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August 13, 2013 / Leo Hollis

Indefensible space: Trayvon Martin and Public Space

The commons are the spaces where one can come and be together as citizens rather than consumers. It is here that we can exchange and adopt the codes and ethics of civil life. Theses are the rules of urban living that come from living on top of each other, close together, learning how this interdependence stitches our lives together. Trust develops from these interaction, as Jane Jacobs notes: ‘it grows out of people stopping by the bar for a drink, getting advice from the grocer and giving advice to the newsstand man, comparing opinions with other customers at the bakery and nodding hello to the two boys drinking pop on the stoop.’ But as the city grows, clearly these interactions can become more impersonal and brief; it becomes almost impossible when the spaces of the city become privatised or divided.

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This was brought to the fore once again recently in the Florida courtroom that acquitted George Zimmerman for the crime of manslaughter. If Trayvon Martin had been walking on an ordinary street rather than within a gated community, where he was considered a hoodie-wearing ‘outsider’, there would have been no question of invasion or property infringement. He would still be alive. The story of his death is well known; the factors of gun laws, race and the ‘stand your ground’ laws contested; but little has been said about the role that urban planning has in those horrific events of February 2012. 

The purpose of gated communities, such as The Retreats, Twin Lakes, Florida, was to offer added safety and a sense of belonging but since the recession foreclosures and the rise of rental properties making it more difficult to know who lived where in the Retreat and who was an outsider. There was no way to know who knew the gate passcode or whether it had been passed to the wrong type of visitor. This sense of anxiety had risen along with the crime rate that, through 2009-10, included eight burglaries, two bike thefts and 3 common assaults. In September 2011 the local police had set up a formal neighbourhood watch scheme in response to people’s escalating fears.

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It is impossible to divorce the relationship between the events that occurred on that day and the place where it happened. For not all places are the same and this has a powerful impact on how we behave, navigate and feel about the city.  In 1973, the American architect and planner, Oscar Newman in a book called ‘Defensible Spaces: People and Design in the Violent City’ set out the concept of the gated community, where residents tend to feel a stronger sense of ownership or ‘territoriality’ when there are barriers. In contrast with the Broken Window idea that sought to repair the violent city by action, Newman argued that the defensible space was a barricade to hide behind.

The idea has been hugely successful around the world, offering security, community and a sense of exclusivity. In many of the most violent and dangerous cities, urban fortresses have appeared where every movement in and out are monitored. ‘Security by design’ has become the bedrock of a securitization industry that protects our homes using heavily armed private guards, and the latest innovations in surveillance, access control, and hardware. Like the Retreat at Twin Lakes, the hi tech apparatus and image of safety that the modern gated community promises as standard is one of the selling points of the new enclave.

Often built as a response to rises, or the perception of a rise in crime beyond the fence.  In the US, the number of such communities has grown by 53% between 2001 and 2009, and now are home to nearly 10 million people. But while the railing may give a sense of protection, t it makes the city a more dangerous, untrusting and unequal place. They create mental spaces that encourage the anxiety of the George Zimmermans in us all as well as define that space as outside the normal city, patrolled by private security and regulated by private committee.

The gated community is the opposite of Jane Jacob’s exuberant, flowing Hudson Street. The self-organised complexity has been managed into order; the eyes on the street are frantically focused on invasion. This debate is happening outside your front door, everyday. Instinctively we believe that we ourselves are in the best position to be custodians of our own sidewalk, don’t we? But there is a danger when that sense of ownership becomes possessive.

The public spaces of the city need to be constantly protected from privatisation. The rise of defensible spaces in the city is a debate that needs to be spoken loudly and, in the light of the Zimmerman trial, urgently. 

 It is difficult to reboot the community if our public spaces are being closed off. Where shall we meet if everywhere we go is mediated by CCTV or private security guards in hi-visibility vests and walkie-talkies. We have become afraid of shared spaces and are inclined to ignore their importance; as a result they can disappear without a shout of protest. This is something that we might come to regret when it is too late.

The defense of the urban commons, however, does something more than just protect space, it creates citizens. For it is within the public spaces of the city that people come together and develop the ways of living unique to the city: action becomes a rite of belonging, and belonging transforms ‘that’ place into ‘our’ place. Yet this belonging should not be mistaken for ownership: the transformative act is one between the group rather than between the actor and the space. The commons is as much about shared activity not joint ownership.

Sometimes the gated communities we create as not as obvious as the ones at Twin Rivers, Florida, but they can be just as dangerous.

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