by Justin Giarritta, Associate Planner
Maria is the mother of three young boys who love being outdoors. Every day during the summer, her boys get together with all the neighborhood children and play basketball on their hoop at the end of their cul-de-sac in Novato, CA. Maria loves that her children have a safe place to play and that she can watch them from both her kitchen and her living room. Maria’s sister lives near downtown along a fairly busy street. Her sister has a son as well who also loves to play basketball and often heads to the neighborhood park to shoot some hoops. Unfortunately, the park closest to their house is small and the hoops are often taken. Cars often speed down the busier streets too, so her sister is often uneasy as her son rides his bike over to the park. Additionally, the park tends to attract a homeless population, so she tends to fear for his safety.
Omar’s alarm clock rings every weekday morning at 6:30 a.m. and he has to go to work. Many winter mornings, his Minneapolis, MN neighborhood receives measurable snowfall and the snow plows are quickly out to work clearing the streets. He lives in a moderately dense area within a mile of the University of Minnesota and is only a ten minute bus ride away from his job in downtown. He typically has no problems as the routes are cleared every morning by the City. On a typical winter morning, Omar makes it to work on time. His colleague lives in a cul-de-sac deep within a neighborhood of a surrounding suburb. That suburb also receives heavy snowfall regularly. Because his colleague’s home is deep within the subdivision, it takes considerably more time for the city to remove the snow from his community. By the time the streets are cleared, Omar’s colleague is often already late for work and is forced to work later into the evening to make up his time. During the winter months, the location of his home is often the reason he is late coming home.
Maria and Omar are both urban planners for their respective jurisdictions. They are good friends and both received their Master’s from the same university in the Bay Area. They both took many of the same classes as well and were taught the same material. Both Maria and Omar clearly have taken sides in the cul-de-sac debate and were asked to elaborate on those feelings for this article. Their views reflect their upbringing and current living situations respectively. Maria and Omar both provide excellent points and counterpoints to support and oppose the establishment of cul-de-sacs. Two interviews were conducted, and they were both asked to reflect on life on a cul-de-sac versus life in the city. Their answers were interesting and put this debate into perspective, and are expressed throughout the remainder of this article.
Maria’s Support of Cul-De-Sac’s
Today, more than 50-percent of Americans chose to reside in the suburbs. Many suburbs are comprised of cul-de-sacs. Ever since the end of World War II and since the beginning of the development of President Eisenhower’s Interstate System, sprawling communities have become a staple of society. Rural land was largely developed after World War II and the Interstate System became a major focus to connect the suburbs to the urban core. Many families prefer to live on cul-de-sacs, as they are safer alternatives to living in the city, have fewer cars as they have no outlet, and are quiet and peaceful. For many, having a home on a cul-de-sac is reflective of what it means to live the American Dream.
Suburban development was an attractive option for the military coming back from war because it gave soldiers and their families’ space. It also made sense for many at the time, as the development of the Interstate System correlated with the rise of automobile usage in the United States. Maria is a proponent of the suburbs and thoroughly enjoys living in her house with her family at the end of a cul-de-sac. The street that Maria lives on is safe for her children and her family. Her boys can play in the street with the other neighborhood children and she can keep guard on them while preparing dinner in the kitchen. It is also safer for her family as they do not typically fear their property being damaged like Maria used to while living closer to the city’s core. In her current living situation, she finds it easier keep track of her home and belongings with fewer distractions in her neighborhood. She is used to seeing the same faces on a daily basis, and the automobile and foreign foot traffic is lighter. When Maria went to school in San Francisco, she had her car broken into on three separate occasions, having valuables stolen from her each time. Figure 1 shows the annual crime rates from her hometown of Novato and San Francisco respectively. The annual crime rate per 1,000 residents is considerably lower in Novato, CA than San Francisco, which is where she went to college.
Even with such a high concentration of automobile usage in the suburbs, cul-de-sac’s have no outlet so cars rarely travel down her street. Maria does not have to deal with fast speeds or hear noise associated with automobile usage. In any residential neighborhood, cars moving at 25-mph speeds are dangerous and can cause serious injury to a pedestrian who is in the way. 25-mph speed limits are often the norm through suburban neighborhoods.
Lastly, Maria appreciates living on a cul-de-sac because it is peaceful and quiet. Maria has a stressful job, so being able to come home to relax is important. Being able to sleep with her windows open while listening to the leaves ruffling and birds chirping brings Maria a peace of mind that she would not as easily experience living closer to the city. Ultimately, like many soldiers coming back from war and many residents seeking the American Dream, Maria finds solace in living on a cul-de-sac and claims that it is better for her family. Although it is a major debate amongst planning practitioners, she will always defend her quiet suburban lifestyle.
Omar’s Support for a Denser Lifestyle
Prior to World War II and the development of President Eisenhower’s Interstate System, most residents lived close to major centralized hubs. Should Americans have the need to travel, they often used the railroad system to trek from one destination to another. Although the automobile had been invented and was relevant, most Americans could not afford to drive because of the Great Depression. Following World War II, the United States became an auto-centric society and relied heavily on the interstate system for travel between the suburbs and the urban core. This is when the suburbs and many cul-de-sac’s were built. In the last 20 years though, trends have reversed in many areas as cities have implemented growth management strategies to restrict cities from growing out. These cities have been encouraged to grow vertically, infill, or stop growing entirely. With a change of focus, many regions have halted advancing freeway development and redistributed the allocations to expand public transportation. The resurgence of public transportation has translated into the creation of more mixed-use development, particularly at or near transportation hubs. With this boost, some residents are hanging up the car keys because all needed goods and services are a short distance away.
Omar is one of these residents who find practicality living in the city. As a sustainability advocate, Omar is discouraged by the impervious surface and carbon footprint caused by the creation of cul-de-sac communities. An example of Omar’s concern is shown in Figure 2, as a resident must travel 3.7 miles to reach a destination that is only a few hundred feet away.
Omar understands the desire for peace and quiet, but living on a cul-de-sac is a waste of resources. He thinks that planners need to do a better job focusing on inner-city development through a grid system rather than sparsely developing through the creation of cul-de-sacs. If designed correctly, neighborhoods can flourish and needed resources and amenities will be available to residents within short distances. When Omar needs to buy food, he can take the bus or walk because the local grocery store is within a three block radius of his home. When Omar goes to work, he has a bus that can take him there. He is not paying parking fees or wasting time in traffic. With all the needed amenities in a nearby area, living in an urban neighborhood is easier, productive, and reduces carbon footprint. He also find that he has more time to focus on other aspects of his life, while others are wasting time behind the wheel.
Omar also prefers the urban lifestyle because energy is precious and there are often constraints to its availability. In his lifetime, Omar has seen the price of oil increase to a rate that he is not comfortable with, and choses to avoid the problem as much as he possible can. Even in a city like Minneapolis, he has been able to successfully live without a car. Gas prices fluctuate depending on the prices that distributing nations set for their oil. Living deep in a cul-de-sac requires unnecessary driving, and does not provide many public transportation options. Whether a resident is going to work, driving their children to school, or simply going to the store, they may have to drive unnecessary mileage to make these simple everyday things happen. Living in a compact development does not promote automobile usage. Some residents may own cars for long distance traveling, but they stay off the road when addressing their local needs. Although many feel that urban living is more expensive, Omar feels that offset costs from not driving even the playing field. Although this is a major debate amongst practitioners, Omar will always defend living in the city.
Decision & Conclusion
Ultimately, is it better to have a home on a cul-de-sac or to live on the grid? Clearly, it is all about the situation. A money sign cannot be put on perspective. Minnesota is not California. And Maria and Omar’s examples are not applicable everywhere. Even with the same education, it is clear that personal experience trumps what is taught in schools, even in Master and Doctorate programs where students dive deepest into the most relevant planning topics. The most wicked planning problems go far beyond land value and lot size. There are many examples of planners who have both succeeded and failed in certain situations to provide for their community, both urban and suburban. If residents such as Maria and Omar are finding solace in their community, it should not matter where they live. When choosing where to settle down, Maria and Omar have shown that it is important to fully evaluate the most important aspects of a neighborhood, and what is best for their families.
There is no right or wrong way to develop, but each situation comes with its compromises and consequences. The development of cul-de-sacs is not a planning failure, and neither is the allocation of too much density in one location. It is all based on the preference of the people. As practitioners, we are works of progress and it is important to analyze personal and specific examples as provided by Maria and Omar to fully evaluate the importance of planning for the future of human prosperity.
“Novato Crime Rates” 2017. Accessed September 15, 2017. https://www.neighborhoodscout.com/ca/novato/crime
“San Francisco Crime Rates” 2017. Accessed September 15, 2017. https://www.neighborhoodscout.com/ca/sanfrancisco/crime
"Chris Norstrom 's UI Designs, Logos, Inventions, & Products." Chris Norstrom. October 01, 11. Accessed September 15, 2017. https://chrisnorstrom.com/2011/10/the-great-cul-de-sac-problem-and-how-to-fix-alleviate-it/
"Interview with Maria." Telephone interview by author. September 15, 2017.
"Interview with Omar." Telephone interview by author. September 15, 2017.