When I first commented on the Trayvon Martin murder, I noted that few people emphasized the fact that Martin wasn't murdered in a city like Baltimore, but rather in a gated community. Ironically it's called "The Retreat." A week later, Richard Benjamin examined the siege mentality produced by gated communities in a New York Times op-ed.

Kofi M. Boone is an Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at North Carolina State University. Below, he goes into a bit more depth. 


Along with the rest of the country I am horrified and outraged by the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, as well as the conspicuously prejudiced (in)action of the Sanford, Florida police department. Beginning with a little reported altercation that occurred on the night of February 26, 2012, and currently a national movement for justice, the Trayvon Martin case has challenged the popular trend in considering the election of Barack Obama as the tipping point in the construction of a "post-racial" America. It turns out that America is not color blind at all just "blind" when considering the lingering effects of race, gender, and class. Especially with regards to the perceived threat of young black men to non-black people when encountered in places where "young black men shouldn't be."

However as a designer and educator I am also struck by the place of Martin's death. I can't help but wonder if and how the environment where this crime occurred impacted the perceptions of Zimmerman that Martin was engaged in suspicious behavior, that in turn led to the lethal encounter. I'm also struck by the "witnesses" that have come forward, piecing together events from non-visual cues: cellphone calls, sounds through walls, glimpses through windows. Surely, crimes and even murders occur in all types of communities, but the juxtaposition of the mounting evidence of wrong doing by Zimmerman with the inability to deliver a clear picture of what actually occurred begs a question; does where this occurred matter??

Trayvon Martin was killed in The Retreat at Twin Lakes, a gated community in Sanford, Florida. I've watched the news coverage of the area for weeks and I'm struck by the many cues in the community layout itself that contribute to a lack of public community life, and possibly to a lack of perceived security. The Retreat is not extraordinary in any way from a design perspective. After penetrating the gate and fence, one travels along streets with chopped up or no sidewalks. There are few trees, benches, lights, or fences. Houses face the streets but they are dominated by large driveways and garage entries. There are front doors and stoops, but they are recessed and lack any connection to the street. Townhomes are close together, but with side yards separating units, which creates no real line demarcating public space from private space; a hallmark of community security. Rear yard space is continuous, lacking any boundaries to separate ones' rearyard from another. I have observed a few people on any sidewalk of street during news coverage; not a child playing in a park, or people using this community for more than their homes.  

 Over 40 years ago, noted urbanist Jane Jacobs proposed the idea that community safety comes from several factors, including community pattern. In The Death and Life of American Cities, she describes how to promote community safety by design; not through making each individual home a fortress, but by creating relationships between buildings and streets that promote walking and public life. She advocated for "Natural Surveillance", designing places that allow people to observe and informally monitor activities in the piublic realm from their homes; either through viewing from a window, or sitting on a stoop or porch. 
It is too easy to say that Jane Jacobs would not approve of the communuty pattern of "The Retreat". However, when contrasted with all of the comunity design principles professionals know promote public life and perceived safety, the layout of The Retreat in fact promotes insecurity. Any night watchman, official or self-appointed, would be hard pressed to observe all four sides of every home in tThe Retreat. In the rear yeard and side yard areas, invisible from streets, the only way to monitor activities is on foot, and every yard presents an easy escape for any criminal. The irony of The Retreat is that not unlike many other gated communities, the actual forces that people wanted to retreat from (including fear of crime) are actually supported by the community pattern. And this insecure pattern could overburden and overwhelm anyone charged with protecting this place. 
This doesn't even account for the broader socio-economic forces which led to the development of suburban gated enclaves in the first place. Initially fueled by white flight and the desire for distance from urban communities, the attractors that previously only drew white affluent and middle class people are now attracting middle class people of color. The embedded socio-economic and racial tensions in shifting suburban demographics also contribute to a climate of suspicion and fear of "the other". The implication that Trayvon Martin resembled someone who was previously up to no good, that didn't belong, smacks of the struggle with damaging stereotypes dying a p[ainful death. Tragically, a life was lost by actions in service to prejudiced views. 
Lacking a public life enabled in The Retreat enabled by community design patterns, one is left with the contents of the homes, and little to connect them to each other and their surroundings. One wonders if this contributed to the conspicuous lack of clear and substantive witness accounts to a murder literally in the middle of the community. This overall community disengagement, by the people and the place, seem apparent in the depiction of "The Retreat." As a black man with a son, I share the desire for justice as restitution for a terrible act. But I also call for considering how we can transform our communities and places to enable a thriving and safe public realm.