Cul-de-sacs in 2020?

The end of the year always elicits a relentless outpouring of Top 10 lists.  Since it’s the end of a decade, we’re officially in Top 10 overload with a strong emphasis on obsolescence: obsolete technologies, fashions, professions, etc….  Rather than dwell on the past, it’s more interesting to consider things in the early stages of extinction in order to speculate what might be on those lists in 2020. For example: cul-de-sacs.

Are cul-de-sacs an endangered species? Maybe so according to an article in the NY Times magazine: “Virginia, under Governor Tim Kaine (Democrat), became the first state to severely limit cul-de-sacs from future developments. New rules require that all new subdivisions attain a certain level of “connectivity,” with ample through streets connecting them to other neighborhoods and nearby commercial areas. If subdivisions fail to comply, Virginia won’t provide maintenance and snowplow services, a big disincentive in a state where the government provides 83 percent of road services.” The message is clear: Pony up developers! You can build your beloved cul-de-sacs, but not on our dime! 

To satisfy my curiosity, I had to do a little research on how cul-de-sacs gained traction. Turns out cul-de-sacs can be traced to Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City prototype. The first appeared in the Hampstead Garden suburb in England, albeit in an inchoate form: a short and narrow stick, but minus the lollipop ending. Leave it to New Jersey to bring the first cul-de-sacs to the US in 1924 (see master plan for Radner, NJ below).  American developers and the FHA saw cul-de-sacs as an answer to a suburban planning problem, a device for filling in the otherwise undevelopable nooks and crannies in oddly-shaped parcels.  The FHA, though well-intentioned, was actually acting as unwitting enabler, giving developers carte blanche to sprinkle their subdivisions with needless cul-de-sacs, who inevitably did so after discovering they could charge a premium for these lots.

The impetus for a cul-de-sac ceasefire began with a debunking of the safety effects of non-through streets. Turns out there are no such effects, leading smart growth planners to steadily campaign against them in favor of better connectivity.  But will cul-de-sacs really get the ax? As someone who grew up in a fairly typical suburban neighborhood, I have mixed feelings. (So, too, does NPR’s own Robert Siegel, who half-heartedly defends living on a cul-de-sac in his Virginia home) Gridded urban space requires the occasional idiosyncrasy in street morphology to be interesting or charming or both, but does suburbia?



4 thoughts on “Cul-de-sacs in 2020?

  1. On the other hand, don’t cul de sacs decrease vehicular traffic through a neighborhood thereby making it safer for children who might be outside playing? Or do children still play outside?

  2. I actually live on one of those "real" urban cul-de-sacs, born of topographical necessity rather than suburban aspiration (there is a stone cliff at the end of it). With respect to its social functionality, it is very successful – kids play in the circle, neighbors know each other, it is quiet, etc. That said, were it not for the continuous urbanism surrounding it, I’m not sure it would have the same appeal.

  3. I grew up on a suburban cul-de-sac and garnered both the benefits and detriments. We had regular block parties, and kids were constantly playing outside. As far as I can tell, they still are. (My folks still live there.) But like many developments in suburbia, it is a pain to get from place to place. Acknowledging that the disconnectedness inherent in the cul-de-sac plan has real downsides, there may also be the potential for a kind of inadvertent upside: you really get to know your neighbors. While I don’t have any evidence to support my theory, it seems that I built a stronger bond with these neighbors than I would have had our street been a through-way to points beyond – something about the shared experience of being "stuck" on the same dead-end in the labyrinth.

  4. As a follow-up, I couldn’t resist posting this article from today’s Times, “Street Corners vs. Cul de Sacs.”“A study published in August by C.E.O.’s for Cities, a group of urban redevelopment advocates, found that in many ways, the street corner beats the cul de sac. It looked at the sales of 90,000 homes in 15 markets to estimate how much value was associated with something called the Walk Score. Using a 100-point scale, this score rates the number of destinations, including libraries, parks and coffee shops, within walking distance of a home.”Using the kind of data-driven analysis that characterizes innovative education policy these days, the gist of the article is that homes with better “walk scores” tend to depreciate less. The real takeaway? = totally awesome. My home scores an 88, i.e. “Very Walkable.” Not quite a “Walker’s Paradise,” but still pretty damn good. How does your address stack up?

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