Are suburban boom gates a good idea?

Private Property South Africa
Lea Jacobs

Brooklyn residents scored a victory recently when the court gave them permission to implement road closures. So, what are the pros and cons of booming off an area?

It may have taken more than four years for them to get their way, but the residents of Brooklyn in Pretoria have finally won the right to erect boom gates in their suburb - albeit on a temporary basis until the City of Tshwane reconsiders its decision not to grant permission for a gated community.

The suburb has been plagued by violent crime over the years, and many of these crimes were committed by way of vehicular access. Lawyers for the suburb maintained that the restriction of access would not prevent freedom of movement, but would rather monitor those entering and leaving the area. When a crime was committed, the gates would be closed, preventing the perpetrators from escaping.

Sectioning off a portion of a suburb and controlling who has access to the homes within that area is always going to be contentious in South Africa because of its history of apartheid. Of course, those who want to control who enters and who leaves by means of a boom gate will argue that soaring crime levels have forced them into this decision. On the flip side, those opposed to the access control will compare the idea to that of the ‘dompas’ a document used during the apartheid era to control where previously disadvantaged people could live, work, play and…walk.

To be fair, colour doesn’t come into it these days because obviously anyone who can afford to buy a property in the area will be allowed free access, regardless of their race. However, you can perhaps understand why some municipalities have been a little hesitant to restrict freedom of movement, given the history of this country.

There are two distinct camps in this battle, namely those who are determined to protect themselves and their neighbourhoods and those who outright reject initiatives they believe cause division and polarisation.

It's not just those who have to jump through hoops in order to enter the suburb who are affected. An investigation by the Human Rights Commission found that while restricted access could indeed lead to lower crime rates, it could also compromise the freedom and security of those who lived within its confines because it could prevent emergency vehicles from reaching those in need. In fact, research conducted by Professor KD Boffard from the Johannesburg Hospital Trauma Unit found that emergency vehicles’ response times were delayed by between 7 and 15 minutes when attempting to enter access controlled areas. He also found that while the crime rate supposedly fell in boomed suburbs, the overall morbidity and mortality rate rose after access was restricted.

Much has been written about the need for South Africans to turn their homes into fortresses in order to keep criminals at bay. Community policing forums, neighbourhood watches and patrols by security companies are commonplace, but this isn't always enough, particularly in areas which are recognised crime hot spots.

Unfortunately, not every area at the mercy of criminals will be able to afford to close themselves off behind boom gates. Various costs have to be factored in, including the cost of applying for permission to erect boom gates (residents of Brooklyn paid a mandatory R50 000 to the municipality) as well as the salaries of those employed to oversee the operation. There can be little argument that initiatives such as these can reduce opportunistic crimes, but the jury is still out on whether boom gates have an impact on more serious crimes such as rape and murder, mainly because in many instances, these crimes are committed by relatives, friends or acquaintances. Likewise, studies have shown that robberies and hijackings are usually committed by well-organised gangs which wouldn't be deterred by boom gates.

Perhaps the worst news of all is that while a boomed-off suburb may well experience a drop in crime, this won't stop crimes being committed in other areas as it stands to reason that crime rates are going to escalate in areas where security isn't so tight. Unfortunately, as with everything, this really boils down to the survival of the fittest and while those with money can afford to cut themselves off from the criminal element, those who can't are basically going to have to fend for themselves.

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