for the wealthy on the other side.

Critical discussion

‘Gated Communities’ can be seen as a “symptom of urban pathologies”. They were planned to solve the problems of social developments that lead to greater gaps between the rich and the poor. However, ‘Gated Communities’ simultaneously cause new problems in the form of new avenues of “social segregation” (Le Coix 2003:2). Also “gated enclaves [work] as predators of public resources” and in few cases, they even became targets of terrorist attacks in their function as ‘safe’ settlements, e.g. in Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, “the municipality mostly acts as an extension of the Property Owners Association” (Le Coix 2003:4).

Max Zirzow, Fran Espinoza and Jonas Janssen

Please cite as:
Max Zirzow, Fran Espinoza and Jonas Janssen. 2012. “Gated Communities.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives. www.uni-bielefeld.de/cias/wiki/g_Gated_Communities.html.


Arizaga, Maria Cecilia. 2000. “Murallas y barrios cerrados, La morfología espacial del ajuste en Buenos Aires”, in: Nueva Sociedad, No. 166, 22-32.

Bäbr, Jürgen; Borsdorf, Axel. 2012. La Ciudad latinoamericana. La construcción de un modelo. Vigencia y perspectivas. Guzlop editoras, Lima, Perú.

Beires, Rivas, Sonia. 2003. "Los barrios cerrados en el AMSS: Una nueva forma de segregación y fragmentación urbana." In: Ponencia presentada en la conferencia LASA, marzo, 27-29 de 2003 en Dallas, Texas.

Blakely, Edward J./ Snyder, Mary G. 1999. Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States. Washington D.C. u. a.

Davis, Mike. 1990. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. London.

Janoschka, Micheal. 2002: “El Nuevo modelo de la ciudad latinoamericana: fragmentación y privatización”. In: Eure Vol. 28, No. 85.

Le Goix, Renaud. 2003. “The Suburban Paradise or the Parceling of Cities?”. In: UCLA International Institute. http://www.international.ucla.edu/article.asp?parentid=4664

Lehnen, Jeremy. 2012. "Disjunctive Urbanisms: Walls, Violence and Marginality in Rodrigo Plá’s La zona (2007)." In: Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos, Vol. 28, No. 1, 163-182.

Low, Setha M. 2001. "The Edge and the Center: Gated Communities and the Discourse of Urban Fear." In: American Anthropologist, Vol. 103, No. 1, 45-58.

Low, Setha M. 2003. Behind the Gates: Life, Security and the Pursuit of Happiness in Fortress America. New York/ London.

Malizia, Matilde, 2011. "Problemáticas demográficas y urbanas. Enfoque teórico y conceptual para el estudios de las urbanizaciones cerradas." In: Revista Andes, Vol 22, No. 2. Salta, Jul/Dic. 2011.

Marcuse, Peter. 1997. “Enclaves, Citadels, and Ghettos.” In: Urban Affairs Review Vol. 33 No. 2,228-265.

Raitman, Sonia. 2011. "Distinción social y hábitat residencial en América Latina." In Revista Invi, No. 73, Vol. No.16, 17-71.

Vesselinov, Elena. 2008. "Members Only: Gated Communities and Residential Segregation in the Metropolitan United States." In: Sociological Forum, Vol. 23, No. 3,536-555.

Wehrheim, Jan. 1999. “Gated Communities. Sicherheit und Seperation in den USA.” In: RaumPlanung Vol.87, 248-253.

Yanes, Ordiales, Glenda Bethania, 2005. Estilo de vida y arquitectura de consumo. Fraccionamientos cerrados en la ciudad de Hermosillo (tesis de magister en Ciencias Sociales). El colegio de Sonora.

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