Everything is designed to limit human contact, from the walls to the railings, hedges and security cameras on the rooftops. The only way in is with an access code, unless there is someone to meet you on the inside. Within lies an underground car park, with a fleet of cars any Arab prince would be proud of. From there, an elevator takes you directly to your room, without you having to see your neighbours. Once inside your apartment, don’t forget to close the armoured door behind you. A safe-like deadbolt will make you feel safe and secure in your home, here in the gated community of Bokrijkpark in Belgium.
Around 130 people live in 50 apartments at the complex. Above all, they come here for the peace and security. There are very few children in this fortress; most of the residents are retirees, or businessmen used to international nomadism, and who are big on security. However, Lenders & Partners, the architects behind the project, have not created an atmosphere of hysteria. There are no patrols by armed guards and certainly no watchtowers, nor is there barbed wire. The discreet services of Securitas are sufficient. Although Bokrijkpark is far from being ‘La Zona’, tranquility still has a price - the creation of a social divide.
Vian Vianen from the Netherlands crossed the border to live in Belgium two years ago. Vian was immediately won over by the walled neighbourhood. At the age of 72, he feels more vulnerable to possible attacks, which is why he moved into one of the complex’s six apartment buildings, hidden away behind clouds of lilac bushes. 'I like it here, I feel safe,' he says. 'I have nothing to worry about. It’s all designed to make you feel as secure as possible. I mean, we have an underground car park where they play music 24/7. It’s meant to make us feel safer, even if the risk of being attacked is practically zero.' Paradoxically, Vian doesn’t feel as if the risk is any greater in Genk or Hasselt. 'Well, you never know!' he says. Christina Wanten, a lively fifty-year-old, lives here for similar reasons. 'I travel a lot and I live by myself. When I come back from Singapore, Hong Kong, New York, or from some other bustling metropolis, I like a bit of quiet. Quiet is almost a religion here.' Christina admits that she sometimes feels uncomfortable when she considers her circumstances. 'You see, I live alone. I earn a very good living. I have a big BMW. People could be jealous of my success, and I don’t have a man to protect me. You could say that the walls and the cameras are like a big strong husband to me!'
Francis Haumont, a lawyer specialising in town planning, has a lukewarm attitude to these gilded ghettos. On the one hand, he doesn’t understand those who like the idea of a social divide. 'Removing yourself from the rest of society is not the solution, just like the establishment of a police state doesn’t resolve anything,' he says. 'To live peacefully, we need to create a sense of togetherness, not build walls.' However, he sees no legal reason which would put a stop to the expansion of this phenomenon. 'Everybody has the right to go and live there, there is no violation of the constitution. But money discriminates. If gated communities start becoming more common, measures will need to be put in place.' What Francis Haumont wants most of all is for the authorities to allow people the freedom to choose their own way of life.
'Removing yourself from the rest of society is not the solution'
Maximmo-Era, an estate agency in charge of the project, reject what they consider to be alarmist comments. 'Our clients are wealthy,' explains Jos Schellens, director of the agency. 'The price of one of our apartments varies from 750, 000 to one million euros. That doesn’t include a monthly charge of 350 euros towards the security. A parking space costs 20, 000 euros. That’s a lot of money. But we do ask our clients questions; we want to know where the funds come from, to weed out a certain clientele.'
Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium, is worried about this phenomenon, which has started to spread across Europe. The Walloon parliament affirmed that according to the law, the 'territory of the Walloon region belongs to its inhabitants'. Yet the region did not object to plans for a gated community at Messancy, near Luxembourg. This project never materialised due to a lack of funds. Whatever the case may be, in a world where walls are tumbling, barriers are coming down and people are mixing, these gated communities are like a mirage in a globalised world - but mirages often attract stray travellers.
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Images: main (cc) pensiero/ flickr/ official site; in-text: residence courtesy of © Bokrijkpark residentie official site, visual 'La Zona' film courtesy of © La Zona official film site/ videos: (cc) BigIdeaInc/ youtube