Call it defensive urbanism. Paranoid architecture. The architecture of fear. America the besieged. Fortressing.
In a world perceived to be big, bad and dangerous, people are doing whatever they can to make themselves feel more secure in their home environments. It may be as simple as installing a 1-inch double deadbolt on a steel-core door, or as complex as moving into a community that is surrounded by fences and gates, as castle walls protected feudal estates in the Middle Ages. One new development in California is surrounded by a 25-acre moat.
"Human beings want to feel safe," said Paul Spring, a former contractor who is editor in chief of Today's Homeowner magazine. "It's the reason people form communities, it's the reason police are given power to enforce the laws -- it's the whole social compact."
But people's ability to feel safe in society is being eroded by a variety of factors, he said. One of those is fear of crime, fueled by horrific sights of murder and mayhem nightly on the evening news -- even though, in fact, those events may be happening far from the viewer's home, and even though government statistics show that serious crime across the nation is declining.
Baltimore architect Nick Mangraviti recalls his parents discussing a lurid murder in Philadelphia when he was a child in the '50s. It was unusual, he said, because "it was a period when we didn't have so much focus on crime. Now every day there's a report about some murder, you see a body being carried out on television."
The nightly sights are a visual reinforcement of apprehension, Mangraviti said, so even though "employment is up and crime is down, the impression of insecurity is higher than ever."
"Crime is scary stuff," Spring said, "but beyond the physical invasion, there's a psychological invasion that people are feeling.
"Part of it is time," he said. "There's less time at home, there's less time to ourselves. And part of it is the electronic invasion -- with faxes and beepers and cell phones, we're never alone. So the one place that people feel they can be safe is in their home -- that's their castle."
Most people these days have taken some elementary steps toward protecting their castles, installing bigger locks, steel doors, motion-detector lights and security systems.
Ray Sibol, hardware manager at Stebbins-Anderson in Towson, said Club-like patio door protectors and double deadbolts are always popular items among homeowners seeking a little more security -- "though a lot of times they'll do it after the fact, after somebody breaks in."
Safe cars, too
Particularly in the city, younger new-home buyers are looking for security for what may be their next-largest investment, their cars. They want garages.
"It's a consistent requirement, particularly among well-off first-time home buyers," said Rod Petrick, of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn-ERA.
But those who can afford it may be taking things a step further by establishing their homestead inside a walled community, protected by fences, coded entryways or even by guards.
"What people want is the security," said Marie Pequignot, spokeswoman for Talles Homes. Talles' new Greene Tree development in Pikesville, where town house prices range from $250,000 to $400,000, is attracting three types of buyers, she said.
Twenty-five percent are younger professionals. "They're too busy fool with a house, but they want a nice home and security for their children." The second group is older professionals. "It's a husband and wife, no kids, they're busy with their professional lives but they want an upscale home."
Finally, she said, there are the empty nesters. Younger empty nesters "want to sell their larger [family] home, and they want to have more time for hobbies and travel." Older couples may be looking toward the time when one spouse is no longer around, and they want security and no maintenance, Pequignot said.
Petrick said upscale gated communities such as Cross Keys and the new Homeland-Southway are attracting single home buyers, especially women.
At Bluff Point on the Severn, where 19 homes are nestled between gates and the river, providing a safe environment for their children is often the biggest issue among homeowners, said Kathy Langsner, who's with O'Conor, Piper & Flynn-ERA in Severna Park.
Resident Suzan Hurst said she relishes the fact that she can send her two young children out to play on the street and monitor them from the driveway, without having to "walk by their side every moment." Having the gate, she said, gives you a very comfortable feeling.
Although it can be a mixed blessing: "It can be a bit inconvenient if you have deliveries." And because the streets are private roads, "you have to have private trash service and private snow removal."
Gated communities have been growing, albeit slowly, in the United States since the 1970s, according to Edward J. Blakely, co-author of "Fortress America: Gated and Walled Communities in the United States," published last year. The number of Americans living in gated communities is currently about 6 million to 8 million, writes Blakely, who is dean of the University of Southern California School of Urban and Regional Planning. That's up from about 1 million 20 years ago.
And, while everyone agrees that gated communities provide a sense of security, not everyone can afford them, and not everyone thinks they're good for the community as a whole.
'A message of exclusion'
Plans to build a gated community just west of The Mall in Columbia last year brought cries of protest from the community, many of whose members contended that the exclusivity of the project was directly at odds with Columbia's historic character as a wide-open, multi-economic, multi-ethnic community.
Architect Mangraviti, who lives in Columbia and has served on the Town Center Village Board, has denounced the concept of "a walled city" as "medieval" in the press and said the project "violates all the Columbia principles of inclusion."
After you build a fence, Mangraviti said, you have constructed a cultural icon with a clear message: We inside are superior to you outside. "It's a message of exclusion: You are not welcome here." Such messages are not useful in building a community or a nation, he said. "It's that attitude that causes society to break down."
Robert Tannenbaum, an urban planner who also was associated with Columbia, as chief planner, challenged the protective powers of fences and traffic bars, not just in Columbia, but everywhere.
"What developers have done," he said, "is to use the gated community as a marketing ploy. Fencing and a lift-up gate make it look secure, but a 4-foot fence and a silly little gate aren't going to help if someone wants to break into your house."
However, Hal Zazlow, an architect with Talles Homes who worked on the Greene Tree project, said the security provided by the fence can also mean protection from foot and road traffic and from the noise and trash such traffic can generate.
He said he doesn't have a problem with people living behind a fence if that makes them feel better. "That's their prerogative." And anyway, he said, there aren't enough gated communities around to give the impression that "everybody's got their own exclusion."
A larger social issue
Mangraviti linked the whole issue of security at home to a larger issue in society. Hostility toward "everybody who is not us" has always been present in American society, he pointed out. The change these days is what he called the death of the idea of America as the Great Melting Pot.
"Now there's this idea of the country as a great multicultural event" where racial and ethnic identities are maintained, rather than merged, he said, and that has led to "more of a perception of us against them."
"America is still one of the world's largest social experiments," he said, "where, for the first time, we have tried to bring diverse cultures and diverse concepts under one constitutional rule." There are inherent pressures in such a society, he said, with conflicts between rich and poor, and among various ethnic and religious groups.
But these are not easily resolved in the community, he said, "and so we build fences."
Pub Date: 3/15/98