Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Ancient History of Gated Communities

Fig 1 - Modern gated community
Gated communities are a hot topic of research and discussion in urban studies. As summarized in a recent encyclopedia entry:
 Although gated communities are eulogized by residents, developers, and real estate agents for providing safe family spaces and secure financial investments, they have received a largely negative press from academics and the media, who perceive them as private fortresses that destroy the vibrancy of the city through their exclusivity. (Lemanski 2008)
The dominant view -- both scholarly and popular -- emphasizes security and fear. People are shutting themselves away in gated communities to keep out crime and undesirables. The spread of gated communities is said to produce alienation and anomie among residents, and a socially divided or segregated urban landscape (Blakely and Sneider 1997; Low 2001). Some research, however, challenges the security/fear interpretation of modern gated communities. Andrew Kirby and colleagues (Kirby et al. 2006), for example, report that in a sample of Phoenix gated communities, "residents are not alienated" (p.29), and the communities are not responses to a "culture of fear."
Fig 2- Informal neighborhood gate, Lima

The fear/security factor may, in fact, be more prominent in gated communities in poor neighborhoods of cities in the developing world than in modern U.S. or European cities. In Peru, enclosed areas are being established long after initial construction, by the residents themselves. Jörg Plöger (2006) studied neighborhoods in Lima, Peru, and found that most neighborhoods are "enclosed" or sealed off (with barriers and fences) by their residents for reasons of security (figure 2). These gates are installed not by developers or municipal authorities, but by the residents; they are informal, not formal, urban features. And even Dharavi, the Mumbai slum (of Slumdog Millionaire fame) where people are living in extremely close quarters, is the setting for many fenced-off residential zones. Jan Nijman (2010) explores how Dharavi challenges a number of standard notions in urban studies, a field whose models are based overwhelmingly on modern western cities.

Fig. 3- Chinese walled compound

These studies of the developing world are important for establishing a broader comparative perspective for gated communities. When we consider the past, the diversity of forms and meanings of gated communities increases even more. It turns out that gated communities have been common in Chinese cities for more than a millennium (Xu and Yang 2009), and they have been prominent in Mexico from the time of Spanish conquest until the present (Scheinbaum 2008). Figure 3 shows a traditional Chinese walled compound (i.e., a gated community). Interestingly, these features  resemble Inka walled compounds (called kancha) in Peru (figure 4). There is no historical connection at all between the Chinese and Inka examples; these are independent adaptations to what were probably similar urban forces and conditions. My guess would attribute this similarity in form to the importance of kinship and lineage in Chinese and Inka society. Several generations of families live together,
Fig 4 - Inka Kancha
 and the compound wall served as a visible marker of the close-knit social unit.

As in most premodern cities, the Chinese compounds were probably designed by their residents, and built either by the residents or by builders contracted by the residents. We know less about the construction of Inka compounds. The Inka state was strongly bureaucratic, and officials supervised and carried out many activities that were left to individual families in most early societies. Maps of Inka settlements show that these kancha units are highly standardized, perhaps because of central planning (Hyslop 1990).

Fig 5- Walled compounds in Chang'an
In some ancient cities, there is clear evidence for state planning in the construction of walled residential compounds. In Tang period Chang'an China, more than a millennium ago, the more than one million residents lived in walled-in neighborhoods. Gates closed off these neighborhoods at night, and guards made sure people stayed in their walled compounds and off the streets. A stone map from A.D. 1080 (figure 5) shows these ancient gated communities. In the following Song period, the state's power declined with a dramatic rise in commerce. In place of two enclosed markets, shops and stalls proliferated along the streets, gates were no longer guarded, and a real urban street life was generated. In this case, the gated communities were part of a state policy of control of the population, and when the policies changed to allow more freedom and self-determination, the gates came down (Heng 1999)

Fig 6- Old neighborhood gate, Jerusalem
Just the opposite process occurred in the Islamic cities of the Ottoman period in the Near East -- the neighborhood walls came down not from a loosening of state control, but from the imposition of strong control. These traditional cities had enclosed neighborhoods whose walls and gates were built by the residents (figure 6) to protect their neighborhood from outsiders; municipal and state authorities did not concern themselves with regulating life at the neighborhood or household level. But when these cities were conquered by European empires, one of the first tasks of the imperial overlords was to tear down the neighborhood gates. The new rulers were worried that people might be planning resistance in these closed neighborhoods, and the streets were opened up so that officials could begin to see what was going on in these areas (Abu-Lughod 1987).

Fig 7 - Hohokam walled compound
If there is this much variation in the social contexts of gated communities in premodern (and modern) cities, how can archaeologists begin to interpret ancient gated communities at sites where there are no written records? The Hohohkam of southern Arizona, in the final period prior to collapse and abandonment of their towns (ca 12th-15th centuries), started building walls around their neighborhoods (figure 7). Previously, their houses had been built in groups or clusters, with without walls. What does this signal? Or consider the Iron Age oppida towns in Europe (these are the towns defeated by Julius Caesar in his conquest of Gaul). Some of them had gated communities (figure 8). The walls in this reconstruction are not very high. Do they signal social exclusion, or perhaps just a way to keep the farm animals from wandering?
Fig 8 - Iron Age walled compound

These comparisons have intrigued me for a number of years. What is needed is a comprehensive comparative study of walled compounds / gated communities in the premodern world. Synthetic studies like Grant and Mittelstaedt (2004) are a good place to start. Perhaps we can figure out some of the social parameters of these features, and allow archaeologists to link the spatial layouts to social processes. Or perhaps the situation is just too messy and diverse. But until someone attacks this problem, we will never know.


Abu-Lughod, Janet L.
1987    The Islamic City: Historic Myth, Islamic Essence, and Contemporary Relevance. International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 19:155-176.

Blakely, Edward J. and Mary G. Snyder
1997    Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States. Brookings Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Grant, Jill and Lindsey Mittelsteadt
2004    Types of Gated Communities. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 31:913-930.

Heng, Chye Kiang
1999    Cities of Aristocrats and Bureaucrats: The Development of Medieval Chinese Cityscapes. University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu.

Hyslop, John
1990    Inka Settlement Planning. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Kirby, Andrew, Sharon L. Harlan, Larissa Larsen, Edward J. Hackett, Bob Bolin, Amy Nelson, Tom Rex, and Shapard Wolf
2006    Examining the Significance of Housing Enclaves in the Metropolitan United States of America. Housing, Theory, and Society 23:19-33.

Lemanski, Charlotte
2009    Gated Communities. In Encyclopedia of Urban Studies, edited by Ray Hutchison, pp. Article 109. Sage, New York.

Low, Setha M.
2001    The Edge and the Center: Gated Communities and the Discourse of Urban Fear. American Anthropologist 103:45-68.

Nijman, Jan
2010    A Study of Space in Mumbai's Slums. Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie 101:4-17.

Plöger, Jörg
2006    Practices of Socio-Spatial Control in the Marginal Neighbourhoods of Lima, Peru. Trialog: A Journal for Planning and Building in the Third World 89(2):32-36.

Scheinbaum, Diana
2008    Gated Communities in Mexico City: An Historical Perspective. Urban Design International 13:241-252.

Xu, Miao and Zhen Yang
2009    Design History of China's Gated Cities and Neighbourhoods: Prototype and Evolution. Urban Design International 14:99-117.


  1. Hi Mike! I´m Architect -Teacher, researcher at the UnB -University of Brasilia/Brazil.Now i´m making my doctorate in this theme of Gated Communities.And,I liked youre Article about Comparative Cities through the ages.I want to maintain contact with you for change some ideas about my thesis in few time because,this is one of ways that i want to explore for justify that this theme is not a new phenomena but,a copy of old cities conceptions through the history of urbanism. Good thanks for you and i´m waiting for your precious aid. NDIOGOU DIENE,PPG-FAU-UnB/Brasília-Brazil;

  2. Great Article, I'm doing a thesis on Gated Communities for my Master of Architecture in Delft, the Netherlands. I'm investigating why contemporary gated communities are being villified everywhere in the world, including the Netherlands while actually we have historical gated communities that are praised. These are the Hofjes and Begijnhoven, perhaps you have heard of them. I would be honored to stay in touch and discuss this subject some more.
    my emailadress is

    Best Regards,

    Mark Keukens