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Do We Need Cul-de-sacs?

The cul-de-sacs are dead end streets which used to be prominent for many generations in suburban cities and still continue to exist in some of the suburbs around the world. But are they a necessity or an obstacle in today's cities and suburbs?

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An Ariel view of Cul-de-sacs (Wikipedia Commons)

An Ariel view of Cul-de-sacs (Wikipedia Commons)

The cul-de-sacs are dead end streets which used to be prominent for many generations in suburban cities and still continue to exist in some of the suburbs around the world. The cul-de-sac is usually circular in nature and provides a two way entrance in and out of the specific area. They are mostly found in developed countries which follow European streetscapes with well organized street structures. According to Andrew Wilson, “In its typical manifestation, the suburban cul-de-sac is a relatively short street, usually less than 1,000 feet, serving up to 20 dwellings.  It is terminated by a circular turn-around space large enough in diameter for service and emergency vehicles to turn around in, with a typical radius of 35 to 40 feet.” “In its typical manifestation, the suburban cul-de-sac is a relatively short street, usually less than 1,000 feet, serving up to 20 dwellings.”

In the olden days, the cul-de-sacs were mostly incorporated into garden suburbs which were built away from cities of large industrial activities in order to create a well-marked residential locality without the noise and traffic of city life. They were popular, accessible and affordable by wealthy residents as the values of houses built in suburban cul-de-sacs were much higher than those houses located in normal streets.  As these dead end streets have historical significance associated with them most of them are already developed without much room for new architecture in the area.

The cul-de-sacs have many advantages to them. For instance, they promote walking and bicycle use and do not allow cars or other big motor vehicles to pass through except those of residents.  “Today, they are sometimes formed as unplanned streets to reduce the flow of traffic through an area and to protect children who play there. A variation of the cul-de-sac is to have pathways that bicycles or pedestrians can take to get to another street, but they do not allow cars to pass through.” This reduction of car traffic within the subdivision, also declines noise, crime, air pollution and the possibility of road accidents. These streets are well known to increase outdoor activities of children within the community as there is less vehicular threat in these suburbs. There is also communal bond as most people in and around the cul-de-sacs get acquainted with each other. However, cul-de-sacs encourage car culture for short distances and having a car is almost mandatory for residents living around these streets.

History of the Cul-de-sacs

The Hampstead Garden Suburb in England has been understood as “the first time a planned development systematically used the cul-de-sac and open court throughout.” Other garden cities in the U.K. also followed the cul-de-sac model, such as the Welwyn Garden City. Although cul-de-sacs were founded in the U.K. in and before the 1800s, they became prominent globally only in the 1900s after they were incorporated into the suburban streets of America.

The concept of garden city from the U.K. was first employed in Radburn, USA, following the objective to build a garden city in America similar to that of the U.K. The U.S. Federal Housing Authority promoted the use of cul-de-sacs in their 1936 guidelines. As they gained popularity among residents and officially became legal, these dead end streets were also used in Canada and Australasia. Cul-de-sacs gained more appreciation in other newly planned cities such as Doxiadis’ in Islamabad.

Cul-de-sacs became a standard model in most suburban houses after the 1900s. The American use of cul-de-sacs emphasized a grid plan structure where streets could be measured through right angles, forming a grid. These days, cul-de-sacs are known as the “basic building block of the American suburb.”  This design structure helped to highlight the importance of pedestrian movement and established housing as a peaceful place away from the regular street or CBD (Central Business District) lifestyle.  The functions of the cul-de-sacs have changed through history with unplanned cul-de-sacs also emerging in many cities worldwide to improve the flow of traffic and usability of roads to pedestrians.

Cars passing around a typical cul-de-sac (Image: UrbanGrammar / Flickr)

Cars passing around a typical cul-de-sac (Image: UrbanGrammar / Flickr)

Debates surrounding Cul-de-sacs

Despite its popularity, cul-de-sacs have been heavily criticized by new urbanists and other theorists. In the History and Flaws of the Cul De Sacs, Nate Burn emphasizes the following:

“Cul-de-sacs by definition aren’t well connected to other streets and they are far away town centers. People can argue whether or not these are pros or cons, depending on what lifestyle choices they prioritize. For little kids, cul-de-sacs can be great, but they do have some real, quantifiable design flaws.”

The Foundation for the Built Environment in the U.K. has also criticized cul-de-sacs for encouraging car use which increases fuel emissions and for the possibility of obesity growth around these suburbs leading to a sense of suburban isolation. However, although some research highlight car emission and obesity as a problem, they are much less compared to other streets which do not have cul-de-sacs and walk-ability around the neighborhood is more accessible in cul-de-sacs.

Safety in the cul-de-sac has also been critiqued as indicated in the article by John Nielsen in Cul-de-Sacs: Suburban Dream or Dead End:”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. And it would be expected that the main people doing the backing over would in fact be family members, usually the parents.”

Even with these drawbacks, cul-de-sacs still continue to be used as a model for urbanism and do not seem to be going out of existence any time soon.

What is your opinion on Cul-de-sacs? Would you live in one? Should they continue as suburban icons or not? Share your feedback in the comments section below.