Walls serve the dual purpose of keeping things or people in, and keeping things or people out; a gate in that wall controls movement from one side to the other.
By and large, walls are protective; they keep rabbits out of the cabbage patch. When Italy was a collection of city states, communities such Lucca and San Gimignano constructed walled fortifications to claim territory, control trade, and preserve their own autonomy. Cloistered religious communities erect walls to keep the world at bay as they retreat to focus on the things of God. Schools use walls (real or implied) to keep their students from harm... and to prevent them from running away. Prisons employ walls for protection in reverse - to contain a criminal element in an effort to safeguard the community outside.
Physical protection is certainly a big reason people are drawn to living in gated communities when the concerns beyond their walls are unsavoury elements such as drugs, guns, or gangs. But some people seek the emotional security of a buffer against the world ‘outside’ which may seem unstable, uncertain, or unsafe. Perhaps the need is for a buffer against the unfamiliar and uncontrollable nature of open society, and for the assurance of homogeneity.
Likewise, some people (I’m thinking primarily of celebrities) retreat behind walls for reasons of secrecy or privacy, in order to keep an intrusive, inquisitive public at a distance, hoping for some level of normalcy in their home life. I suspect even their vast resources cannot make up for the lack of free movement. Brad Pitt once commented in an interview that in a perfect world, the first thing he would do would be to tear down the walls that surround him, so he could sit on his front porch and talk with the people walking by (or words to that effect).
I lived in gated communities of a sort for many years. Though at times there were no physical barriers, there was a definite awareness in those of us ‘inside’ that we were separate from the rest of the world. Looking back, I know I was isolated; I was protected not only from harm, but from experiencing diversity in attitude, ideas, even appearance.
In contemporary society, the safety and comfort of a gated community bears a price tag high enough to be beyond the reach of most people. This means that the majority of people remain vulnerable in the messy, unfiltered, and perhaps dangerous life in the wide-open world.
Walls are built for protection, but building a wall does not remove the danger – drugs, guns, gangs, cultural and ideological differences still exist beyond the gate. Withdrawing into a controlled-access community can lead to detachment from society. It could be argued that individuals and families do better within the context of a broader community not available to them when isolated behind walls. We need connection with other people; we need to be challenged in charity for our neighbour; we need to be involved in civic life and work for social justice. Besides, life behind walls with a small, select group of ‘like minded’ people is likely to include as many challenges as life on the outside.
For a light hearted comment on gated communities, take a look at this Silly Song from Veggie Tales.
This topic was suggested by a reader; thanks for the challenge, Bob.
(My opinion of life behind walls is that it is fundamentally unnatural and unhealthy, though I often dream of a hidden island of my own somewhere far away from the travails of the world. I do recognize that there are valid reasons for such a life, and safety is an important priority. For instance: Mexico City is a dangerous place to live, and behind protective bars may be the best place to build your home. However, Mexico City would remain a dangerous city to navigate, so my preference would be to move to the countryside where I wouldn't even have to lock my door.)