Fortress Calgary: The “Gate” in Mahogany Manor

What is it about gated communities that sends us into orbit?

Calgary Planning Commission (CPC) just approved the construction of a “gate” in the southern Calgary to keep the hoi polloi out of Mahogany Manor despite the fact that the Planning Department recommended refusal.

The “gate” is actually a seven foot high solid wall made of “rocky mountain rustic masonry and boulders” pierced by two vehicle gates and a five foot high pedestrian gate made of slatted black wrought iron.*

It’s part of what the developer calls the “Island Collection”—two exclusive private islands on which it will build multimillion-dollar single family homes to create “Calgary’s most remarkable new address.”

The residents of the Island Collection will alight on their doorsteps after they swipe a cardkey or click a remote control to get through the gates, drive over a private bridge and out on to a man-made island in the middle of a man-made lake.  

Full Disclosure: Mr Soapbox sits on CPC. He and two of his fellow commissioners rejected this application, but were in the minority. The “Dissenting Commissioner” (as he is referred to in the press and around the Soapbox household) said that the gate was nothing but a marketing ploy.

The developer agreed.

The desire to “fort-up”

Humanity has been “forting-up” (to use a term coined by Jillian L Golby) since 300 BC but gated communities are a relatively new phenomenon in Canada.

There are three types of gated communities: “lifestyle” communities like retirement villages with self-contained organizational and recreational facilities; “prestige” communities which lack life-style amenities but ooze status and distinction; and “security zone” communities where rich and poor alike erect barricades to keep out the criminal element.

The Island Collection with 22 custom estate homes complete with personal docks, private beachfront and lake access falls comfortably into the “prestige” gated community category.

Safety, security, community

Gated communities appeal to the public because they promise safety, privacy, exclusivity, sameness and community.  Let’s take that from the top, shall we.

The promise of safety is an illusion.

With the possible exception of car thefts, gated communities experience the same crime rates as ungated communities.

Why? Because the only way to get into a gated community is with a cardkey or an access code and the residents cheerfully hand these out to their friends and relatives as well as the little people who trim their shrubs, clean their houses, kill their pests and deliver their pizzas.

The Island Collection will provide an intercom system for guests and service providers to alleviate the problem of the porous gate. But it will allow entry to garbage trucks, recycling and emergency crews through a keypad access and/or a lockbox system and strobe sensors (whatever they are) so the porosity concern remains.*

Oh, and on the issue of community, while residents of gated communities experience a closer sense of community—the shared communal space on “our” side of the wall belongs to “us” not “you”—this doesn’t mean that they actually know their neighbours any better than the rest of us living out here in the wild and woolly world outside the gate.

What’s the big deal?

Gated communities offer sameness, homogeneity and predictability. For some reason this is viewed as a positive attribute. Steady on Ms Soapbox, don’t get snarky.

So what’s wrong with homogeneity and predictability? If people can afford to live in a “prestige” gated communities why should the “hypocritical hand-holding nannies” at City Hall be allowed to stop them?

Here’s why.

Gated communities have a detrimental impact on the city.

Golby says the fortification and privatization of communities is harmful to the prosperity and growth of a city. As the wealthy shift to privatized infrastructure and services, they abandon their responsibility for public infrastructure and services. This increases the burden for the middle and low income classes.

Gated communities have a detrimental impact on society.

A gated community is an elite homogeneous population that focuses inward. It turns its back on urban problems and blinds itself to social issues beyond the gate. The result is increased social fragmentation and alienation.

Gated communities in Calgary

Ignoring the general concerns with gated communities, consider this.

City administrators and the public worked for years to create a long term vision for Calgary. The result of their hard work is captured in the Municipal Development Plan (MDP). The MDP strives for integration, creating neighbourhood bonds and community interconnectivity.

And yes, while Calgary Planning Commission has some discretion, it should not have exercised it here. The “gate”—which is actually a rock wall—tears apart neighbourhood bonds and community interconnectivity by creating a “separate, exclusive and isolated community” that turns its back on the rest of Calgary and all who live here.*

Remember the 2013 flood? One wonders whether after the next natural disaster Calgarians will pile into pick-up trucks to help their neighbours living in the Island Collection…no wait, they won’t be able to get past the gate. They don’t have a cardkey.

*Report to CPC Dec 4 2014 DP2014-4179

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26 Responses to Fortress Calgary: The “Gate” in Mahogany Manor

  1. Rose MacKenzie-Kirkwood says:

    Gates always have a strange effect on everyone. It is really difficult to figure out if they are constructed to keep things/people out or in.
    When building fences around your yard, neighbors generally split the cost of the fence between their yards and established the term “good neighbor” fencing which meant it was high enough to keep the dog in but low enough to be able to talk to your neighbor.
    I think I will stick with that theory because it is my neighbor who watches my house while I am on holidays, taking in my newspapers and my mail. In doing this my house is protected from anyone looking to do wrong.

    • Rose, I too have a fence around my yard for precisely the same reason. The difference between our fences and the one that fences off Mahogany’s Island Collection is that an entire community is hiding behind the gate and research has shown that they’re really not any safer back there, just more isolated. Mr Soapbox and I live in a very nice neighbourhood in Calgary. Lovely homes, nice cars. The bottle pickers come through once a week to gather stuff from our recycling trashcan. It’s a reminder that there are so many people not as well off as we are and we need to help them out. We can’t just ignore them and hope they disappear.
      PS I’m saying that for the benefit of the people in Mahogany, not you, because I know you and I know that you have a very generous heart 🙂

  2. Sounds like a pathetic and lonely way to live. Here in Canmore, we have a small gated community (although I don’t really think that adjective “community” really applies there) I had to enter it to do my work on the census this past summer, and it took a LOT of tries to get anyone to even answer the page from the gate! And when we entered, we found mostly houses sitting empty all week, and only occcasionally occupied on weekends! No sense of community, with doors often hidden, fronts of houses carefully angled to prevent anyone actually seeing a neighbour accidentally, tons of freshly-planted trees/shrubbery to block sight-lines, etc. Really not friendly, and most definitely NOT a “community”! Can’t imagine how hard it might be for a fire truck or police car to gain entry in an emergency!

    • Caroline, your Canmore example sounds like the worst of all possible worlds–a gated “community” that isn’t really a community because the residents don’t actually live there for most of the week. I’ve found that the key to “community” is a common cause. Whether it’s a community garden or working together on a local issue, an activity that draws like minded people together will create more of a community than the mere fact that we all happen to live in on the same street.
      PS I can really relate to your experience trying to get past the gate. It was practically impossible to get past the buzzer in apartment buildings when I was campaigning earlier this year.

  3. Mike says:

    Susan, I think you’re a misguided. I grew up in the greater vancouver region and lived in a gated complex for several years. And before you judge me as being wealthy, it was a townhouse complex with about 100 units with an average price of about 200k in ~2001. This was not a wealthy neighbourhood.
    First of all, there are lots of similar communities in the GVRD. They’re not abnormal. There’s also a lot of more senior citizen oriented complexes that are similar in nature. A lot of people enjoy this lifestyle. What it gave us was less busy streets for kids to grow up and play. No through traffic that would make the neighbourhood less safe. And as I recall, the people in the complex were good neighbours. There were a lot of social gatherings and friendliness amongst residents. People knew each other. In fact, I would argue that in this circumstance, people were more friendly with their neighbours compared to other houses that I lived in as a child where my lower middle class family didn’t even know our neighbours. Of course, this is anecdotal evidence but I don’t think it can be ruled out.
    Also, “neighbourhoods within neighbourhoods” like the ones I grew up in and saw elsewhere, sometimes have higher density than the suburban neighbourhoods they are a part of. Now I know this island isn’t like that, but other benefits are possible.
    Thirdly, these gated communities are not much different than condo buildings where non-residents don’t have access to. So why is that okay?
    Now the argument could be made that if Calgary were full of these gated communities, it wouldn’t be good for the city, and that might be true, but these aren’t common. They’re not even close to common in Calgary. This isn’t Johannesburg.

    • Mike,
      Jillian Golby notes that gated communities are more common in Vancouver and Victoria and that they’re beginning to proliferate (hopefully not to the point that we become Johannesburg). Golby’s point and the one I closed with at the end of the post is that given this proliferation it’s very important that city planners and governments give them careful consideration before they approve them willy nilly. In the case of Mahogany, the citizens of Calgary decided they wanted integrated interconnected communities and this is reflected in the language of the Municipal Development Plan. This was reinforced in 20o2 when City Council said there would be no more gated communities in Calgary. And yet, the Mahogany gated community was approved in spite of the MDP, the city planners and Council saying it shouldn’t be approved. And yet for some reason, CPC said yes (with the exception of Mr Soapbox and his two fellow dissenters) all in order to add a few extra bucks to the developer’s bottom line.

      • Mike says:

        Okay, first of all Susan, one in the last 12 years is not proliferation. It is not even close to proliferation.
        Approving one (like they did here) and making comparisons to Johannesberg (whose crime rates and racial violence are not comparable to Calgary) is fear-mongering. The slippery slope argument isn’t valid yet.
        These gated communities won’t be built if there isn’t a demand for it. The developers here believe there is a market for this and that some people might like it. That is their business. It’s not just to “add a few extra bucks” but to provide a product that enough people want.
        Also, how many houses are on this island? 22 lots. How many homes are there going to be in Mahogany? I don’t know, but let’s say 1000. so ~2% of a neighbourhood is lacking “inter-connectability”. This development won’t have a tangible impact on the connectivity of Mahogany.
        Also, there is a similar community on McKenzie lake. Is the Mckenzie Lake community ruined because of it?
        Just because City Council decided in 2002 that no more should be built, it doesn’t mean that the current city council feels this way. Newly elected councils have always made decisions that over-ruled decisions made by previous councils.
        Also, you note that the Calgary Planning Commission has the ability to exercise discretion. So they were acting within their rights.
        Finally, out of curiousity, do you oppose condo buildings as well?

  4. jvandervlugt says:

    Oh dear. Why not add a draw bridge like in medieval times? This is sad. Demoralizing. The only message being projected by having a gated community of this nature is that in the City of Calgary there are some residents who are better than others.

    • Joanna, that’s exactly what it feels like. I understand that the lake in Mahogany is a private lake, reserved for use by local residents. Apparently the public can walk by the lake but they’re not allowed to dip their toe in. I guess the water is private but the shore is not. I understand that wealth has its privileges but this is getting ridiculous.

      • Sryan1 says:

        I’m a bit late to this party but your comment is completely incorrect. Please have your facts straight before making statements as above.
        1. Mahogany has a range of ‘wealth’ including condos and duplexes that really aren’t by any means exclusive to the ‘wealthy’ they start in the $300k. – these all pay HOA fees for various things including lake access. There are public lakes around Calgary that are free to access for those who wish. If you would like access to a private lake, move to a lake community. How is this ridiculous is anyway that a community limits its access to the lake to those who pay for it? Its not the only lake in Calgary.
        2. No you can’t walk on the shore if you are not a member, so actually both are private. 🙂
        3. Your comment above “The difference between our fences and the one that fences off Mahogany’s Island Collection is that an entire community is hiding behind the gate and research has shown that they’re really not any safer” – it is NOT the ‘entire community’ for goodness sake – its 22 lots out of the entire community that is expected to have over 30,000 people. At an average of 4 people per lot that is a fraction of a percent of the community behind gates. Really don’t think its going to have any impact on the connectivity or inclusiveness feeling of mahogany or Calgary.

  5. Derek Coke-Kerr says:

    Hi and Ummm…. FYI (and I’m not an elitist) but when you use “the hoi poloi ” the word “the” is redundant. I hate it when I do this 😈

    Derek Coke-Kerr

    Sent from my iPhone


    • Derek, I’m not an elitist either but I love your question. Wikipedia, the font of all knowledge, tells me that Byron did not use “the” when he wrote the word in Greek, but did use “the” when he wrote it in English, even when he spelled it “‘oi polloi”. Wiki then wandered off into a discussion of the derivative “oips” (low class Hertford grammar school boys) not to be confused with “oiks” (lower class comprehensive and secondary modern schoolboys).

  6. Kathleen Lowrey says:

    An anthropologist has written about the trend toward the proliferation of gated communities in the States; not a pattern to envy:

    About the wonderful point you make at the end, Susan, about the importance of human solidarity in the face of risk and disaster there is Rebecca Solnit’s _A Paradise Built in Hell_:

    Kudos to Mr. Soapbox for being a lonely voice on the right side of the issue!

  7. Katherine, thanks for the references. Setha Low identified a number of reasons why people move behind the gate, including a fear of a more ethnically diverse America. My husband and I lived in the US from 2000 to 2007. We saw a significant rise in that fear post 9/11 which no doubt accelerated the flight to gated communities. As Low points out, moving behind the gate doesn’t increase personal safety, but I worry that the isolation and homogeneity of the gated community would increase the prejudice that fuels that fear.

    Rebecca Solnit’s conclusion that people pitch in to help in a disaster as a result of a yearning for community, purposefulness and meaningful work was enlightening.

  8. Bruce Jackson says:

    The movie “The Truman Show” with its “phenomenological alchemists nightmarish” themes could be a preview of what this development might bring. The egos can delude people into believing that one is self made and successful but in reality one is influenced by even bigger egos who manipulate the sense of self worth and entitlement. I’d rather go to the other gated community – the homeless shelters where people are their “true selves” with no pretence.

    • Bruce you touch on a very important point, that of ego. I’ve often wondered how anyone can believe that because they’re in the 1% they are somehow smarter and harder working than the remaining 99%. They often fail to recognize the competitive advantages of being born white, male and into a well-to-do or comfortably middle class family. Those attributes are unearned but they can make the difference between success and failure. When these fortunate individuals finish their educations, land good jobs, work their way up the corporate ladder and earn salaries in excess of $500,000 they can become deluded into thinking they deserve this money because they’re smarter and harder workers than those layabouts over there. I’ve had the opportunity of working with dozens of senior executives. Some were brilliant, down to earth and deserved to be well compensated. Others landed in the catbird seat through sheer blind luck–it was all I could do not to smack them upside the head when they blathered on about how they deserved every cent and more for their efforts.

  9. Ted says:

    Sounds like Weber Academy.

    • Oh oh…private schools. This one is complicated by the fact that our public school system has failed so many kids, not just special needs students but others who can’t cope in class rooms of 40+ students with inadequate equipment and not enough teaching staff and aides. It’s a topic that deserves it’s own post….

  10. Just as a matter of interest, what are the other “gated” communities in Calgary that were approved before the “ban” (or whatever) 12 years ago? I am guessing Mr. Soapbox knows, ’cause I don’t. I live in the same upscale neighborhood (with all respect to our ideas of economic equality, I would say “highest” scale) that you do (and we have our own “gates” which you conveniently neglect to mention) and have also lived in Calgary for almost 50 years. Given my previous job, I did mix with a lot of the “posh” — and I can’t ever recall going into a gated community, and I don’t think I know anyone who lives in one. So I kind of wonder where they are and none of the coverage on this issue has provided a list.

    Hence, I’d be inclined to agree with the “dissenting” commissioner about it being mainly a marketing ploy (since nobody can say “we’ll be just like whoever”, since we don’t know “whoever” is) — with the added caveats that you raise in your post about the large number of “servant” class people (and I don’t mean that to be taken as a put down) who will be given the code, which does rather explode the whole idea.

    All in all, with only 22 lots involved (note from the picture you used that a lot more also have docks on the “lake” — which I would argue is better described as a “slough”), it hardly seems to be a huge matter of public policy. As a longtime Calgarian, I would say the barrier was broken with “Slough” Bonavista some decades back — a number of “slough” developments (see how the language destroys the poshness of it all) have followed and we seem to have survived just fine. Putting a wall around one hardly seems to be a big deal.

    Imagine. If you want to put one of these 22 types down, just say: “Oh … you’ve bought one of those gated properties in Slough Mahogany” and watch how they respond.

  11. Howdy Kevin. Five gated communities were approved before City Council said enough, no more. These are Windsor Park, McKenzie Lake, Patterson Heights, Discovery Ridge and Springbank Hill.

    I have two issues with gated communities in Calgary. The first is the one expressed in the Golby article and Kathleen Lowrey’s references. The second is CPC’s failure to align with the vision expressed by over 20,000 Calgarians over years of consultation—the desire for communities that link residents to each other and their neighbourhoods. This vision was formalized in the MDP and confirmed by City Council in 2001. Seems to me the Land Use By-law or whatever it was that gave the Commissioners the discretion to deviate from the MDP was either too broadly interpreted or a flaw in the regulations. Having said all that if the citizens of Calgary have had a change of heart in how they want to see their city developed they should contact their councillors and push for a revision to the MDP.

    I take your point about our neighbourhood but would argue that the “gates” are economic, not physical, and anyone who wants to go for a nice walk through the neighbourhood is free to do so without being tossed out for trespassing. Mr Soapbox and I spent many a pleasant Sunday afternoon touring the neighbourhood and picking up ideas that we could transplant back to our little house on the other side of the river before we finally moved here.

    “Mahogany Slough”. Love it. I wonder what it’s like in mosquito season.

    • Thanks for the list — I am inclined to think that it confirms the “marketing ploy” analysis. And I would agree that Calgary (and the developers and homebuilders) have done just fine without this particular ploy.

  12. Jean says:

    One wonders about the Calgary Planning Commission.

    As for the person’s query to you, “How about condos?” It’s not even the same thing at all. Most people who choose to live in a condo aren’t for the sense of community inside a secure’s merely a lifestyle choice of not having to shovel snow, living on 1 level as one ages, etc. Not all buildings have all amenities (sometimes it’s better not to, it reduces common costs). I would argue heavily that condo living actually means a lot of sharing of common amenities in closer quarters with other residential units directly above/below and beside yours. Very different for higher density living.

  13. Hello Susan,

    I am the host and producer of Calgary Now – a local access television show that airs on ShawTV Calgary. I would like to invite you to appear on our program. Can we correspond privately perhaps?

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