doi 10.4067/S0718-83582011000300002


Social Distinction and Residential Habitat in Latin America1


Sonia Roitman2

2 Argentina. Urban sociologist. PhD in Urban and Regional Planning, University College London. Postdoctoral fellowship in Sociology at Freie Universitat Berlin.


The increase of urban insecurity and the fear of crime have triggered the development of gated communities in Latin American cities. This residential model has even attempted to extend its target not only to upper-middle and high socioeconomic groups, but also to lower-middle and low income groups. However, this paper shows how living in gated communities is still related to social distinction and status. This article analyses the main characteristics of gated communities, who their residents are, their daily activities and interests as well as their relation with the city. It is concluded that gated communities are an important element of social distinction and belonging for some social groups.



Introduction: Social inequality in Latin America

Latin America has achieved a stable economic and political situation over the last decade. Even the 2008 financial crisis had a moderate impact in comparison with other regions as a result of massive investment in social spending and welfare, which reduced the vulnerability of the poorest groups (according to ECLAC, social spending increased from 12% in 1990-91 to 18% in 2007-08). Furthermore, poverty has decreased in the region during the last decade (from 44% in 2002 to 32% in 20103) and there has been progress in relation to achieving the A1 Goal of the Millennium Development Goals, which consists in reducing poverty by a half by 2015. This improvement is linked to economic growth and a better distribution of income and wage increase. The Gini coefficient has also showed progress as life conditions have improved. The economy grew 6% in 2010 and it is expected to expand by 4% in 20114. Likewise, unemployment fell from 10.5% in 2000 to 7.3% in 20115; public debt has also decreased.

Despite this macroeconomic improvement, Latin America is still the most unequal region in the world: the richest 20% of the population earns 19 times more than the poorest 20%6. As a result, ECLAC has called for reducing inequality under the motto “Time for Equality” through a social contract between public and private actors7.

Social differences have always been a defining element of Latin American societies. Social hierarchy was clearly established among indigenous cultures prior to the “Conquest” and it continued, even if with other features, with the arrival of Europeans and the consequent expansion of their empires. These social differences were clearly identifiable in the urban space, with the proximity to the main square as the element that revealed social distinction processes: the closer to the main square, the higher positioned the individual or family was within the social hierarchy.

According to Castells8, space is a dimension of society that reflects changes in the social structure. Social differences are expressed in cities and neighborhoods9. Since urban land distribution is based on market rules, higher income groups and well-paid activities have access to the best located areas of the city. Likewise, power management and its distribution influence zoning and urban planning. There are neighborhoods that concentrate upper-class families and neighborhoods that concentrate either middle-class groups or lower-class families. While lower-middle and lower income groups generally live in social housing or informal settlements, in the last 20 years upper-middle and high income groups have shown a tendency to live in the so-called “gated communities.”

Urban space is not only the mirror of social changes, but also reveals structural processes that have been taken place in Latin America during the last decades. The withdrawal of the state, economic deregulation and privatizations encouraged large foreign investments in real estate. In addition, the construction of private highways enabled peri-urban development and urban sprawl. Thus, some authors10 talk about a “fragmented city” when referring to Latin American cities from the 1970s onwards.

This article analyses the development of gated communities in Latin America, especially in Argentina and Mexico. It considers not only the reasons why people choose these housing developments as a place of residence, but also the features of their residents as well as their activities and interests and the way they are related to the city. The paper is based on a qualitative methodology research. Seventy three semi-structured interviews with residents (men, women and children) from different gated communities in Mendoza (Argentina) and Querétaro (Mexico) were carried out between 2003 and 2011.


What are Gated Communities?

Latin American cities have experienced an important urban transformation over the last four decades. As a result of the growth of suburban areas, the former compact city model has given rise to a more fragmented metropolis and “urban islands.”11 These urban islands consist of a series of urban amenities such as shopping centers, private education institutions, private hospitals and gated communities. These spaces are the mirror of the homogenizing trends of globalization, which can be observed in cities worldwide. The development of “urban islands”, and gated communities in particular, increases spatial fragmentation; in the words of Peter Marcuse, cities seem partitioned and their areas as if they have been painfully pulled apart12. Additionally, urban islands contribute to the expansion of the urban area, proving what Jordi Borja13 mentions as the horizontal growth of Latin American cities and the inefficient use of land, which result in the emergence of urban structures located away from the city center.

Despite gated communities do not constitute a new element of the urban landscape –this residential type already existed in some Latin American cities by the first half of the 20th century14 - their most important feature is related to their development and presence in the housing market. These gated communities are seen as a successful product and the goal of an important number of social groups (including those who, despite not having enough financial resources, aspire to live in these spaces even if such effort implies serious financial debts.)

In this sense, it is important to discuss the concept of gated communities and which projects comply with the features according to most common definitions of this residential type. As it was previously mentioned15, there is no single definition of this housing project and their characteristics vary according to geographical conditions. However, there are elements that are common to most used definitions. Such elements are walls and fences that surround residential areas, barriers or security guards that restrict access and control the entry of residents, workers and non residents. Within this area it is possible to find single housing units (and sometimes high-rise buildings), and sport and social infrastructure for common use. There are construction and coexistence regulations that control daily life; these guidelines are put into practice by the residents’ association, which is the governmental entity of the neighborhood. In most cases, there is also a manager emulating the role of a mayor in a small case territory. Residents must pay a monthly or annual fee that covers security and gardening expenses, as well as the maintenance of common areas.

The significant development of gated communities over the last two decades triggered the diversification of the housing market. The analysis of gated communities in Argentina shows that, in addition to the “countries” (which already existed by the 1970s), there are “private neighborhoods” which privilege security over social amenities. This type of gated communities flourished between the 1990s and the 2000s. “Farm neighborhoods” are another different type of housing development that emerged during this period; they are located away from the city and have large plots. “Marinas”, located by the riverside and lakes, have important amenities to practice water activities and sports. “Garden towers” are high-rise buildings and are located in central areas of the city, increasing urban density; they have high quality sport amenities such as swimming pools, gyms and five-a-side football. “Condominiums”, the newest of all housing developments, privilege security over social amenities. Finally, the “mega-project” is a series of gated neighborhoods and “condominiums” featuring important collective amenities16. This typology of gated communities is commonly used to analyze the Argentinean case, which is one of the countries where this housing product has succeeded. Several of these concepts could be used to study other Latin American experiences. However, it is important to mention that the absence of a unique definition regarding gated communities hinders international comparison and the application of common theoretical and methodological frameworks.

Despite most Argentinean gated communities are aimed at families with children, an important number of single people and families without children live in “condominiums” and “garden towers”, revealing the changes that have taken place in the composition of Argentinean households over the last decades.

As far as location is concerned, most gated communities (except from “garden towers”) are located in peri-urban areas, as developers need large portions of land at reduced prices to produce an expensive product that is offered as affordable to middle and high income groups. Since the city outskirts used to be the place of residence of lower social groups through self-helping, the establishment of informal settlements and the construction of social housing, Latin America, unlike the United States of America, experienced a “late peri-urbanization” process of middle and upper-middle income groups. In this sense, it is worth mentioning the reflection of Arizaga on the “suburbanization of elites”17 and the possibility that the suburb may constitute part of this “special type of consumption defined as ‘luxury.’”18

Also in relation to their location, it is important to think about the environmental impact of these housing developments, as the use of large portions of land implies the transformation of agricultural land, and even environmentally protected areas, into urban land. For instance, in the Metropolitan Area of Mendoza, one of the areas where the best grapes are produced turned out to be the area that presented the highest rates of urban development; as a result, the wine industry has been continuously affected by the real estate activity, which is seen by investors as more profitable. Likewise, gated communities are criticized by environmental groups due to their inefficient use of water resources -to maintain large green areas (including golf courses) and swimming pools.

As for the socioeconomic level of their residents, while some authors point out that gated communities are aimed at middle and upper-middle groups19, others identify gated communities aimed at lower income groups20. However, it is difficult to think that low income groups can afford to pay monthly or annual fees; therefore, it could be possible to talk about “pseudo-gated communities, that is to say, residential developments that emulate gated communities. This variation of residential type is built within an enclosed perimeter and, in some cases, there are guards watching the main entrance; however, housing is of poorer in smaller land plots with few or inexistent social amenities, as residents either cannot afford to pay maintenance fees or the collected amount only covers security expenses. Additionally, this variation of gated communities lack both an association of residents and a manager in charge of the community and only few of them have in practice construction and coexistence regulations. In these cases, urban developers offer their products as gated communities, even if they do not present the main characteristics of the real ones. Mexico’s Casas Geo21, a company focused on middle and lower-middle income groups, illustrates this situation: “If you want to live in a gated community, you have to belong to a middle level because not many people have access to gated communities; this is part of the problem…” (Esperanza, a resident of a gated community located in Querétaro, Mexico.)

Finally, it is worth noting that it could be possible to talk about the homogeneity of residents of gated communities. In this context, although there are differences regarding age, cultural and educational levels, values and religion, all residents of gated communities may be considered as a homogeneous group if compared with the social structure as a whole. What are their interests, motivations and activities? How do they make use of the city? These are some of the characteristics that homogenize this group of people and are further discussed in this article.

In sum, the main characteristics of gated communities are:


Gated Communities in Latin America

In Latin America, the development of gated communities has been related to several factors. During the 1950s and 1960s, all gated communities built in Buenos Aires (Argentina) were related to the need to belong, exclusivity and social status. In fact, the quest for higher status is still one of the reasons that justify the expansion of this type of housing. Security and protection are also reasons that boosted the development of gated communities; this is the case of Colonia de los Militares (Colonia General Arce), located in El Salvador, which was thought to protect residents against the guerrilla22 or the construction of self-sufficient, isolated residential complexes for high skilled workers of oil companies in Venezuela23.

Gated communities emerged in Lima (Perú) as a security strategy against terrorism and violence24. In Brazil, gated communities were the response to the growing urban insecurity and the rise of crime25. Likewise, urban insecurity was one of the factors that increased the expansion of gated communities in Colombia; in addition, urban developers built and improved urban highways, increased private transport and hired clever developers that were able to place in the market this type of housing supply26. In Argentina, the first gated community was built in the 1930s and was related to elitist sports and outdoor activities. Most recently, gated communities have been related to the increase of urban insecurity27. However, this article goes beyond these reasons and poses the assumption that the development of gated communities and residential choice should be seen as elements that determine social distinction.

Since gated communities are not regarded as a special type of housing and considered like this in the urban construction records, there are not official figures about their number in Latin America. Additionally, most of national censuses do not consider housing units according to whether they are located or not in within gated communities. As a result, all information regarding gated communities is retrieved from local governments and field researchers. For instance, in the case of Mexico, there were 20 gated communities in Guadalajara before 199428. Toluca (and likewise Puebla) had 12 gated communities29. From 2000 onwards, these projects began to spread in a large number of Mexican cities. There are more than a hundred gated communities built in northern border cities where they are considered as “the only residential option.” In Tijuana, these housing developments are related to social exclusiveness, as they are located in peri-urban mountain areas that are difficult to reach from downtown (and therefore more exclusive)30. Mexico City, especially Santa Fe area, has experienced the expansion of this type of housing. There are also gated communities in El Salvador31, Colombia32 and Ecuador. According to Borsdorf33 there were 27 communities in Quito (Ecuador) by 2000. Likewise, Montevideo had 10 of these housing developments in 200334.

In the case of Chile, according to the literature, this type of housing has succeeded among certain social groups over the last two decades. By 2000, there were more than 700 gated communities in Santiago35 and about 300 developments in Valparaiso back in 200736. However, these figures should be carefully taken into consideration as, according to the multiple definitions of gated communities, many of Chilean cases would be regarded as horizontal property or social housing and not gated communities.

Gated communities have become massive in Brazil and Argentina. It is difficult to calculate the number of projects in large and intermediate cities in Brazil; however, the great number of articles on this topic reveals the importance of gated communities within the urban landscape37. In the case of Argentina, although there is no accurate information about gated communities, it is possible to estimate that there are at least 500 projects in the Metropolitan Area of Buenos Aires; additionally, an important number of communities have been built in intermediate cities such as Rosario, Cordoba and Mendoza.


Factors Influencing Residential Localization

According to the literature, the main reasons why people choose to live in gated communities are:

a) economic globalization, increase of foreign direct investments and increase of urban social inequality38

b) the withdrawal of the state from the provision of basic social services (in this case, mainly security), the increase of urban insecurity and private security services39

c) the increase of the sense of insecurity and fear of crime40

d) search for a better lifestyle (more contact with nature and places located away from the city)41

e) search for better services and economic preferences related to the price of land and housing42

f) search for sense of community43

g) search for social homogeneity44

h) search for a higher social status and social distinction among certain social groups45

However, when asked about the factors that led them to live in gated communities, residents mentioned not all the reasons presented in the aforementioned list. In this way, the gaps between the explicit reasons people give to living in ‘fenced places’ and deeper reasons related to the need to belong and social distinction is revealed.

Insecurity is the first reason given by residents when asked about gated communities. This reason is not only the most common among people (regardless if they have been victim of crime or not), but also it is the most socially accepted. This reason is shared by people living in cities with high crime and marginality rates and also by people from ‘secure’ cities.

Alfonso 46(resident of a gated community located in Mendoza, Argentina) explained: “We both [he and his wife] have a high workload. I’m away from home most of the time and the kids are at home alone a lot; there is a lady in the house until noon, but then the kids are left alone until six in the evening, when Mari [his wife] arrives at home; I get home at 8pm… and well, we looked for something safe because we already had a history of theft… One of my kids was beaten and his bike stolen where we previously lived…”

Juana, who has been living in a gated community in Querétaro (Mexico) for 15 years, said that, although they decided to live in that community because of its proximity to shops and the availability of good roads connections, security has turned out to be an important element: “I know three families here who chose this gated community as a place of residence due to kidnappings in other cities.”

Estefanía, a resident of a gated community located in Querétaro, gave her personal experience: “We had a great disadvantage, which is that Jorge, our only child, was not able to play outdoors because the area outside our home was an open space, it was a sloped street and his security was a matter of concern to us. In addition, Jorge and his friends had different education levels and maybe those kids spent most of the time out on the streets, and as we did not want our child to live in such environment, we decided to sell our house and started looking for [a house] in this area, which is convenient for us for distance reasons.” In this way, it is possible to see that residents mention elements other than security, as in this case, in which the aspired education and socialization for Jorge were the reasons that made Estefania’s family to change their residential location.

In Mexico, some residents of gated communities are people from Mexico City who decided to move to intermediate nearby cities (like Querétaro) for security reasons. In this process, people take with them the idea of “living in a gated community” even if they move to secure cities: “I moved from Mexico City to here because it is a chaotic place and I was looking for gated community in Querétaro, which is a really nice and quiet place, this is how I found EC47” (Paulina, resident of a gated community in Querétaro, Mexico.)

Security, even in cases where it was not the reason that governed the decision of living in gated communities, is always mentioned by residents as one of the advantages of this residential type: “The advantages of living in a gated community are the possibility of having open spaces and I think that also security, the extension of land and the green areas are important, the kids really take advantage of these features” (Andrés, resident of a gated community located in Querétaro.)

Jose (who lives in a gated community in Mendoza) commented the reasons that made him choose their place of living: “Firstly, it was the search for a place that featured not only security, which is important, but also an area that enabled the development of outdoor activities… a place like “the neighborhood”, open spaces, meeting neighbors, and enjoying those places… places like these are difficult to find; then security obviously and then, also, in third place, the issue of [being] an investment… “In this case, the concept of security goes along the need of recovering the neighborhood as a space for socialization; likewise, housing is seen as an investment, which is one of the most valuable private assets that a family or an individual may have.

As far as socialization is concerned, the ideas of belonging and social homogeneity are also mentioned by residents. In the case of social homogeneity, Samuel (resident of a gated community in Mendoza) said: “I think some people search for this like… some seek certain schools for their children, not because they are better schools, but… because they have a particular social status, this is not my case, but I know many who think like this…” Clara, who lives in a prestigious gated community of Mendoza, commented on the reasons to live there, “what I hear, but it is not my case, [is] that it is safer, and then to belong to certain groups, to identify with them… Look, something symptomatic happens to me: I can say I live in Godoy Cruz48 or in P. If I say in Godoy Cruz I’m an unreliable and lazy person and if I say in P. I am special. Also I am very careful to say so within certain groups because I know that it has quite an impact, it is like it’s a rich person and rich equals happy, equals without problems, and this also unleashes a bit of envy, and that they see you as being a bit different.”

The idea of distinction, of seeing oneself different from or of appearing different or distinct thus emerges (consciously or unconsciously, assumed as one’s own or… associated with others but not oneself.) Caldeira49 says that the construction of status symbols is a process that enables the creation of social differences and mechanisms that increase social distance and inequality. In this sense, the perimeter walls and security devices of gated communities are the first element to reinforce social distinction.

Esperanza (resident of what is considered by some people the ‘best gated community of Querétaro’) commented: “Many people live here because they love saying ‘I live in EC’… or that people see their car, or that we have a neighbor with a Rolls Royce, the car of so and so,… there’s the site for their children to play on one side and the six guaruras50 outside and it’s like ‘hello! Look at me.” I think these are times to raise awareness because behind these attitudes we are being very aggressive with the environment, but some people like that: ‘I am so and so and I live here and I do this and that’…” Victor (resident of a gated community in Mendoza) for example said, “I did not move to P. because of social status…” but later in the same interview he claimed: “Living in P. is a sign of my professional success as a lawyer.”

In this sense, the place of residence is the mirror of professional success and, even in crisis (like the loss of job), many of these families struggle to continue in this group. Soledad shares her experience as a foreigner living in Mendoza: “Appearance is essential in Mendoza… I see people that pretend they are richer than anyone, but this is not the case… I realized that many people do not have enough money and, despite not paying their expenses, they live in P, have the four wheel drive off-road and attend private schools; however, they do not pay the tuition fees and live like the royal family.”

It is interesting to note the role played by consumption and the need of demonstrating economic power through the acquisition of goods and services. In the words of Bourdin, in today’s society, consumption has become a “value in itself” and a “widely shared vision of the world”51 . According to this author, people are forced to define their place within a social configuration; consumption plays an important role in this process. Juana (from Querétaro, Mexico) mentioned: “… living in a gated community, ehh I mean I live here [but]… I do not agree on many things, for example… to live in a private place, the cars, having one or two maids, two girls that help you [with the housework], that is not for me, but… the majority within a gated community have a driver, the convenience of other services, things brought to your doorstep… I don’t know, the water, I don’t know if having a driver, having more… sometimes it encloses you in many conveniences.”

Antonieta used to live in a gated community in Mendoza but due to financial problems, after two and a half years she found herself forced to sell her house and moved to a lower socioeconomic neighborhood located in the old area of the city. Commenting on that situation she said: “At the time [when they bought the plot] things were really good… we were not in a good position, but we were ok, we had good jobs… [we bought the plot]… And then, we sold our house, we rented, and within two years we were living [there]… of course we left without finishing [building the house]… We have enjoyed [the house]… But then what happened is that as the situation was becoming more difficult, we had to… my son, who was… renting an apartment, also came to live in my house in P.” Later in the interview Antonieta added: “When I moved in there [the gated community], I touched the sky with my hands…” This lady’s narrative reflects the family strategies to achieve the so desired house and the struggle to ‘resist the fall.’

In her analysis of gated communities in Buenos Aires, Arizaga52 talks about the need of many residents of constructing a belonging group and use the residence as a distinction and belonging element. In this sense, Svampa53 argues that spatial segregation by the confinement in gated communities is one of the strategies developed by the ‘winners’, who are those who succeeded in adapted to new work and economic conditions. The experience of Antonieta illustrates the impossibility to remain in a determined “level” as she somehow recognizes: “we are a middle-class family and thanks to our effort we were able to become what we are now. However, it is clear that there are people who have large amounts of money and there are people who do not” (Antonieta.)

The concepts of professional success and distinction are strongly influenced by the marketing strategies of developers who offer houses in gated communities with messages such as “Residencial El Parque, houses for future winners”;“El Campanario: Life smiles at you”; “Think about life seen from another perspective, think about living surrounded by nature, opening your window and enjoying the green you always dreamt of, sitting in your garden looking at the mountains.”54 These messages reflect some of the reasons why gated communities are sought as a residential option, as mentioned earlier.

After analyzing the factors that lead people to live in gated communities, it is important to examine the characteristics of their residents which identify them as a specific social group; in addition to their activities, interests, values and the perception of the city they have.


Who are Gated Community Residents?

Although gated communities have local characteristics, as they meet the needs, interests and preferences of local population, they are part of a global tendency promoted by developers through marketing campaigns. In many cases, a specific design is replicated in different countries. Most of Latin American designs are influenced by models from the United States; these not only include the same design and landscape, but also similar names.

But gated community residents are also ‘global’ people, as they have personal or professional links with other countries, have travelled abroad, have friends or relatives living abroad, adopt foreign customs and consume foreign goods. In this case, the concept of “transnational upper classes” could be applied55. This definition refers to a spatially autonomous group that is not bound to a spatial place and can easily move from one country to another thanks to their professional skills and the job they perform, however they may prefer to stay in one geographically determined area (country or city.) According to Weiss, these groups have more than one nationality, which enables them to travel around the world; people with one nationality belong to places that are positively accepted by foreign governments. In most of these cases people are educated in prestigious institutions and there is a special interest in receiving western customs. Svampa56 highlights that residents of gated communities work in the services area and have important positions in organizational structures.

It is important to point out that, despite the differences regarding interests, values, education, age, family type and income within residents of gated communities, this group of people is homogeneous when compared to the society as a whole57.

Furthermore, although income is a characteristic element of residents of gated communities, when asked about their own characteristics, this group does not mention this monetary factor (in some cases this item is minimized), instead, elements such as family structure or the place of origin are mentioned. Estefanía (who lives in a gated community in Querétaro) talks about her neighbors: “About 70% are young married couples; they are between 25 and 45 [years old], the rest are older couples; all of them are of middle socioeconomic level.” Marianela (Mendoza) says that her neighbors are “mainly young professionals with small kids.” In addition, Juana (from Querétaro) refers to residents of gated communities as “quiet people who search for a place like this to live because their kids can play freely, ride bikes; they have a good purchasing power and are educated people. Esteban (who lives in a gated community in Mendoza) added: “There are many new families; many kids and then other families who are middle-aged or old couples that moved here for safety reasons; they want to live here for the rest of their lives; they are kind and friendly people, as far as I’m concerned, I have not had any problem with my neighbors.”

Guillermo (a gated community resident from Querétaro) talks about the origin of residents as an important element when it comes to choosing this type of housing: “I think people like gated communities because they come from outside [other cities]; also some residents of gated communities come from violent cities so they look for a place that offers security; for instance, things are hard in the north of the country because of drug trafficking, as a result, you start seeing car number plates from the north here.

However, there are people that acknowledge and refer to the high socioeconomic level of gated communities residents. Thus, Andrés (from a gated community in Querétaro) said: “Despite being a heterogeneous group, there are some basic conditions such as high socioeconomic level, with high salaries, high purchasing power; living there means high spending levels; this group share a type of life, they play golf or take part in different activities… there are foreigners; there are also people who do not take part in the religious activities of the church located outside the gated community, people who do not have anything to do with the school located outside here and their children are enrolled in a different school.” This description reveals a certain level of heterogeneity as far as activities and places of origin are concerned; however, if they are analyzed in relation to these “basic conditions”, there are characteristics that homogenize this group of people.

As for daily activities carried out by residents of gated communities, the analysis shows that there are almost no chances of interaction with “different people.” In the case of adults, only those who take part in public organizations (such as social services or charity organizations) or religious activities through the Catholic Church have contact with people from different socioeconomic backgrounds or different interests; with the exception of the interaction with the people who work as cleaners in their houses or security guards and gardeners within the gated community.

Additionally, the decline of education quality and the shortage of human and financial resources have led to the rise of private education in Argentina. A large number of people who studied in state institutions and experienced the advantages of an inclusive educational system have opted now for their children to attend private establishments; in this case, educational quality is privileged over the possibility of increasing social contact. As for Mexico, the social gap has historically been more important and more acute and therefore private education is a defining element of social distinction. Del Cueto58, who analyzed the educational practices of children from gated communities in Buenos Aires (Argentina), says that the school and the neighborhood used to be places that allowed the mix of different social groups; in these institutions, socialization models were based on the social integration of diversity. This author points out that dynamics have dramatically changed and, as homogeneity among social groups increases, the social distance among different groups increases as well. Children from Argentinean and Mexican gated communities attend secular or religious private schools. Most of them take advantage of full-day schooling and the learning of foreign language. These are key elements for their future development as professionals.

Some parents (even if they are not the majority) expressed some are concerned about the lack of social contact of their children and other social groups. This was more evident in Argentina (than in Mexico) where there are still strong remnants of the advantages of an inclusive society and where there are still some strategies for social integration and the encouragement of diversity among some adults. In some cases, some schools carry out social activities, as expressed by Juana: “most of schools in Queretaro are involved in social activities, some kids visit abused children’s shelters and they knit scarves or buy goods for the elderly people; for instance, my children visited deprived neighborhoods and shared food with others, schools are focused on these activities.” However, these opportunities of socialization occur just once a year.

There are three elements that emerge when it comes to analyzing the mobility of residents of gated communities: they do not use the city center, do not use public transport and they understand the city from a utilitarian perspective.

Most of gated community residents move around different areas of the city in order to carry out daily activities; however, they try not to go to the downtown unless they perform leisure activities such as meeting with friends, going out for dinner or clubbing. They refer to the city center as a crowded and congested place; this group of people uses other city areas such as alternative shopping areas. But it is important to point out that there are some exceptions; for instance, the historical center of Queretaro is still regarded by different groups as a place to “go for a stroll” on Sundays.

As for the use of the city center, Guillermo says: “we rarely go to the city center, this November we went to celebrate the Day of the Dead and visit shrines, we took the girls with us. Sometimes we visited the downtown if the girls want to see something in particular; however, we try to avoid going there, as this is a very congested place in which parking becomes very difficult.” In addition, Esperanza (who like Guillermo lives in a gated community in Querétaro) says she goes to the city center from time to time: “If we have guests, we always go downtown to have a walk or eating out, I enjoy showing the city to people who know little about Querétaro.”

A large number of those interviewed in Mendoza used to live in the downtown area before moving to gated communities. They try to avoid going to the center of the city, “it [our apartment] was located in the city center. I used to go out for a drink with the children and walk in the street, and now the kids are not used to walk in the streets anymore… I see people that are afraid of walking in the street as they lost the habit of walking through San Martin Street59 that was so common for us. Now all seems strange to them, this is a big disadvantage of gated communities… The ability of children to walk in the street as we used to do it” (Carina.) Camila added: “I used to go downtown because I used to live there, now I rarely go there, my husband sometimes visits the city center… I don’t need anything there, I always feel insecure there… I don’t like the traffic and the people that clean your windshield, I don’t enjoy going to the downtown.”

Gated community residents from Querétaro and Mendoza who were interviewed do not use public transport for their daily activities. In the case of children, their parents take them to school by car every day. Young people who do not have a driver license yet use their parents as chauffeurs; in some cases, some of them have their own private family chauffeur. Most young people who are allowed to drive have their own vehicle to move around the city (especially in the Mexican case.) Some youngsters even said they had never taken a bus. This was also mentioned by Rojas60, who studied teenagers living in gated communities in the Metropolitan Area of Buenos Aires. This author shows the experience of a 18 year old girl who had never used public transport as example of his research. Juana from Querétaro explained: “We take rounds with other mum; and most girls who are the same age as Estefi, who is 17 years old, have a car; for instance, most of Estefi’s friends have one. They use cars to go to school, to the movies, to everywhere, most people who live here [in gated communities] have vehicles; for instance, a 5 member family has four cars.”

All adults use vehicles as a means of transport. The only public transport they use are radio-taxis; some women who do not drive use this transport on a regular basis.

When asked about the reasons why they do not use public transport, gated community residents are divided into two groups: those who say public transport is inefficient and insecure and those who feel uncomfortable in front of “different people.” As for the first group, Carla (who lives in a gated community in Mendoza) talks about her routine: “I use the vehicle to take the children to school, which is located in downtown, by car every day. I drive 120km every day! I prefer doing this because I feel more relaxed. If I let them take the bus, they might run the risk of being kidnapped.” Additionally Inés, who lives in the same place than Carla, talks about the disadvantages of public transport: “Buses are not comfortable, you have to walk at least six blocks from my home to the bus stop and probably 10 or 20 blocks if you live further up… I’m not sure about the effectiveness of this means of transport.”

Juana, who is from Argentina but has been living in Mexico for more than 20 years, compares the public transport system of both countries: “Public transport is slow [in Mexico], people travel in crowded conditions and most of people have vehicles, they are not used to walking; this situation is completely different when compared to the Argentinean case. It is insecure… social classes are well-defined, when I came here, I spent six years taking the bus and people looked at me like saying ‘what on earth is she doing here?’ Today things are a bit different but there are still social divisions. There are people who only take taxis and there are others that use vehicles to go to the club [club-house located within gated communities.]”

Likewise, Esperanza, who is from Spain and has been living in Mexico for 35 years, gives her opinion regarding public transport: “I have experienced uncomfortable situations, I remember when I was pregnant and a man said to me ‘what a beautiful belly, I make beautiful bellies too.’ Sometimes I got my bottom pinched, received rude compliments or had my breasts touched, I did not want to drive but then I understood this was how things worked here; however, I taught my children how to use public transport, in fact, my son lives in the Federal District and do not have a vehicle (he does not want to have one), he uses public transport... bus, metro, taxi… walking… he doesn’t want to have a car”

As it was pointed out by Juana and Esperanza, while in Mexico the use of public transport is determined by social classes, the Argentinean case shows that maybe, because of the better quality of the service, public transport is not only used by those who do not have a car, but also by middle-class groups who try to avoid the traffic of the downtown and the high costs of parking and fuel. Argentinean youngsters who live in gated communities use public transport more regularly than Mexican people. It is difficult for them to move around the city and depend on their parents to do so, this is why they use this kind of transport. Fernando, who lives in a gated community in Mendoza, comments: “I either use the bus or walk”, Julieta (also from Mendoza) adds: “Sometimes I travel by bus, sometimes I use the car or my friends come to pick me up to go to work.” Alfonso (another Mendocinean resident) thinks about the situation of his three children: “We take them to school and their grandparents take them home, we try to organize the schedules… sometimes the eldest one uses the bus to visit her friends.”

Since gated communities are surrounded places, public transport cannot go inside. Some of these gated communities (but only a few) have their own private transport system that takes residents and workers within the same development or to the main gate; in some cases, these services take residents to the city center. Samuel, resident of a gated community located in Mendoza and member of the residents’ association said: “For security reasons, it would be unthinkable to allow public transport systems in the neighborhood; we would not be able to control buses and passengers.”

The way gated community residents perceive the city is another is another element that emerges when the everyday life this group of people is analyzed. The city is understood in a utilitarian way, and not as a social entity. In most of cases, the city is associated with the satisfaction of basic needs such as housing, work, health, education and leisure and therefore a place where some services are provided. Thus the city is not seen as a place aimed at promoting integration and social diversity. In this sense, Arizaga61 foresees a “qualitative change of space use”, which replaces the paradigm of the city as a place where people interact with ‘other’ people based on the European concept of the ‘open’ city.

Svampa62 also mentions the crisis of this “open” city model, which was based on the idea of the public space that allowed for social integration, interdependence and interaction among different people. According to this author, the current model is based on the American concept of the ‘closed’ city, in which private citizenship prevails. It seems that the city is giving away its social function and is focused on economic and cultural aspects, as the city is still the place where cultural activities are carried out, even if these initiatives are flourishing beyond central areas. According to Bourdin63, this is the process of moving from understanding the city as a social order based on the spatial organization, to understand it as a ‘supply system’ related to the supply of professional activities, jobs, services, products, relationships and meanings.

Paulina, who lives in a gated community in Querétaro said: “I think you need a large number of services such as restaurants, shops, clubs and neighborhoods to build a city; unlike those very small places where you don’t have such services, supers [supermarkets]…- the city is a place to have fun and build knowledge, as there are spaces focused on cultural activities; it is possible to have access to cinemas, theatres and better schools and universities.” Bernardo (also from Querétaro) believes: “The city is a population center: places for people to work, places for people to study, places where people can have fun, these can be parks, cinemas, theatres and conference halls, stadiums, all those things” (Bernardo, Queretaro.) Jerónimo (who lives in another gated community from Querétaro) thinks that a city “should ideally have modern infrastructure that suits the needs of residents, for instance, public transport, especially the massive one, which is of poor quality… and all roads were in good condition; ten years ago, but when the city began to grow and since the government did not build new roads, traffic became congested; now there are new roads under construction.

Very few respondents commented on the ‘social aspect’ of cities. Andrés was one of those few ones: “For me, the city is like a hub, it is like a living organ… the city is a center of coexistence… I reject the ideas of ghettos and apartheids… Maybe it is a bit idealistic but it is what I believe it should be… an organic living center where there is a harmonious social cohesion that allows everyone to satisfy their needs.” When asked if this situation occurs in Mexican cities, Andrés answered: “I think it might be found, maybe not in Querétaro… for example there are many cities in Mexico and even Mexico City itself where diverse people live together, different groups live in nearby territories… you see in Mexico City neighborhoods that coexist with others which are socially and economically very different, yet they interact and that makes the City of Mexico, for example, interesting, now with serious problems, like public transport… here in Mexico it is also an issue of socio-cultural differences, the country has starched differences, but nevertheless I think you have interesting examples of large communities who live (and will eventually permeate to other areas) next to other communities; I think we should aspire to that because it is part of what a city must aspire to…”

This last comment reinforces the role of the city as a place of social integration and the place that a large number of people, even gated community residents, aspire to live in. This is what Frug64 calls “community construction”; this concept is not related to social groups sharing characteristics and values, but to the ideal concept of urban life developed by Yris Young65. Such concept implies social relationship among different people who, despite sharing problems and interests, do not develop identification and reciprocity.

As David Harvey66 points out, the way we live the city determines our position in the world and how we think and act within it.



This article revealed the development and characteristics of gated communities in Latin America, as well as the reasons why this type of housing, which is aimed at upper and upper-middle income groups, became an element of social distinction and status. The development of gated communities shapes a social model that favors social homogeneity and contact among equals within a reduced social and spatial environment. Influenced by marketing campaigns, some people identify this residential type as a consumption item that ensures social status and the sense of belonging to a specific social group. Likewise, there is a “struggle to belong” to a particular social group, in which factors such as education, friendships and the place of residence are elements that determine social status. Residents of gated communities, apart from sharing demographical and social characteristics, thus becoming a socially homogeneous group, have similar practices and values such as the reluctance to use the city center or public transport, the enrolment in private schools sports centers and the utilitarian conception of the city as far as the supply of goods and services are concerned. The city loses its social function and only focuses on economic aspects.

The risk of the development of gated communities is related to their environmental, urban and social unsustainability and their contribution to the city67 and social relationships with the creation of restricted spaces which hinder social integration and diversity. The withdrawal from social activities (such as the use of the downtown) or other urban practices (use of public transport) that are anticipated in socially sustainable cities create lack of interest in services that used to meet the needs of society. Some people can satisfy their needs in a different way because they have access to private services and therefore there is no interest in the condition of public urban space and the quality of public services, such as transport. This situation increases the social gap and reinforces the “rich-private” and “poor-public” conceptualizations.

Urban sustainability, better access to services and the improvement of urban space are elements that should be taken into consideration to reduce urban social inequality in Latin America, as mentioned in the beginning of this article. Macroeconomic improvement is an aspect that contributes to reduce social gaps; however, there is also a need for urban policies aimed at improving public transport and maintaining public urban spaces in order to ensure equal access to the city and its activities; in this way, the city may be again a place promoting social integration and diversity.



1 This article presents the results of two research projects. The first is a doctoral research, Roitman (2008); the second one is a postdoctoral project that is part of the group "Between Spaces" (Institute for Latin American Studies, Berlin Free University, 2010-2011.)
3 Bárcena, Alicia, 2011.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 ECLAC, 2010.
7 Bárcena, Alicia, 2011.
8 Castells, Manuel, 2001.
9 Marcuse, Peter, 2003.
10 Ver Borsdorf, Axel, 2003.
11 Duhau, Emilio and Giglia, Angela, 2008.
12 Marcuse, Peter, 2003.
13 Borja, Jordi, 2003.
14 The Tortugas Country Club was built back in the 30s and it is the oldest gated community in Argentina.
15 Roitman, Sonia, 2004.
16 For more details regarding gated communities in Argentina, see Roitman (2008).
17 Torres, Horacio, 1998.
18 Arizaga, Cecilia, 2004:14.
19 Caldera, Teresa, 2000; Svampa, Maristella, 2001; Roitman, Sonia, 2008.
20 Blakely, Edward and Snyder, Mary Gail, 1997.
21 For more information go to
22 Baires, Sonia, 2003.
23 Bracho de Machado, Diana, Faría Larrazabali, Carmen and Paredes de López, María, 2007.
24 Plöger, Jörg, 2006.
25 Geraiges de Lemos, Amalia, Capuano Scariato, Francisco and Pérez Machado, Reinaldo, 2002.
26 Ortiz-Gómez, Andres, 2002.
27 Roitman, Sonia, 2008.
28 Cabrales Barajas, Luis Felipe and Canosa Zamora, Elio, 2002.
29 Rodríguez Chumillas, Isabel and Mollá Ruiz-Gómez, Manuel, 2002.
30 Enríquez Acosta, Jesús A., 2007.
31 Lungos and Baires, Sonia, 2001.
32 Ortíz-Gómez, Andres, 2001.
33 Borsdorf, Axel, 2002.
34 Alvarez, María José, 2005.
35 Borsdorf, Axel and Hidalgo, Rodrigo, 2004
36 Borsdorf, Axel, Hidalgo, Rodrigo and Sánchez, Ricardo, 2207.
37 Caldeira, Teresa, 2000; de Lima Ramírez, J.C., and Ribeiro Soares, B., 2002; Geraiges de Lemos, Amalia; Capuano Scariato, Francisco and Pérez Machado, Reinaldo, 2002; Rodrigues Joares, Paulo R., 2002; Rodrigues, Silvia, 2006.
38 Sassen, Saskia, 1991; Svampa, Maristella, 2004.
39 Caldeira, Teresa, 2000; Arizaga, Cecilia, 2005.
40 Helsey, Robert W. and Strange, William C., 1999.
41 Svampa, Maristella, 2001; Cabrales Barajas, Luis Felipe and Canosa Zamora, Elio, 2001.
42 Webster, Chris, 2001; Coy, Martin and Pohler, Martin, 2002.
43 Wilson-Doenges, Georgina, 2002.
44 Svampa, Maristella, 2001; Arizaga, Cecilia, 2005.
45 Blakely, Edward d. and Snyder, Mary Gail, 1997; Caldeira, Teresa, 2000; Svampa, Maristella, 2001.
46 Interviewees are given false names here and throughout the whole article to protect their identities.
47 Initials were used to protect the anonymity of gated communities.
48 Godoy Cruz is one of the six municipalities that constitute the Metropolitan Area of Mendoza. P is a gated community located in Godoy Cruz.
49 Caldeira, Teresa, 2000.
50 Guaruras are private personal bodyguards in Mexico.
51 Bourdin, Alain, 2007: 52.
52 Arizaga, Cecilia, 2005.
53 Svampa, Maristella, 2001.
54 The first two messages are advertising of gated communities located in Queretaro, Mexico. The third message is an advertising of the real estate group La Vacherie (Mendoza, Argentina) (06/19/2011).
55 Weiss, Anja, 2005.
56 Svampa, Maristella, 2001.
57 Roitman, Sonia, 2008.
58 Del Cueto, Carla, 2007.
59 San Martin st is the main street of Mendoza's downtown.
60 Rojas, Patricia, 2007.
61 Arizaga, Cecilia, 2003:8.
62 Svampa, Maristella, 2001.
63 Bourdin, Alain, 2007.
64 Frug, Gerald, 1999.
65 Young, Iris, 1990.
66 Harvey, David, 2006.
67 See Roitman, Sonia and Phelps, Nicholas, 2011.


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Received: 07.03.11.
Accepted: 10.06.11.