Planned communities simply are centrally planned, residential communities that are built from scratch and filled with amenities designed specifically for residents. They are usually built by private developers – and tend to be less costly to build than multi-family properties within the urban footprint. Many feature significant amounts of infrastructure that would otherwise be built by governments including private roads, private electrical grids or private security. They sometimes are gated.
Planned communities vary in size. In the United States, most planned communities have populations under 10,000. However, recent data published by the Charter Cities Institute has found that there are hundreds of so-called “master planned cities” that have a population over 100,000.
The research published by the Charter Cities Institute also suggests that there will be significant growth in the global planned communities industry – 22 new large mega-communities, with populations expected to exceed 100,000, are under construction worldwide.
Planned communities often offer better homes, better infrastructure and better lives to tens of millions of people around the world. So why are they almost universally dismissed by mainstream society?
The United States
Many American urban planners have varying reasons for opposing planned communities. Some say that they exacerbate income inequality. Others are concerned about the separation of ideologically diverse groups. Critics fear that planned communities will create “thought bubbles.” Finally, there are concerns about municipal services, traffic and infrastructure.
In California, environmentalists have blocked new master-planned communities based on arguments about climate change, but which generally amount to little more than the usual opposition to growth and suburbanization.
A dozen U.S. cities already ban gated communities. However, many of the most severe concerns stem from historical prejudices lodged deep within the American psyche.
The United States has a history of excluding minorities, and forcing them to conform to mainstream culture. There is also a strong legacy of racism in housing. When Levittown, New York, was built in the late 1940s to house returning veterans, Blacks were not allowed to live there. However, the nation rightly eliminated discriminatory covenants.
These days, planned communities often are amazingly diverse. The 63,000-population master-planned community of Valencia, in the Santa Clarita Valley north of Los Angeles, has a population that is 21-percent Latino, 19-percent Asian-American and 5-percent African American. It scores an impressive 98 out of 100 on one “diversity” index. Modern master planners promote diversity, so fears of segregation are no reason to oppose this type of development.
One planned community even is built along ideological lines. Ave Maria, near Naples, Fla., was envisioned as “a truly Catholic community.” The city has street names like Pope John Paul II Boulevard,” “Avila Avenue” and “Assisi Drive.” Stores are prohibited from selling pornography and contraceptives. Ave Maria’s manual also prohibits businesses from “performing embryonic stem cell research or other activity involving the destruction of human embryos or any facility performing in vitro fertilization or human cloning.”
Nevertheless, Ave Maria is something of an outlier. Most American planned communities are suburban communities that incorporate a variety of neighborhoods, commercial and retail areas. They provide another set of options for people who prefer an alternative to a typical urban neighborhood. Houston is known for its lack of zoning, but The Woodlands offers a planned alternative. It also is remarkably diverse, with a 20-percent foreign-born population.
Southern California has a history of building master-planned communities, including Irvine in Orange County. These communities mostly have been incorporated into their surrounding cities – and they often are some of the better run and safest cities in the country. With a population of 309,000, Irvine has topped the list of safest cities of its size for 17 years in a row.
Planned communities mainly run against the current ideological preferences in the planning community, which emphasizes New Urbanist ideas that value dense housing and walkable cities. Politicians like it when the entire population is mixed into homogeneously diverse masses, which can be more easily subject to their edicts. Yet the United States needs more housing of all types. People who prefer traditional urban living should be able to choose those neighborhoods while those who prefer master-planned neighborhoods can choose them, as well.
Read Thibault Serlet’s article about private cities in the Free Cities Center.
Master planning is not just an American phenomenon. Gated planned communities play a huge role in the South African economy. Recent research has found that as many as 10% of South Africans currently live in private gated communities. In a country wracked by crime, crumbling infrastructure and inept government services, planned communities have becomes islands of safety and security.
There is a large body of government-funded research in South Africa designed to denigrate the value of planned communities. These studies generally grudgingly admit that planned communities are safe, more environmentally friendly, and better managed than government-run communities. Despite these seemingly positive findings, they conclude that planned communities “fail to integrate the urban poor.”
South Africans have a historical bias against planned communities for some troubling historical reasons. Trynos Gumbo, from the University of Johannesburg’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning explains that, “In the context of South Africa, ‘gating’ presents a unique challenge given the country’s’ legacy of apartheid. They are critiqued for generating a ‘neo-apartheid’ in the city where segregation takes place not only on the grounds of race but also on the economy of space and market ethos.”
In 2007, the city of Cape Town passed legislation that made it illegal to open new planned communities except as “a last resort.” The legislation then created a long laundry list of requirements which real estate developers would need to satisfy to prove that their community was gated as a “last resort.”
Despite the slow increase in rules and regulations, the number of planned communities in South Africa continues to grow. South Africa went from having less than 5,000 planned communities in 2010 to more than 8,000 in 2020. The reasons are clear. Planned communities provide additional, needed housing and enable people to flee dysfunctional urban governments.
Instead of highlighting how planned communities give people more options, politicians, academics and journalists highlight the fact that they necessarily are exclusionary. They fail to point out that they are flourishing in large part because of the failures or urban governments to provide safe streets, good schools and well-maintained infrastructure. They provide needed competition to cities that – for a variety of political reasons – fail to adequately perform their most basic tasks.
Thibault Serlet is the Director of Research at the Adrianople Group, a business intelligence firm that helps investors finance the creation of new Special Economic Zones. His writing has appeared in Reuters, FDI Intelligence (Financial Times), the Diplomat, Geopolitics Magazine, and elsewhere. He also writes a weekly blog, where he reviews books about economic history