The “Wall of Shame” in Lima, Peru, stands at three metres tall, is built of thick concrete and crowned with reels of barbed wire. This imposing barrier is one of the starkest examples of Peru’s growing penchant for gated communities.
In some ways, it is not unlike the barriers that mark out battle lines and borders; from Israel and Palestine’s “security wall” and Belfast’s peace walls to the US border with Mexico. All of these walls outline physical spaces in a way that controls, excludes and limits access to resources, land and even cultural identity.
But there are also marked differences: rather than intercepting people of different ethnicities, political allegiances or nationalities, the Wall of Shame was built to exclude poor and disadvantaged citizens from more affluent areas of the city. It is built along class lines, rather than ethnic borders.
So how did this concept make its way from the US, where gated communities have been commonplace since the 1980s, into Latin America?
The Wall of Shame was built 30 years ago by an association of neighbours from Las Casuarinas – an affluent area in the Santiago de Surco district – to separate them from the nearby area of Pamplona Alta. Situated in the district of San Juan de Miraflores, Pamplona Alta is one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Lima.
The differences between the two sides of the wall are striking. The Santiago de Surco side has cameras and guards to provide security for houses, which sprawl over 1,000m², surrounded by pools and lush gardens. Meanwhile, on the San Juan de Miraflores side, residents often fall victim to robbery and theft. They live in houses of barely 25m², made from scrap material, surrounded by the sand and earth characteristic of Lima’s desert landscape.
In this city, greenery indicates wealth. Most residents of Pamplona Alta’s informal settlements do not have access to fresh, running water – instead, they have to pay for water to be delivered by lorries. Meanwhile, their affluent neighbours across the wall – who are recognised by public authorities as landowners – have cheap water piped straight to their houses.
Oxfam estimates that a poor resident in Lima will pay ten times as much for water as someone living in an area like Las Casuarinas. But while these circumstances are alarming, they’re far from new.
As far back as colonial times, a protective wall surrounded the centre of Lima, which came to be known as “la ciudad amurallada” (the walled city). Wealthy and politically powerful citizens lived within the walls, while lower social classes lived outside – a pattern repeated in other colonial cities such as Santiago. Social inequalities were physically reinforced, as those living outside the walls had their access to basic services – such as security and water – restricted.
As the city expanded, Lima’s hierarchical order was maintained, in which the rich occupied the centre of the city, surrounded by the middle class, with the lower social class inhabiting the peripheries. But this configuration was quickly transformed when Lima experienced a dramatic growth during the second half of the 20th century.
Between 1940 and 2005, the population of Lima grew tenfold, from 0.65m to 8.1m inhabitants. Growth accelerated because of migration from the countryside into the city, as significant regional inequalities caused people to mobilise in search of better opportunities.
The rate of internal migration was particularly significant during the 1980s, as a severe economic crisis – coupled with internal conflicts between the armed forces and terrorist groups such as Shining Path – led to a growing sense of insecurity. With these changes, Lima grew into a city that was perceived as dangerous, polluted and threatened by crime and social turmoil.
Meanwhile, a new trend was emerging across Latin American cities: affluent social classes started to move away from city centres in an effort to escape urban areas which no longer felt welcoming. They followed the example set by the United States, where cheaper land prices in the city’s outskirts enabled the construction of new suburban residential areas.
This meant that social groups, which traditionally occupied distanced geographical spaces, now shared the same territory: both the upper and lower social classes mingled in the city’s peripheries.
To quell a growing fear of their poorer neighbours, affluent new residents built gated communities with heavy security installations which prevent people living outside those areas to pass through them. It’s not just a matter of security – living within a gated community also confers social status. The walls deter and immobilise: they are an expression of power and control over the lives of others.
Whereas many other gated communities – for example, in the US – are planned before construction by private developers, the walls surrounding the affluent neighbourhoods in the peripheries of Lima and other Latin American cities appeared after construction; promoted and paid for by an association of neighbours.
The new normal
In the Peruvian capital, this practice spans across all social classes. It is common for organised groups of neighbours to implement barriers around their houses, blocking access to public spaces and streets. This is often done without the permission of local and metropolitan authorities. Here, the power of the state – which is all too evident at the barriers that appear at national borders – is nowhere to be seen.
By 2006, it was estimated that there were around 3,000 walls, fences, and other types of physical structures effectively preventing free passage through the streets of Lima. The result is a metropolitan area made up of conflicting collectives, which are unable to come together to form a shared identity.
Gated communities are the new normal in Lima of which the Wall of Shame is a notable example. And it speaks to a growing trend in urbanisation across the globe: that is, the ubiquitous presence of walls. One cannot help but wonder whether this is the type of city one would really want to live in.