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Sunday 21 September 2014

A race to get gated: Does living in a gated development really cut down on crime?

Gabrielle Monaghan

Published 29/08/2014 | 02:30

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Abington estate in Malahide, Dublin.
Yvonne Keating at her old home in Abington, Malahide. Picture Colin Keegan, Collins, Dublin.
Thousands of demonstrators sing the words, "We are all one," while raising their fingers and images of slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin at a protest called A Million Hoodies March in New York's Union Square.

Thousands of demonstrators in New York sing the words, "We are all one," while raising their fingers and images of teen Trayvon Martin who was shot dead by a neighbourhood watch coordinator in a gated community in Florida

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DAUBED "Millionaire's Row" when it was built in the boom years, Abington in Malahide became the Celtic Tiger's most exclusive north Dublin enclave for those who wanted big new abodes as the Irish economy took off on a credit bubble.

Brian O’Driscoll at the closed-in Tiara Residence Apartments in Dubai, where he purchased in a gated schemed during the boom

This year, many of the residents have been selling up, including the controversial "House of Prayer" founder Christina Gallagher, who has her 7,000 sq ft house at number 2 on the market for €2.7m at the moment. Meanwhile, Yvonne Keating bagged close to €2.45m in recent weeks for the 6,000 sq ft number 50, the home she shared with her husband Ronan.

Abington also hit the headlines recently for a request made by the well-heeled residents, who include Ireland international soccer star Robbie Keane and former Westlife star Nicky Byrne, to restrict access to their estate enclave and go "fully gated".

Thousands of demonstrators sing the words, "We are all one," while raising their fingers and images of slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin at a protest called A Million Hoodies March in New York's Union Square.

Many of the luxury mansions at Abington in Malahide have private electronic gates and CCTV, as befits an estate that's home to some of Ireland's best-known personalities, but Abington residents are concerned that existing security measures are not deterring break-ins and other crimes.

They asked Fingal County Council for permission to install 1.5 metre-high gates at the development's entrance, citing "reported incidents of burglary, theft and suspicious activity". The council refused their application last month.

Like Fingal, many local authorities now stipulate in their development plans that planning applications for such suburban fortresses are not welcome because they pose a risk of dividing communities.

A spokeswoman for Dublin City Council said its latest development plan aims to "ensure that gated residential developments will be discouraged and, in most cases, will be prohibited as they negate Dublin City Council's vision of a permeable, connected and linked city that encourages integration".

Communities with electronically-controlled gates, high fences and 24-hour security, once the preserve of expats in developing countries to protect them from high crime rates outside the barricades, are de rigueur in Australia and the US. Even the fictional street of Wisteria Lane on the television show Desperate Housewives was a gated community. In the UK, there are more than 1,000 gated estates, some of which are popular with Premier League footballers, celebrities and billionaires.

Despite Irish planners' general distaste for suburban gated communities, they have not dented some home buyers' appetite for what they perceive as the privilege of living untroubled by crime or antisocial behaviour.

Therese Kenna, a geography lecturer at University College Cork, who has researched the phenomenon in both Ireland and Australia, says: "Whether it's about crowds of young people gathering in your estate, cars being robbed or people on drugs, it's natural for homeowners to want to protect themselves and assets."

However, research indicates that the desire to live in a gated community "is not just about high levels of security", Kenna said. "It's about losing faith in the government to provide the kind of infrastructure they want. They often don't feel the state or the government are doing their job, whether it be landscaping or something more significant like policing. People feel they are not being looked after, so if they have the ability, they'll pay someone else to do it."

Indeed, families in the Carrickmines Wood estate in the upmarket Dublin neighbourhood of Foxrock hired a private security firm after a spate of burglaries in 2012 where thieves used jammers to disable alarm systems and phones. Residents of the development, where Ireland's first IR£1m homes were sold back in 1999, opted for a private firm after a public meeting attended by local gardai.

Many of Ireland's gated enclaves were built in the 1990s and early noughties as the property boom escalated. For instance, Millers Weir, a gated development of ten five-bedroom homes on the banks of the River Liffey in Athgarvan, Co Kildare, was built 14 years ago. One of the properties sold in June for €577,000.

Even David Norris, the senator and erstwhile presidential candidate, harboured ultimately unsuccessful ambitions in 2000 to close off part of his north Dublin street. Norris, who co-founded the North Great Georges Street Preservation Society, and his neighbours drew up a plan to close the lower end of the street to traffic by installing decorative wrought-iron gates.

Kieran Rose, a senior planner at Dublin City Council, said gated developments outside the inner city were granted planning permission in the 1990s before development plans sought to clamp down on them.

"I was involved in a number of planning applications and these developments create all sorts of problems," he said. "If you have a delivery or a car is visiting, those people are kept waiting out in the public area. There are cases where local pedestrians don't have access, preventing easy integration with the community."

Kenna argues that by passing a piece of legislation called the Multi-Units Development Act in 2011, which obliged developers to pass ownership of common areas to the owners' management company, the state may have given residents greater power to restrict public access.

"It allowed private ownership of residential common areas, and once they own those areas, they can do what they want," she said.

Rose, for his part, hopes Dublin City Council's policy on limiting gating will ensure that the capital never has to face the "appalling vista" of "countries in the developing world where armed security men" patrol wealthy neighbourhoods that have "corralled themselves" away from poorer communities.

Mexico has the world's largest population of gated community dwellers, where the gap between the rich and the poor made it necessary for the wealthy to gate themselves in.

In post-segregation South Africa, the property market responded to rising rates of violent crime by developing security villages, some of which have their own hospitals, schools and shopping centres. The most high-profile of these is the Silver Woods Country Estate, the 90-acre enclosed neighbourhood where Paralympic athlete, Oscar Pistorius, shot dead girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

While many sociologists bemoan the growing popularity of gated communities because they are exclusionary and elitist, others say they just don't prevent crime. Some research suggests that gated estates lull their residents into a false sense of security, with studies on such developments in suburban America finding they have no less crime than similar non-gated neighbourhoods.

One commentary in the New York Times even blamed gated communities for contributing to the death in 2012 of Trayvon Martin in Florida. The black 17-year-old had been visiting his father's fiance at The Retreat at Twin Lakes when he was shot dead by neighbourhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman. A New York Times column opined that "gated communities churn a vicious cycle by attracting like-minded residents who seek shelter from outsiders and whose physical seclusion then worsens paranoid group thinking against outsiders".

There had been eight burglaries, nine thefts and one shooting at The Retreat in the year before Martin's death. The enclave's residents said there were dozens of reports of attempted break-ins, which had created an atmosphere of fear in their neighbourhood.

Local authorities in Ireland "are right to be concerned about segregation, dividing the rich from the poor," Kenna said. "In reality, it doesn't necessarily work because it can create even more fear."

"Once they become private and have their own security, gated communities are assumed to be looking after themselves, thereby risking alienating themselves from public services like the police."

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