Life Homes

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Is it safer behind closed gates?

They are de rigeur abroad, but now there's demand for gated developments here too

Gabrielle Monaghan

Published 01/08/2014 | 02:30

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Gated communities, such as the one pictured above in Malahide, are becoming increasingly popular with the super-rich and celebrities
Yvonne Keating outside her gated home

MANY of the luxury mansions at Abington in Malahide, Co Dublin, have electronic gates and CCTV, as befits an estate that's home to some of Ireland's best-known personalities, including Robbie Keane and Nicky Byrne. One of the properties, shared by Ronan and Yvonne Keating before their divorce, is on the market for €2.45m.

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Abington residents are concerned, however, that existing security measures do not deter break-ins and other crimes. They asked Fingal County Council for permission to install 1.5m gates at the entrance, citing "reported incidents of burglary, theft and suspicious activity". The council refused their application last month.

Like Fingal, many local authorities say in their development plans that applications for such suburban fortresses are not welcome as they pose a risk of dividing communities. A spokeswoman for Dublin City Council said its plan aimed to "ensure 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".

Communities with electronic 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. In the UK, there are more than 1,000 such gated estates.

Despite Irish planners' distaste for suburban gated communities, they have not dented some homebuyers' 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 Ireland and Australia, says: "There is demand for gated developments here.

"Whether it's about crowds of young people gathering in your estate, cars being stolen or people on drugs, it's natural for homeowners to want to protect themselves and assets."

However, research indicates the desire to live in a gated community "is not just about high levels of security", Kenna says. "It's about losing faith in the Government to provide the kind of infrastructure they want. They often don't feel the State is doing its 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 2000s as the property boom escalated. For instance, Millers Weir, a gated development of 10 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 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. 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 the Dublin council's policy on limiting gating will ensure 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.

Mexico has the largest population of gated community dwellers in the world, at 56.8 million people as of 2010. And In post-segregation South Africa, the property market responded to a climbing rate of violent crime by developing security villages, some of which come with 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. Pistorius put his house on the market to finance the legal fees for his murder trial.

Like other gated communities in South Africa, most of Silver Woods' residents are white and middle-class. It is protected by security guards, high walls, electric fencing, laser beams and biometric locks that can only be opened with the correct thumbprint. Armed response teams stand by in case a householder hits the panic button.

While many sociologists bemoan the growing popularity of gated communities because they are exclusionary and elitist, another criticism levelled at them is 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 fiancee at The Retreat at Twin Lakes when he was shot dead by neighbourhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman. The newspaper said "gated communities churn a vicious cycle by attracting like-minded residents who seek shelter from outsiders and whose physical seclusion then worsens paranoid groupthink against outsiders".

There had been eight burglaries, nine thefts and one shooting at The Retreat in the year before Martin's death. Its residents said there were dozens of attempted break-ins, which had created fear in the 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. The jury is still out on whether these gated areas effectively manage crime because they often become targets for crime.

"There was even a case of a drug lab operating within a gated community. The criminals were driving fancy cars but because everyone had fancy cars, no one paid any attention.

"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. Instead, they are relying on a private security force who is there for their own financial gain."

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