Cul-de-Sacs: Suburban Dream or Dead End? by John Nielsen
Next time you take a plane flight, take a look out the window. If you're over a city, you'll see roads that form a grid connecting homes, offices and stores.
But if you are flying over the suburbs, you'll see roads that look like trees. The trunks are great big feeder streets with branches splitting off. At the ends of the branches are what look like circular leaves.
Those are the cul-de-sacs, the dead-end streets that have become a symbol of suburban life. Since the end of World War II, millions of cul-de-sacs have been built on the fringes of American cities.
The Lure of the Cul-De-Sac
In recent years, however, the cul-de-sac has fallen out of favor with urban planners and architects. Some cities have even banned them.
To understand why, I recently visited a cul-de-sac in Carderock Springs, Md., where I lived when I was in the sixth and seventh grades.
Traveling with me was Jeff Speck, an urban planner who works at the National Endowment for the Arts.
Behold "the American dream, circa 1960," he said, surveying my old neighborhood. "One, two, three, four, five houses surrounding a circular drive. Each house looks inward at the donut hole of plants in the middle. Each house is very carefully designed with windows on the front and back and not on the sides, so they don't really see each other."
Now, I had some trouble finding my own house because the trees are so much taller now. But some things haven't changed. First, you can still hear the rumble of traffic on the nearby freeway.
"And the other thing we hear are the birds," said Speck. "And that's actually the Scylla and Charybdis of the suburban condition. On the one hand, you do have this feeling of a close contact with nature, because you don't have cars going by every minute within the community. The only cars that come by are going to be the ones that are parking nearby."
On the other hand, there's the problem of having to drive you car almost everywhere. Or, in Speck's words, the uneasy feeling that "your car is no longer an instrument of freedom but a prosthetic device."
Driving is the only way to get from a typical cul-de-sac to a restaurant, a store or your office. And on the roads that funnel back to that main trunk, the traffic is usually awful.
That is one reason urban planners such as Speck do not think much of cul-de-sacs. Neither do anti-sprawl activists, many architects and some city managers and mayors.
If these critics have a leader, it is probably William Lucy, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Virginia. He says a national debate is brewing about the future of the cul-de-sac.
"The era of the cul-de-sac is certainly threatened; it’s a battleground," Lucy says. "The professionals tend to think that the connected neighborhood is the good neighborhood. And the developers and the realtors are more of a mixed mind."
Some of the earliest American cul-de-sac communities were built in Radburn, N.J., in the 1920s. By the mid-1950s, they were everywhere. Developers learned that cul-de-sacs allowed them to fit more houses into oddly shaped tracts, and to build right up to the edges of rivers and property lines.
"Going over the lines had two problems," Lucy says. "One, it was expensive to try to traverse the obstacles. Second, it made connection to other neighborhoods or other subdivisions, and that was contrary to the notion of safety."
Lucy says safety has always been a big selling point for cul-de-sacs. From the beginning, builders noted that they gave fire trucks extra room to turn around, and that they prevented strange cars from speeding by on their way to somewhere else. Ads for cul-de-sacs often pictured children riding bikes and tricycles in the street.
These days, those images seem grimly ironic to people who actually look at safety statistics. For example, Lucy says cul-de-sac communities turn out to have some of the highest rates of traffic accidents involving young children.
"The actual research about injuries and deaths to small children under five is that the main cause of death is being backed over, not being driven over forward," he says. "And it would be expected that the main people doing the backing over would in fact be family members, usually the parents."
Armed with such arguments, critics of the cul-de-sac have won some victories in recent years. In cities such as Charlotte, N.C., Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas, construction of cul-de-sac-based suburbs has basically been banned. In other places, cul-de-sac communities have been retrofitted with cross streets.
Safe in the American Dream
But one important group still appears to be in love with the cul-de-sac: homebuyers.
Theres Kellerman, a realtor who lives and works in Carderock Springs, says buyers still line up to live on dead streets.
"When I put ads in about a house that has just been listed, if it has a cul-de-sac I say: 'Cul-de-sac location -- location within location,'" says Kellerman. "It has no through street, [so] nobody will race by -- not even the teenagers that go on their little racing sprees, because they can't go anywhere."
A recent study backs up Kellerman. It showed that buyers will pay 20 percent more for a home on a cul-de-sac.
Even cul-de-sac critic Jeff Speck says he understands the attraction. In recent years, he's helped design some well-known grid-like "new towns," where it is possible to walk to places like a corner store. But for some cul-de-sacs -- like the one in Carderock Springs -- Speck says he would do some extra driving.
"I am not embarrassed to say [that] if I could afford this I would happily raise a family in this environment," he says.
And Speck says this isn't just an American dream anymore. He says that in countries like the Philippines and China, and in parts of the Middle East, cul-de-sacs are fast becoming all the rage.