Voluntary Prisoners of the American Dream

Stéphane Degoutin


Publisher's presentation

(The book is not available in english yet)

For a long time an epiphenomenon, gated communities – private residential enclaves protected by walls or gates and with entry restricted to residents or their guests – are flourishing worldwide. They are no longer an urban aberration or simple "ghettos for the rich" but the culmination of a perhaps inexorable evolution of the contemporary city where diversity and heterotopia are becoming the exception. The book sheds light on the conditions in which the phenomenon appears. In the uncertain environment of the megalopolis, where everything is excessive, without quality, and the inhabitant is a nomadic being, salvation appears in small homogeneous communities, where the reminiscence of the village competes with the model of the theme park.

Author's presentation

This essay describes how the contemporary city is built after the disappearance of public space in the European sense of the term : accessible to all and free of access. In 21 chapters, and changing as many times my point of view on the question, I question the disturbing phenomenon / symptom of gated communities.

The expression gated community refers to a residential neighbourhood surrounded by an enclosure, closed off by a gate that is controlled night and day, where one cannot enter unless one is an inhabitant or a guest, sometimes guarded inside by private police officers. The neighbourhood is usually administered by a homeowner association, which has been compared to private governments (it has, among other things, the power to sue a resident and drive him or her out of the neighbourhood). Some gated communities are home to several thousand residents. The first of them were designed for the wealthy, but nowadays they are being built for the middle classes, which has allowed the phenomenon to grow considerably : in the United States, it is estimated that ten million people live in this type of environment. The same phenomenon is developing in many countries around the world, particularly in South America, South Africa, China and Russia and, to a lesser extent in Europe, particularly in France.

When one reads certain descriptions by researchers (notably City of quartz by Mike Davis, Privatopia by Evan McKenzie or Fortress America by Blakely & Snyder...), one has the impression of reading science fiction. The environments described are the exact opposite of the European ideal of the city. It is interesting to note that the theme has inspired several science fiction writers and directors: Neal Stephenson (Snowcrash), Octavia Butler (The parable of the Sower), James Graham Ballard (Running Wild, Super Cannes...), Peter Weir (The Truman Show), an episode of the X-Files series...

However, when you actually go there, the first thing that strikes you is the disconcerting banality, the same banality that is typical of American suburban environments. I wanted to question the troubling feeling, between science fiction and banality, between Disneyland and the ghetto.

I argue that gated communities do not represent a break with the logic of the American city. On the contrary, they are its logical outcome : an environment designed for the car, vast houses, without fences, centred on the interior, developer architecture, noodle streets, dead ends, few pedestrians… Gated communities are not abnormal in the United States, they are just extreme. They embody the residential ideal of the American Dream, a desire to build paradise on Earth, the result of the absolute primacy given to individual choice, implying the choice of one's place of residence and social environment. The entire evolution of the American suburbs tends towards this ideal ; and gated communities may not be the ultimate expression of it.


Preface by Thierry Paquot

Introduction : The city after public space

  1. Gated communities in the United States
  2. Gated communities around the world
  3. A mass phenomenon
  4. Historical background
  5. Homeowner associations
  6. Marketing and segregation
  7. "Wallification"
  8. The House as a megalopolis
  9. Los Angeles without light
  10. Vulnerability and comfort
  11. Communities and the American dream
  12. Immigration, slavery, segregation, ghettos
  13. Nomadic citizens deserve disposable cities
  14. Los Angeles as the rejection of the modern city
  15. Automobiles
  16. No-go areas vs Nogoland
  17. Voluntary and involuntary prisoners
  18. The geography of everywhere
  19. "Privatization" of public space
  20. Amusement parks
  21. Micromegapolises

Conclusion : the logic of the private urban system