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Walls that exclude
06/03/2004 NST-PROP By Salleh Buang

THERE is a growing number of Klang Valley residents who are moving out of their homes in the "open" and settling into gated communities with their twin attributes of privacy and security.


As innocuous as this may sound, sociologists who call the creation of such enclaves "fortressing" say such developments further reinforce the disparities that exist in society. They explain that people who have homes outside these walls might feel a sense of exclusion and some measure of alienation.


Despite the increasing popularity of gated communities in the country, there has been no study on their numbers and impact on society at large. In the United States, about eight million people live in such residential schemes as at 2000. Its popularity is underlined by a survey conducted in southern California in 1990 where more than half (54% per cent) of those polled said that they wanted a home "in a gated, walled development".


Although gated communities vary from one another, their common denominator is their air of exclusivity. In a publication titled Fortress America released in the US some years back, its authors said that such developments create physical barriers.


"They privatise community space, not merely individual space. Many gated areas also privatise civic responsibilities such as police protection and communal services such as street maintenance, recreation and entertainment."


The question is, if what happened in the US a decade ago becomes the norm in our shores in the near future, won't this be a step backward in our effort to create a Malaysian community?


Those who favour gated communities deny that their relocation into these protected enclaves constitute a withdrawal from society at large. They maintain that they are merely protecting their families from the widespread social disorder and chaos of "life in this city".


If the trend of building gated developments gathers steam and the demand from purchasers keeps growing, what is to prevent gated communities today from becoming gated cities tomorrow? Instead of just creating or building a single development behind walls, why not build entire cities or municipalities?


A recent report in the Los Angeles Times said in the past, out of 471 municipalities in California, the three cities of Rolling Hills on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, Hidden Hills near Calabasas and Canyon Lake in Riverdale County lie behind security gates. Although the number is small, the fact is more cities want to join this list of "gated cities'.


Edward Blakely, dean of School of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Southern California, said a gated city is "the final act of secession from the wider community and a retreat from the civic system.". I couldn't agree more.


A retired supervisor of Orange Country in the US described the situation rather bluntly. He said he was worried about the rise of "elitism and a parochial approach to life". He stressed that the community as a whole must be committed to programmes that serve the disadvantaged, the needy and the poor.


"If we circle the wagons to protect our quality of life, it would not be democratic or productive."


A good friend, Kassim, who sells fried kway teow at his stall a stone's throw away from Kuala Lumpur city centre, was therefore not far off the mark when he said: "The people who live behind walls and gates are turning their backs on poor people like us. This is very unMalaysian."


As it stands today, there is, as yet, no specific statute governing gated communities. Another friend informed me that such a law may soon make its way to Parliament. As to what the law contains, he is not at liberty to say since the draft is still covered by the Official Secrets Act.


If you are in the market for a piece of investment in a gated community, perhaps you should wait until the law is in place.


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