Philip Hensher: Gated communities are promoting irrational fears

If we don't invest in local businesses and travel about in our own cars the end result will look like Sao Paolo
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I've been transfixed by a photograph currently on display at the Venice Architecture Biennale. It's been much reproduced, and it tells its own tale. An image of life in Sao Paulo in Brazil, it is shot from an aerial vantage point. On the right is a block of flats in a fanciful architectural style, a sequence of balconies, each with its little swimming pool, fanning out so that none is overshadowed by the ones above. In the gardens of the compound below are two neatly kept tennis courts, and a larger swimming pool with sun loungers and a poolside bar.

This is sealed off by a substantial wall and barbed wire. On the other side is a development which no architect or town planner has ever considered; a shanty town of brick and corrugated iron roofs, a road with potholes. Building materials pile up in the road; mounds of rubbish accumulate.

The shanty town is called Paraisopolis - Paradise City - and, as far as these things go, is probably not all that bad. Visible in the photograph are cars in decent condition, a small supermarket, satellite dishes, washing lines. The people here are probably relatively respectable.

All the same, Sao Paulo is not an easy city to live in, and the reasons why are made instantly evident in this photograph. I've only once been to Brazil, and was astonished to discover that almost everybody I met lived behind guarded walls.

In some ways, Brazil strikes the visitor as being a relatively classless society; the pleasures of the rich are not so different from the pleasures of the poor, and everyone goes to Carnival. But that is a superficial impression, quickly dispelled by a visit to one of these fortress-like developments. The degree to which Brazil rests on a knife-edge was made painfully apparent in May. An extended criminal gang went on a killing spree in Sao Paulo, killing some 40 police and prison officers. The police responded in their traditional manner, killing more than 100 suspected criminals in what was described as "shoot-outs". In fact, an independent commission due to report next month will conclude that most of those killings were summary executions. The figure, which may be as high as 300, was reached in eight days.

That is on top of an almost incredible level of violent crime. If murder rates have been diminishing slowly over the past few years, they remain at a level few of us would find tolerable - some 1,500 murders in Sao Paulo alone last year. That is nearly three times the rate of New York, but considerably less than Rio de Janeiro. As for London, it comes in at between a tenth and a twentieth of Brazilian levels.

Looking at the, frankly, terrifying photograph of a corner of Sao Paulo, it is tempting to view the wall erected between the haves and have-nots as a response to an ugly and violent situation. Of course, that is what it has become; the rich have found ways to seal themselves off from the violence of the city, and it could not now be lowered. But what we have to consider is whether the rise of the gated community actually contributes to rising crime and the breakdown in urban relations by sealing parts of society off from each other.

One of the first such gated communities in London was the Bow Quarter, a transformation of the old Bryant & May factory begun in 1988. But since then, local councils have given the go-ahead to dozens of such gated communities. Those who live within them say that they feel safer; on the other hand, in London, you have to ask how real their fears actually are.

On the Battersea street where I live, a former school has been transformed into a gated community. You see cars drive in and out, but hardly ever do you see anyone walking out to the local shops. I know quite a few people who live on my road, but literally nobody within the development. They are quite simply sealed off from the community. The area is not dangerous in the slightest, and it is difficult to understand quite why the local authority agreed to a development which could lead to a degree of social isolation when no significant crime rate could reasonably justify it.

I don't think there's any doubt that the rich and the poor are drawing from the same well of social cohesion. By demanding a completely unreasonable degree of security and protection within cities which, by any standard, are still remarkably safe to live in, the rich are withdrawing from the local economic and social life, and in the long run making the lives of others more difficult.

Few politicians take these concerns seriously; being canvassed by the Labour party last election, I mentioned this concern, and was bluntly informed by the canvasser that no one else seemed to be worried about this - the implication being that it was an eccentric or absurd thing to be thinking about. But if we don't know our neighbours, don't invest in local businesses, and travel about in our own cars, then the end result will look like Sao Paulo. We shouldn't be under any illusion: that wall separating the tennis-playing middle classes from the crime-ridden and vulnerable urban masses, living in shacks of their own construction, is not a measured response to a difficult situation, but in the last analysis, a substantial contribution to the situation itself. At present, we should take a long, cool look at the relative safety of London streets, and accept that by protecting ourselves with gates and walls from an imagined situation, we are helping to turn that imagined situation into an undesirable reality.