Time and again, the mainstream media has analyzed and debated the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012, inside the perimeter of the Retreat at Twin Lakes, a gated community in Sanford, Florida. In the search for answers that make any sense of Martin’s untimely death, many have sounded proposals to rescind Florida’s stand-your-ground law. Far fewer, however, have called for reconsideration of the urban planning practices that continue to perpetuate the gated community typology, which — by nature of its spatial organization — was not only the site of Martin’s death but also, in part, the cause. Developers, urban planners, and lawmakers must be held accountable for their roles in building communities of exclusionary gates and poorly planned public spaces, where the physical environment validates discriminatory sentiment that renders the unusual as suspicious.
“Did bad neighborhood design doom Trayvon Martin?” asked urban planner Zach Youngerman, analyzing grievous flaws in the masterplan of the Retreat at Twin Lakes in an op-ed in the Boston Globe — “Behavior,” he concluded, “is not simply a matter of character; it is also a matter of setting.”
Inside the gates that control entry to the Retreat at Twin Lakes lies a community designed for automobile rather than pedestrian traffic. Youngerman explained how “something as human as walking is odd behavior. Suspicious even,” in an environment that prioritizes private property over public sites of interpersonal exchange, like pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares. The Retreat is typical of gated communities in this regard: public sidewalks are few and far between and only 1.2 percent of the population walks to work. Because there are so few public areas in which to stand or loiter inside the Retreat, Martin and Zimmerman traversed the equivalent of several city blocks in the absence of bystanders — the now-infamous pair was surrounded on both sides by private lawns and driveways, on a wide street that accommodates only driving and parking lanes.
Like so many gated communities, the Retreat at Twin Lakes suffers from a dearth of “eyes on the street” — as famed urbanist Jane Jacobs dubbed pedestrians in her classic Death and Life of Great American Cities. The absence of conventional public sidewalks throughout the Retreat prevented residents from acting as natural neighborhood watch volunteers, in lieu of the self-appointed neighborhood watch function with which Zimmerman has attempted to justify his actions. The perceived need for a community watch organization would be diminished if public spaces were encoded into the organization of suburban enclaves. Passing bystanders could have become the witnesses whose absence so crucially undermined the final verdict, but their presence was prevented by the absence of a public sidewalk from which they might have intervened between Zimmerman and Martin.
The separation between public and private space begins at the gates that guard the entrance to the Retreat. Though these gated community layouts vary, all share its definitive and often defensive gate feature, which serves the exclusionary end of differentiating residents who belong inside from those who do not live in the community. More effectively than such gates safeguard residents from outsiders, they “create a fortress mentality, with some people viewed as legitimate and others as threatening outsiders or interlopers,” writes urban planner and scholar Robert Steuteville in his article “Gates, Sprawl, and ‘Walking While Black.’”
Though similar in spatial organization to many American gated communities, the Retreat's changing demography at the time of Martin’s death made it distinctly different from the gated community archetype of an especially privileged enclave within an otherwise wealthy area. Property values at the Retreat at Twin Lakes have been severely depressed due to the foreclosure crisis that began in 2008, in stark contrast to the traditional perception of gated communities as retreats for the privileged; one Twin Lakes resident complained to the Palm Beach Post that foreclosures forced owners to rent homes to “low-lifes and gangsters.” When, as Steuteville notes, “residents find themselves on the same side of the gate as the people they fear,” the aversion to outsiders is heightened for both older and newer members of the community. Zimmerman — a mixed-race lower middle-class resident who rented rather than owned — moved to the Retreat at Twin Lakes in 2009, part of the post-recession demographic trend away from homogeneity in the community. Race aside, the presence of gates validated his own uncertain position within the community against that of Martin, a visiting outsider. By defining the insider against the outsider, the gates separated two members of the same socioeconomic strata.
Ultimately, Sanford’s fraught history of race relations dates back to the town's founder, Henry Sheldon Sanford. An advocate of resettling African Americans in the Congo, Sanford’s progenitor established a discriminatory legacy, further compounded by the exclusionary spatial planning and real estate development practices of planners and developers seeking to increase profits by erecting walls and gates.
In ways both typical of gated communities and specific to the Retreat at Twin Lakes, Martin’s death proves that issues of race, class, and exclusivity must be seriously reconsidered by the American planning establishment and associates in real estate development and politics. So long as we continue to build physical environments that heighten race and class-based fear by emphasizing exclusion over inclusion, we continue to validate those fears instead of actively resolving them.
Written by: Anna Kats and Originally Published on BlouinArtInfo