Imagining suburbs completely covered by security cameras from single-family homes

After a story from Kane County, Illinois about the extra work for prosecutors in going through video evidence from video doorbells, this got me thinking about surveillance in the suburbs. Imagine in the next few years the typical suburban neighborhood is covered by homeowner surveillance cameras of one kind or another: video doorbells plus consistently-running or motion-detection cameras mounted on the inside and outside of homes.

Traditionally, suburban areas have been more fond of privacy with the emphasis on single-family homes, interactions with neighbors by choice, and a willingness to fight local initiatives if they threaten said property and home. Big cities have long been home to more surveillance ranging from Jane Jacobs’ famous line about “eyes on the street” to the rise of CCTV in London.

What exactly is the cause of all of this? A few factors may be at work:

  1. The ease and low cost of the technology. Why have a regular doorbell when a video doorbell does not cost that much? (And the Internet suggests some people have fears of answering the door.)
  2. Fear of crime, even in relatively low crime suburban areas and after violent crime has dropped in the United States.
  3. A belief that video evidence is much more conclusive evidence compared to other types.
  4. A want to monitor/protect one’s single-family home at all times.

But, if every square inch of suburban street and sidewalk (plus a lot of yards) are covered by cameras, is something lost? Is there more trust that can disappear between neighbors? Is it truly all suburbanites for themselves even as at least some of them are fairly financially, socially, and educationally secure?

If suburban neighborhoods are increasingly under video surveillance, I wonder if this might change some decisions about where people live. Could this push people to more rural areas or perhaps to communities that more tightly control entries and exits (think gated communities with a real presence all around the perimeter? Or, would the extra surveillance encourage people to live in certain suburbs? Perhaps the decades-old neighborhood watches will be replaced by an unblinking eye on every house.

Lawn, yard issues affect even senators living in exclusive gated communities

The attack on Senator Rand Paul by his neighbor may have involved disagreements about yard maintenance:

That day may have come last month, when Boucher’s attorney said in an interview his client attacked Paul over long-simmering disagreements between the two about the care of grass, trees and other landscaping on their adjacent properties in an exclusive gated community…

“There is absolutely no political motivation behind this,” said Boucher’s attorney Matthew J. Baker. “It all stems from maintenance, or lack of it, at these two neighboring properties.”…

Skaggs said Boucher was exacting about the standards for his yard — landscaping bags filled with waste were a common site on his property. Neighbors said Paul had a reputation for a more relaxed style that some felt didn’t always jibe with a community that features gas lamps, Greek statuary and a 13-page packet of rules.

The senator had a pumpkin patch, compost and unraked leaves beneath some of his trees. Goodwin said it annoyed Boucher that Paul did not consistently cut his grass to the same height, and leaves from Paul’s trees blew on his property.

Early on in the article, this dispute is described as “the type of small-time neighborly conflict that has vexed many a suburban relationship.”

To some degree, this is why people move to gated communities or places with homeowner’s associations: they expect that the level of wealth or quasi-governmental oversight will relieve of problems with their problems. Instead of having to talk with their neighbors about potential problems, the issues are covered by community rules that can be enforced by a party that does not live on the property. And people often think that their property values are on the line: if my neighbor has a scraggly pumpkin patch or doesn’t rake their leaves, then I am going to be hurt by their lack of action that can clearly be seen from my house.

Still, even if such disputes are common, it is rare that they would reach the level of physical assault. More common is what the article describes as a lack of communication between the neighbors for years, what Boucher’s lawyer called “a cold war of sorts.”

China introduces plan to eliminate gated communities

Gated communities may be popular in the United States and many other countries but China is looking to open them up:

Along with its ambitions to finally put an end to “weird” architecture, China is also hoping to ban gated communities. In the same directive that called for stricter building standards, the State Council of the People’s Republic of China has also recommended that future residential enclaves be opened to the public. Existing gated communities would also gradually have their once-private streets integrated into the public road network. Not only would the move ease traffic congestion, the government argues, but it would also make better use of land.

But that particular part of the plan has drawn criticism from legal experts and fierce opposition from the public. Lawyers say such a mandate infringes on residents’ property rights, which according to China’s property laws, are “inviolable.” According to the South China Morning Post, the cost of roads and other shared spaces inside gated communities are factored into the price of residents’ homes, so they are essentially considered private property. China’s Supreme Court recently told the Hong Kong newspaper that they will be “paying close attention” to the directive.

Is this a microcosm of a larger debate between a more free market economic system versus more government control? The question of whether developers can build and residents, particularly those who feel they have joined the middle or upper class, can move into gated communities seems tied to a number of bigger issues.

I’m reminded that one tool of power available to governments is to dictate use of land and regulate architecture. Americans tend to prioritize property rights but the United States has a variety of land and architecture regulations, particularly zoning at a local level as well as historic preservation districts. Less frequent is the use of eminent domain, though it has been used regularly in the past for urban renewal which was often about taking land and profiting from new development. See the recent case in Chicago where Mayor Rahm Emanuel has discussed seizing the old post office building to make money for the city.

So how far should governments go regarding regulating land and architecture? A completely free market system would lead to some negative outcomes but too much implies tyranny.

McMansions are not necessarily in gated communities

One writer suggests both McMansions and gated communities are alive and well in the United States:

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the real estate market saw an explosion of “McMansions” and sprawling estates across the nation. The economic downturn toward the end of the decade brought the country back to earth and shifted the trend in new housing from giant luxury homes back to moderately sized residences.

While many have claimed that the McMansion boom is over, others beg to differ…

While the tiny house trend has been intriguing to observe, it’s not terribly indicative of where the country is headed in general. For every house that’s being built on wheels, at least one other is moving into a luxurious gated community.

To be honest, experts who voiced a death sentence on McMansions, estates, and gated communities probably spoke too soon.

This piece seems to suggest that homes in luxurious gated communities are necessarily McMansions. However, I’ve never seen evidence that would suggest this is the case. There is little doubt that these two trends were occurring around the same time with gated communities picking up steam in the 1970s and 1980s and the term McMansions arriving by the late 1990s even if the homes started growing in number in the 1980s. But, not all gated communities necessarily include large houses. From what I can recall from the 1997 book Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States, gated communities can often include middle-class or more average homes as can even be in urban neighborhoods with smaller homes. Gates may project the image of exclusivity but this can be relative or as Blakely and Snyder point out in the book, the gates are often just ornamental rather than serving as real barriers.

At the same time, it would be interesting to look at some data on this. Yet, it is relatively hard from survey data to define a McMansion beyond basic features like square footage and number of rooms.

San Francisco the country’s “largest gated community” because of limits on development

San Francisco is an expensive place to live and as one writer argues, this is due to intentional housing policies:

Or consider San Francisco, one of the least-affordable major cities in the United States. San Francisco’s population is about 825,000. If it had the same population density as my hometown, New York City, it would instead have a population of 1.2 million. Note that I’m referring to the population density of all five boroughs of New York City, including suburban Staten Island and the low-rise outer reaches of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. A San Francisco of 1.2 million would not be a Blade Runner–style dystopia in which mole people were forced to live cheek-by-jowl in blighted tenements. San Francisco at 1.2 million people would still be only half as dense as Paris, a city that is hardly a Dickensian nightmare.

One of the many benefits of allowing for more housing in a city like San Francisco is that it would likely lead to sharp reductions in carbon emissions. San Francisco is among the greenest cities in the United States, thanks largely to its superb climate. The same goes for San Diego, San Jose, and Los Angeles. The economists Edward Glaeser and Matthew Kahn have estimated that a San Francisco household spends one-fourth as much on electricity as a comparable household in Houston, as coastal Californians have far less need for air conditioning. To be sure, California does face serious environmental challenges. For example, that California’s water resources are stretched thin. But redirecting water resources from agricultural to residential uses would make an enormous difference, as would pricing water resources more intelligently. The environmental upside of supersizing San Francisco and other coastal California cities far outweighs the downside.

So what exactly is the problem? Well, the idea of a much denser San Francisco strikes many residents as appalling, not least because they fear that new development would threaten the city’s distinctive architectural character and the gorgeous views afforded by its stringent land-use regulations. While I love quirky Victorian houses as much as the next bobo, aesthetic considerations can’t justify the fact that San Francisco has become an oversize gated community. Rents in San Francisco are three times the national average, and they are rising at a fearsome clip. The housing crisis is even more severe in booming Silicon Valley, where the housing stock has barely increased over the last decade, despite the fact that the region has become a magnet for tech professionals from around the world. When skyrocketing demand meets stagnant supply, the predictable consequence is that housing costs soar and low- and middle-income families find themselves displaced…

In The Gated City, Ryan Avent observed that high housing costs in America’s most productive cities had forced large numbers of middle- and low-income households to either accept long, costly commutes, which eat into the ability of families to work and save, or to move to low-cost, low-productivity regions. Over time, this greatly impairs the ability of working- and middle-class Americans to climb the economic ladder. Moreover, when you move large numbers of people from high-productivity, high-wage regions to low-productivity, low-wage regions, you lower the productivity of the entire country. In other words, the rich homeowners who are fighting development in San Francisco and throughout coastal California are actually making America poorer. That’s not cool.

Thus, a gated community with economic gates rather than physical structures intended to keep people out. This is a similar story to that of many suburbs where exclusionary zoning practices intentionally limit development and push up prices to guarantee only certain kind of people can live there. Nothing is done explicitly in the name of class or race but an ongoing set of policies ensures housing availability only for some people.

The irony here is that this is notable in San Francisco, a city many might think would be attuned to these issues. This is also lurking behind the recent animosity between the buses sent by tech companies to take their employees to work and local residents. Yet, these concerns plague many important cities whether labeled with the terms gentrification or affordable housing or right to the city: how to balance or adjudicate the interests of powerful corporations, residents, and politicians versus those of average residents who are just trying to get by?

Why McMansions are built around the world

A Swedish photographer set out to capture American-style McMansions around the globe:

Intrigued by the rising middle class in these fast-expanding economies, Adolfsson visited 44 model homes in eight different countries. All displayed strikingly similar characteristics and seemed to be taking their lead from architectural and structural ideas popularized across the U.S over the last century.

And why do McMansions have appeal around the globe?

Adolfsson said he believes people in emerging nations are drawn towards projects such as these because they believe they evoke an image of success, wealth and affluence.

“What I think we’re seeing is an upper middle class that has been growing fairly rapidly over the last two decades accompanying the economic expansion in these countries,” he said…

“What we are seeing is essentially the American suburban dream,” Adolfsson said. “This has been brought to people through movies, through soap operas, through magazines for decades. That’s really what people see as something desirable.”

If this is the case, then McMansions have a similar appeal in other countries as they do in the United States. They are often viewed as markers of success, showing the ability to purchase land and a large, modern home (and the needed car to travel from this home to other places).

Two difference in these global McMansions. Adolfsson notes that these neighborhoods of McMansions stand out as outliers compared to the surrounding area. Additionally, many of these McMansions are in gated communities. This may happen occasionally in the United States but it is not necessarily common.

Another thought: I don’t know that many Americans think of the global export of their housing styles.

“Gated communities for the rich and poor”

A sociologist who has studied gated communities in Puerto Rico discusses gated communities across the socioeconomic spectrum:

The concentration of class and racial privilege in suburbs, fortressed enclaves, securitized buildings, and private islands takes place alongside the spatial concentration of poverty in ghettos, favelas, and barrios. Residential gates for the rich have also led to the rise of gates for the poor—in favelas in Brazil, South African townships, peripheral urban migrant settlements in China, and even in some public housing developments in the United States. The built environment sorts and segregates people, physically and symbolically distinguishing communities from one another. Whether one is locked inside or kept outside is determined by one’s race, class, and gender. In both kinds of gated communities, controlled access points restrict movement in and out. However, living in gated communities of the rich and poor are vastly different experiences.

The privileged gates of Extensión Alhambra offer a retreat into a secure, idyllic community; newly privatized street and sidewalks are restricted to sanctioned, paying community members, who can decide who is allowed inside. In the impoverished community of Dr. Pila, in contrast, government and private overseers control the movement of residents. So while the gates of Extensión Alhambra permit their affluent residents to exert greater political and social influence over their home turf, in Dr. Pila they have the opposite effect, diminishing residents’ power. In privileged communities, gates lock undesirables out; in poor communities, they lock them in. In both cases, gates are erected to serve the interest of the upper classes, who are primarily white. In other words, gates reproduce inequality, and cement or—to use Michel DeCerteau’s term—“politically freeze” social distinctions of race and class.

The same types of structures, different purposes and consequences. This reminds me of the debate regarding the design of public housing projects in the United States: if high-rises hadn’t been the primary choice and public housing agencies instead went with low-rise buildings or New Urbanist type structures, perhaps major problem would not have developed. But, in the case of public housing and gated communities, they can exacerbate existing issues but it is more difficult to claim they cause the issues in the first place.