The Cul De Sac : A Suburban Icon
The word ‘cul-de-sac’ began as an old French hunting term. It translates, literally, as ‘bottom of the bag’ – where snared rabbits were shoved, face down, to keep in the dark and restrict their motion.
Monkston’s street layout, though attractive in plan and on paper, feels confusing, unwelcoming and suffocating on the ground. Four streets lead out of the neighbourhood to connect with the main grid roads and two further streets connect with neighbouring grid squares via an underpass, the remainder are dead ends and cul de sacs.
Is the literal translation dangerously close to the reality?
The modern cul-de-sac was invented about a century ago in England, and was adopted by the United States in 1928. Essentially they are designed to bar traffic and give residents a secluded public space. The strategy does create safe, quiet neighbourhoods but also lengthens the journey to anywhere else which has given urbanists, planners and environmentalists cause to wage war on this suburban icon.
The case for…
Advocates say cul-de-sacs embody the idea of ‘defensible space’, now common in British planning and policing, which contends that crime is deterred when access is limited and residents own or take responsibility for the spaces around their homes. As for safety, they insist, cul-de-sacs win hands-down.
Criminals stay away, they say, because everyone can see the street from their homes, intruders are obvious and there’s just one escape route. A study that showed burglary rates soared when cycling and walking paths were punched through one British cul-de-sac to create connections. Another study found crime fell 26% after a ‘troubled’ district in Dayton, Ohio, was restructured to create cul-de-sacs.
Ultimately, most residents insist they are a great place to raise families. They’re quiet and friendly and kids can learn to ride a bike or play in the road. Their parents all know each other; visit while their kids play, watch each other’s homes and often socialise together.
The case against…
Environmentalists say they consume vast amounts of land – much higher densities can be achieved in traditional grid neighbourhoods of straight streets and right-angle intersections – and they create car-dependent zones where inhabitants can create four times as many greenhouse gas emissions as city dwellers.
Some argue that they cause obesity – one study found that, due to their dependence on cars, people on cul-de-sacs weigh nearly three kilograms more than those in other street layouts – and that they are not necessarily as safe as people think. One British study says the burglary rate is 30 per cent higher and some actually turn out to have some of the highest rates of traffic accidents involving young children, the main cause of death being backed over by a vehicle unseen by a family member.
Other detractors claim that they segregate communities and entire neighbourhoods – isolated and insular, they can promote an atmosphere of self-absorption and pettiness that turns its back on the wider world.
I think community cohesion has more to do with shared ownership and common interest than street patterns. I didn’t see any children playing in the streets and cul de sacs of Monkston, but then I didn’t see anyone doing anything much anywhere in public at all. Any resident activity was taking place behind closed doors in private homes and gardens.
As for walking, transit and efficient land use, those are all benefits of density, and have more to do with general suburban sprawl than any street pattern. Grids do tend to house more people per hectare, but the gap between them and cul-de-sacs needn’t be as big as it is.
Would cul-de-sacs be so popular if they weren’t so spacious and so private? Space and privacy are, after all, key factors of the suburban dream. Instead of denying people the dream, shouldn’t we instead try to find new ways of making it more possible?