In July 2015, Emma Morales visited Prague, Czech Republic, to present a paper at the AESOP Annual Congress: Definite Space – Fuzzy Responsibility. Emma is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Sheffield. Her PhD project ‘Middle-class gatedness’ aims to understand better the economic, political, and social processes that contribute to the proliferation of middle-class gated communities in countries with large socio-economic disparities like Mexico. The purpose is to identify how neoliberal transnational practices and policies influence national policies and shape everyday lives.
Her visit to Prague was made possible as a result of a successful application for research enhancement funding awarded by the Sheffield Institute for International Development (SIID).
In July 2015 I travelled to Prague, Czech Republic to present a paper at the Association of European Schools of Planning (AESOP) Annual Congress. My track had a particular interest in ‘spatial and functional structures’; I talked about the increase of middle-class gated communities in Mexico in the past two decades, and how project managers and private administrators are acting as planning authorities.
The discussions in this track were some of the most intense during the conference. Several scholars questioned the pertinence and validity of current planning policies and practices, and the need for more flexible and adaptive approaches. The role of planners in complex ever-changing urban environments was also subject to much debate.
In my presentation, I was able to share some ideas about private government strategies in large-scale housing developments and the implications of private ‘urban managers’ assuming roles of local governments. I also talked about the urban governance challenges this system represents in a context of economic, social, and political uncertainties and inequality like Mexico.
In particular, I addressed how changes in spatial planning policies made in the 1990s in Mexico have left local governments with higher responsibilities but less capacity to address them. In the past two decades gated communities for middle-income groups have proliferated in most Mexican metropolitan areas peripheries, and their drivers are much more complex than the search for security, prestige, exclusivity or status, as mentioned in most literature. The municipalities where these gated communities are located have important deficiencies:
- a) lack of planning expertise;
- b) limited budgets;
- c) short-term government periods;
- d) incapacity to provide adequate public services and infrastructure;
- e) lack of intergovernmental cooperation; and
- f) strong pressure from developers.
Gated communities have been received by local authorities as a ‘convenient’ arrangement, since developers take responsibility to provide basic infrastructure and services, residents can assume private management responsibilities for maintenance, administration, and security, and these developments represent higher tax income. Therefore, local governments have directly and indirectly supported the proliferation of these housing developments with private governments.
In my presentation, I was also able to draw on the challenges these enclaves represent in the long term. Unlike affluent gated communities, where density is lower and residents have varied income opportunities and investments, middle-class gated communities are mortgage-driven developments with hundreds or even thousands of residents who depend on job stability, thus making these places are more vulnerable to economic, social, and political uncertainties. The case study presented, designed for 21,000 houses organised in stratified mini-gated communities, shows a series of important urban governance challenges since rules and agreements constantly change and the relationship with surrounding neighbourhoods and local authorities is limited. In only ten years project managers and private administrators have created rules and conditions outside the municipal sphere, but tensions in and outside the gates are emerging, and there is no clear idea of who is responsible and to what extent.
Questions from the audience had two opposite and yet complementary positions. Some were much more concerned about the policies and regulations that allow these places to exist in the first place. The second viewpoint came from scholars in the Global South who are facing similar social, economic and political problems as Mexico, and their questions were more about what can we do about it? And how can we make it better for everyone? The conclusions at the end of the panel were positive, in terms of the importance of addressing complex situations from different viewpoints aiming to find a common ground. From my perspective, participation in this conference has been extremely valuable to the development of my research. The central argument of my thesis has been enriched by those with different research backgrounds and interests, and by establishing a network of academics from all over the world. It has also made me conscious of writing for a wider audience and broader perspective than I had perhaps originally envisaged.