The Privatization of Community: Implications for Urban Policy

Article excerpt

Appeals to community are usually anti-urban. . . . Throughout the modern period, the city has often been decried as embodying immorality, artificiality, disorder, and danger.

- Iris Young, 1995, 260.

Wealthy and exclusive residential areas closed off from the rest of the population by fences and gated entrances have existed in the United States since the nineteenth century [Kennedy 1995]. Today the "private neighborhood" is no longer limited to the rich. Neighborhoods in middle- and low-income areas have also followed the trend toward privatization. In existing neighborhoods, fences and gates have been installed to restrict access by "outsiders." In new housing developments, access is limited both physically through street design and legally, because the entire neighborhood is privately owned. Inside the "privatized community," street maintenance, recreational facilities, landscaping, planning, and even public safety are controlled and funded by homeowners. In essence, private groups, often composed entirely of unpaid volunteers, have supplanted many local government functions.

The trend toward neighborhood privatization has important policy implications that will affect all urban residents - both inside and outside of the "privatized neighborhood." Relying on homeowners' groups, community activism, and voluntarism will undoubtedly increase individual responsibility as well as the total amount of "social capital" in urban areas - a trend welcomed by many conservative policymakers and urban analysts. However, the quality and scope of this social capital are likely to change dramatically. As individuals become more involved with local neighborhood issues, they may become less concerned about problems in the wider metropolitan area. Increased neighborhood cohesiveness may produce less social involvement at the city level. In addition, neighborhood privatization means the withdrawal of government from the provision of community services. The replacement of government by private groups may not enhance individual freedom and opportunity as conservatives expect. Instead, rules based on the Constitution and political ideals will be replaced by privileges based on income status and property wealth. The following essay begins with an overview of the trend toward neighborhood privatization. The second section addresses the implications for urban policy of the withdrawal of government. The conclusion offers some observations on the risks of the modern "search for community."

The Trend toward Privatization

Poverty, crime, crumbling infrastructure, and inadequate community services are familiar aspects of everyday life in many of America's central cities. Since the 1960s and 1970s, policymakers have fiercely debated the appropriate role of government in providing solutions to these problems. Conservatives insist that government should have little or no role, since the fundamental problems are lack of individual responsibility, a failure of the family, and disintegrating community values. Indeed, libertarians like Charles Murray and Gertrude Himmelfarb claim government efforts have actually made the situation worse by pre-empting individual and community efforts [Murray 1984; Himmelfarb 1994]. In response to the conservative arguments, liberals and progressives counter that placing blame for urban problems entirely on individuals and communities ignores broader social, economic, and historical realities. For example, the decline of manufacturing jobs in central cities, housing segregation, inequalities in educational funding, and the dominance of the private automobile in urban transportation reflect long-standing national trends and policies beyond the control of any local community or urban resident [Wilson 1996].

While neither side in the debate has conceded defeat, the individualistic explanations appear to have gained the upper hand in influencing urban policy. The handful of policy initiatives directed toward urban problems during the 1980s and 1990s has emphasized private enterprise, community empowerment, and individual responsibility. …