Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Proprietary Residential Communities in the United States

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Proprietary Residential Communities in the United States

Article excerpt

Processes of globalization and postmodernization, contextualized at the urban scale by increasing cultural diversity, social polarization, residential segregation, and political fragmentation, together with critical social trends promoting individualism, materialism, and consumerism, combine to reconfigure the form and functions of metropolitan regions in the United States. In the context of the changing residential geography of urban America, proprietary residential communities (PRCS) or common-interest developments (CIDS), and their associated residential community associations (RCAS) and homeowner associations (HOAS), are the dominant form of housing development in many metropolitan regions. The PRC or CID is a community organized on the principles of shared ownership of community property, facilities, and space; private-land-use controls through conditions, conventions, and restrictions (CC & RS); private government via an RCA or an HOA; and master planning. As Spencer Heath (1957, 82) observed, "the entire community is operated for and not by its inhabitants. Other than good behavior they have no obligation beyond making the agreed or customary payments for the services they receive."

The rapid growth and spread of PRC/CIDS and RCA/HOAS have fomented academic and political debate. The majority of assessments have focused on the drawbacks of the PRC/CID-RCA/HOA phenomenon (Davis 1990; Sorkin 1992; McKenzie 1994; Bell 1998a; Blakely and Snyder 1999; Damstra 2001; Sandercock 2002; Low 2003). Polarized positions have been adopted. From one extreme, Mike Davis (1990) portrays PRC/CIDS as part of an apocalyptic vision of urban social disintegration resulting from privatization and residential segregation. From the other extreme, Fred Foldvary (1994) depicts PRC/CIDS as an ideal form of urban development that protects property rights and ensures efficient provision of public services. Protagonists speak different languages: Proponents emphasize rational choice theory, invoking values of efficiency, contract, and freedom of choice; opponents focus on normative theory, invoking values of social capital, resource redistribution, and civic responsibility.

This interpretive disjunction indicates a need to reexamine the phenomenon in order to comprehend fully the meaning and impacts of the PRC/CID-RCA/HOA form of residential development on the form and functioning of the contemporary U.S. city. This proposition is supported by three principal factors. First, it is suggested here that use of normative theory as a basis for critique has resulted in a partial and unbalanced interpretation of the role of PRC/CIDS and RCA/HOAS. The predominantly negative representations of PRC/CIDS are grounded in an idealistic view of contemporary society and an outdated conceptualization of citizenship. Second, negative critique of PRC/CIDS has attained the status of conventional wisdom in some areas of critical social science. This paradigmatic position is strengthened by a deep-seated academic reluctance to challenge critiques embedded in normative views of society that are held to be "socially responsible." Thus, residential segregation and PRC/CIDS are represented as socially divisive and undemocratic, and any who contest this may be branded antisocial and self-centered. Third, a reluctance to subject normative assessments and their underlying values to the same scrutiny afforded to other theoretical perspectives can, in some cases, be extended to uncritical acceptance of critiques that are based on ill-defined concepts or that make exaggerated claims. Thus, Richard Damstra (2001, 537) suggests that proprietary residential communities and gated enclaves impede formation of social networks that "promote economic and social opportunity among the less fortunate, build a healthier society and meet the future problems facing our communities." This critique of PRC/CIDS incorporates a normative assumption on the desirability of redistributive social mechanisms, an undefined concept of a "healthier society," a nonspecific reference to "future problems," and a narrow conceptualization of "our community. …

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