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“The thing about living in a gated community is that you’re afraid of the outside, you’re more afraid of walking on the streets, you’re used to living here, you see? Any other guy who lives someplace else takes the bus, gets off, and walks around the city. You take a boy who lives here and he gets terrified of taking a bus,” sa Agustín, a 15-year-old resident from the San Jorge gated community.
During the last 20 years, many children like Agustín have grown up inside private gated communities, within new social parameters given by an enclosed and homogeneous environment.
One of the most significant urban transformations in Greater Buenos Aires area has been the great expansion of these gated communities and its impact on socioeconomic and cultural dimensions.
The migration from the city to the suburbs was predominantly initiated by young upper-middle class families originally living in urban areas, motivated by high crime rates and a better quality of life.
The last decade has seen the formation of a larger kind of private neighbourhood. These complexes resemble ‘closed cities’ and house a wide array of amenities within them, including hospitals, supermarkets and even schools. Today, many children who grew up within these social parameters are finishing their last years of high school. This year, Cardenal Pironio – a school within the gated community of Nordelta – will see its first class of graduates, with 28 students registered in 2000, and the school’s Alumni Association will open for the organisation of meetings and joint activities between the school and its former students.
The rise of this lifestyle poses questions about life inside these properties and young people raised and educated there.
Understanding the Phenomenon
After a severe economic crisis the 80s, Argentine society went through a major economic and social transformation during the 90s, as a result of neoliberal policies implemented by President Carlos Menem (1989-1999). This model was strongly marked by a privatiation of public enterprises and favored those economic groups which reoriented their activities towards services, impoverish the social groups linked to the public sector. he deep social divides brought an end to the representation of a strong and culturally homogeneous middle class that throughout the 20th century had been expanding significantly.
These changes had their counterpart in the suburbaniation processes. One of its highest expressions was the proliferation of gated communities as new places of permanent residence by the middle-class sectors with greater purchasing power.
Before the 80s, the few gated communities that existed in Argentina were just weekend getaway places owned by families who resided in Buenos Aires. Until 1991, only a few people actually lived there; then the phenomenon grew exponentially.
According to the survey conducted by the Federación Argentina de Clubes de Campo (FACC) in 2008, there were already 600 gated communities throughout the country, of which 540 in the province of Buenos Aires. These include gated communities, closed neighbourhoods, and country clubs, with an area of over 350 km2, 80,000 homes across the country. At that time, some 2.8m people lived there, 7% of Argentina’s total population.
One of the most popular private cities is Nordelta, located in Tigre, 30km away from the city of Buenos Aires. Built in 2001, it combines 11 residential neighbourhoods, each of them with different styles and – health centres, schools, malls, petrol stations, clubs and entertainment venues – while preserving the green spaces, the river, and the warmth and security of a small town. On a total area of 1,600 hectares, each of these neighbourhoods has its own lagoon, security system, perimeter fence, and underground utilities. Nordelta is the largest real estate project in Buenos Aires.
According to preliminary results from the 2010 census drawn by the municipality of Tigre, there are 11,335 inhabitants in Nordelta and a total of 15,505 residents in country clubs located around Nordelta, along the Bancalari corridor and Route 27.
This trend has its high point in the area to the north of the capital, and continues to grow with new projects throughout the south and west of the city.
A New City Model
The Argentine case ha some peculiarities. The emergence of closed gated communities place in a context of great violence caused by the increasing visibility of social differences and the inefficiency of the successive governments to the economic recession and social demands integration. esearchers agree that the proliferation of property crimes drew a demand for more protection and security, emerging as one of the major reasons for justifying the choice to live in a private neighbourhood.
One of the founding and most important contributions on the subject was undoubtedly the 2001 work by Maristella Svampa, wh discussed in several publications and presentations the proliferation of new gated communities as one of the most visible displays of the privatisation process that the country went through in the early ’90s. Svampa explains the new range in residential styles the increasing fragmentation process within the local middle-classes. They were divided between ‘winning’ sectors, made up of those groups better coordinated with the neo-liberal model of the ’90s, and ‘losers’, composed of middle-class groups who experienced impoverishment. This approach is taken up by several social scientists to explain the Argentine case as a combination of the fragmentation of middle-classes and the rise of an increasingly commercialised rural lifestyle.
Much has been made of the link between lifestyle in gated communities and the socioeconomic sector able to afford it. Furthermore, the social contrast between the concentration of wealth in these areas and the marginal surrounding emphasises the quartering of space in various dimensions.
While in the past, the school and the neighbourhood appeared as places of exchange between multiple social circles, the suburbanisation of the upper middle class implies a breakdown with that city model.
The Growth of Young Residents
Many children who moved with their families to gated communities at younger ages are today’s first generation of young people raised within these green, private, and exclusive spaces. The neighbourhoods in which they live are carefully planned private cities, integrating aesthetics and functionality, and trying to recover an ideal away from the crowded city, restoring harmony with nature and protection by a stable community.
These places build an imagery that appeals to the target to which this type of discourse is aimed at, mostly young couples with school-age children, in line with certain values and ideals such as green living, outdoors activities, nature, freedom, security, family, and the return to traditional models grounded in family, home, neighbourhood, and community life.
With a tight schedule, these teenagers use their free time to practise a variety of exclusive hobbies, leading practices and habits of their own social sector, developing their taste for elite sports, arts, or religion through school and/or extracurricular activities mostly taking place inside the premises.
Various investigations have proven that this way of life is also fostered, and reinforced, by private schools located inside and around gated communities. They not only propel the activities and ideals that surround this lifestyle but also ensure high standards of education as well as a strong institutional context based on traditional values.
Today there are 13 schools located inside gated communities throughout Greater Buenos Aires. Cardenal Pironio, with almost 1,300 students, is the biggest of the four schools located in Nordelta. It belongs to an established educational group called Grupo Educativo Marín. As it directly depends on the local bishopric of San Isidro, when Nordelta was built the group was required to incorporate the presence of the Catholic Church in this new area. The school Cardenal Pironio is now ten years old and 85% of its students are residents of Nordelta.
Pablo Giacomini, school principal at Cardenal Pironio, told the Argentina Independent: “The phenomenon of teenagers formed in gated communities has only emerged in the last three or four years. Nordelta is learning to have teenagers.”
Nordelta’s population is growing at an impressive rate. Giacomini says that today there are approximately 750 families living there and their schools are all full. “You may soon have much more demand for what these schools can offer. Cardenal Pironio is the only one that is willing to follow the demand and its growth.” Grupo Educativo Marín also has a university project and has not ruled out the possibility of bringing it to Nordelta in the future.
Autonomy at Risk?
The young residents’ independence and openness towards other social contexts has slowly become an issue as children raised inside gated communities grow up. The geographical location of these vast properties makes it very difficult for young people to travel to the capital or even to other districts due to long distances and lack of transportation. Therefore, they become very dependent on their parents for moving outside their neighbourhood.
All young people interviewed said they did not go to the city of Buenos Aires very much, and admitted having little knowledge or sense of place in it. A 15-year-old resident from the closed neighbourhood of San Jorge says: “I imagine that a guy living downtown locks the door of his house, moves around much more, walks everywhere, and knows a lot of other things. They do not depend on their parents to go to the movies or so because they are close to everything, they just walk two blocks and they can go buy something at the grocery store, go out for ice cream or rent a movie. Over here, that kind of life does not exist.”
The teenagers viewed the move to the city as a challenge, leaving the protected circle and discovering something new, unsure as to whether they could adjust to it. The vast majority said that this lifestyle does not prepare them for life outside closed neighbourhoods – for the ‘outside world’ – and many speculate it could end up generating fear of the outside, of the different and the unknown.
As opposed to the ideal of peace, harmony and nature that closed neighbourhoods offer, the city lifestyle is perceived as hectic and busy, and the capital itself is associated with chaos, insecurity, violence, and pollution. “Now that I’m starting university I know that I’ll have to leave and get used to ambulances, horns, and busy streets. I get nostalgic and I think to myself…I like the trees and the peacefulness of this place a lot more,” says a 17-year-old resident from Pilar del Este, a gated community 60km away from Buenos Aires.
As the youth population living inside gated communities grows, questions about the consequences of having lived their entire lives in a closed and segregated space start to arise. Both neighbourhoods and institutions involved are beginning to cast concrete actions to counter possible isolating effects.
“Nordelta is a ‘closed’ area, their residents are concerned about their borders and how much want to let in. On the other hand, one of our educational goals is that these kids understand that the world is not just Nordelta,” says Giacomini.
To achieve this goal, Cardenal Pironio offers trips to different regions of the country for students from early ages, sports tours, international exchange projects, and several local field trips to both nearby cities and the city of Buenos Aires for cultural, artistic and/or scientific purposes.
Giacomini highlights the schools’ responsibility to provide these children the tools for proper development beyond the enclosed area where they spend most of their time: “We seek to educate our children so they can cope here or anywhere else in the world. What we want is that these kids think beyond Nordelta and build an open mind in touch with all realities out there.
“We have the obligation to build the necessary ‘antibodies’ for them to survive inside and out of Nordelta. This is not the only world that exists.”
However, the young residents’ testimonies evidence that their outlook is limited to the coexistence of different portions of an upper-middle class. “You can go to this school and be surrounded by people who belong to a very high class. But if you are also interested in having friends who are not the same, you can have them,” claim a teenage girl who studies at Northlands School inside Nordelta.
Also, Cardenal Pironio’s school director states: “Many people imagine Nordelta to be a homogeneous community. And the truth is that it is quite heterogeneous. There are people from high socioeconomic levels and there are also people coming from an upper-middle class, who can live in Nordelta making a lot of efforts. We like this heterogeneity. There is room for everyone in our school.”
However, the social diversity within these properties can be put into question when calculating the school’s tuition fees as well as the costs of buying a house and living in such an exclusive place. Land values in Nordelta start from US$200 per square metre. The prices of houses inside this gated community begin at US$400,000 and can reach up to US$1m. Not to mention the monthly expenses and costs for house maintenance.
In this sense, close attention should be paid to the social impact of this way of living on the experiences of children and teenagers raised and educated under these parameters, which are giving rise to the formation of new social and cultural patterns.
Behind the object of consumption of nature, quietness, good education, safety and exclusivity offered by this environment, there is a great symbolic component that contrasts with social tensions and conflicts in Argentina.
It is a phenomenon that challenges the way in which the city is built, the way in which young people are raised and educated and the current capabilities of promoting a collective social integration.