Just 30km from the centre of São Paulo lies a community that is everything South America’s largest and most dynamic city is not. AlphaVille is green, quiet and safe (and, you could also add, dull and lifeless). That’s the reason it, and other gated communities like it, are proliferating across Brazil. It’s estimated that a million Brazilians now live behind their walls.
“The big advantage of living in AlphaVille is that in a country where violence is commonplace you feel protected,” says Maria Lucia Kfuri, an English teacher who has lived here for 30 years. “We are surrounded by poverty in Brazil but here you have the illusion of living in paradise.”
AlphaVille has become such an iconic place since it first opened in the 1970s, that dozens of identical gated communities have sprouted around it. Paulistas know the entire area as AlphaVille and many envy its 30,000 residents for having suffered only one murder in 2008 (and also for residing in one of the country’s wealthiest municipalities). São Paulo, a city of 11 million, had 926 murders in the first nine months of 2008 alone. It is also a city where the growing income gap means the wealthy fear kidnap and if you live in AlphaVille you’re less likely to end up in a car boot.
“Most of these people want security but perhaps the most relevant thing is privacy,” says Luiz Eduardo Camargo, the president of an association of companies that builds such communities. “Residents want to know that they won’t wake up tomorrow morning and have a garage or a bus stop outside their house.”
The seeds of the purpose-made community took root in 1973 when civil engineers Yojiro Takaoka and Renato de Albuquerque bought 500 acres outside São Paulo to build a business park for non-polluting industries. The development was popular but executives chaffed at the daily commute from the city and so the two men bought more plots to sell, on which executives could build their own homes.
The idea was a huge success and demand was such that they added communities at a furious pace. Today, parent company AlphaVille Urbanismo owns more than a dozen gated communities around the original and 75 overall in 40 Brazilian cities. In 1994, it opened two AlphaVilles in Portugal. Other companies have built identical model communities, such as Tambore 2 in the São Paulo area, all around Brazil. Living in an AlphaVille community has become such a status symbol that new ones sell out fast: all 197 lots put up for sale in AlphaVille João Pessoa last July were snapped up in three hours.
“The concept AlphaVille created has become a model,” says Gabriela Procópio, the company’s marketing director. “We have comfort, privacy, security, all that residents could want. For 99 per cent of the population it’s aspirational. Who would not want to live in a home with the architecture and decoration of your dreams, with your family surrounded by greenery and security?”
Who indeed? Although moving to AlphaVille is hardly cheap, the average bare plot in the recently unveiled Jacuhy development near Vitória sold for 230,000 reais (around €75,000) – such closed communities are also popular with the less well off. Experts estimate there are perhaps 400 other companies operating up to 2,000 similar communities across Brazil, for residents of all incomes.
“This isn’t about social class,” claims Camargo. “A large number of them are for poorer people. You don’t have to be rich or famous to want peace and quiet.”
Some less exclusive communities build and sell houses but AlphaVille Urbanismo buys the land and then sells individual plots. Buyers can therefore design and build their dream homes. While the odd house has medieval turrets or stained glass windows, most end up being contemporary Los Angeles or non-descript suburban Midwest styles. Bay windows and pastel shades proliferate.
Most developments have swimming pools, a tennis court, gymnasium, games room, sauna and a football pitch. The larger ones have a golf course. All have shopping centres nearby with news-agents, supermarkets, beauty salons and DVD stores. Although it’s often not enough to dispel the feeling that you are living in a sterile neighbourhood with no sense of community.
Entry to AlphaVille is rigorously controlled at a line of tollbooth-like entrance gates. Outsiders must register with guards and are only permitted to pass once they receive an OK from the resident who invited them. Even those outside the gates are closely monitored. Some 32 CCTV cameras track every street and business and dozens of security guards patrol the avenues in Jeeps, all of it funded by an obligatory security tax. There are 1,100 security personnel at AlphaVille.
“I know this is an illusion of safety but it is an illusion worth having,” says Kfuri, the English teacher, with a sigh. “As long as you stay inside the bubble you are OK. If you leave the walls anything can happen.”
But perhaps residents are beginning to question that illusion. The violent crime figures appear to have fallen across the city in recent years. Meanwhile, there are numerous stories of security staff breaking into homes on gated communities when the residents are away on holiday and bored thrill-seeking teenage residents are also regularly caught robbing houses.
It’s also an illusion urban planners around the globe are contemplating. From Istanbul to Johannesburg, developers are erecting these fortresses of middle class angst. In the US alone, some 6 per cent of people now live in a gated environment. Is the future of our cities being traded for manicured lawns?
Safe as houses
One of the main draws of living in an AlphaVille community is the security. Although policing in Brazil is ostensibly carried out by the state, AlphaVille’s security arrangements are run by the AlphaVille Residential and Business Association (AREA).
Access in and out of this gated world is rigorously controlled. Outside the residential areas, AREA has installed 32 CCTV cameras and is planning to install 16 more. Guards and Jeeps sit guard at main junctions. Every few blocks there is a yellow SOS box with direct phone contact to the security HQ. The system is funded by residents and businesses who pay a fee rated according to every sq m that they occupy (about €7.38 every 100 sq m).
South America: security cities
In Rio de Janeiro, murder rates are higher than the national average but in Buenos Aires, Lima and São Paulo, the reverse is true – cities are safer than the rest of the country. In Bogotá the murder rate is almost half the national figure. But the perception of a threat often lags behind reality. As a result, vast sums of money are being spent on the creation of gated areas.
As the world urbanises – over 50 per cent of us now live in cities – and inequality grows, questions about how to create social cohesion are becoming more urgent. Cities are places of diversity, and their counterparts are the private fortresses, where living, shopping and leisure are all contained behind gates.
In these “communities”, difference is erased or made negligible and the urban landscape defined by cookie-cutter spaces which lack originality and the unexpected – the qualities that make cities interesting.
Pamela Puchalski, Urban Age, LSE