Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Cul-de-sac Nation

An affair with urban policy has a nice write-up on a recent NYTimes article about growing opposition to cul-de-sacs. Like a lot of urban planning enthusiasts, I found the article intriguing; having posted a short comment on Zach's site, I think it's worthwhile to follow up with a more thorough explanation of why cul-de-sacs are not true public spaces.

First of all, let's review (1) the basics of what constitutes a cul-de-sac and (2) why a misguided urban planner might mistake it for a public space. A cul-de-sac is a dead-end road, widened into a circular shape, with houses ringing that shape. You can usually cram a half-dozen or so houses onto a cul-de-sac. From a potential home-buyer's perspective, it offers a number of advantages: increased yard space (because of the wedge-shaped properties), slower-moving traffic (which makes it safer for your kids to play), privacy (only a half-dozen houses on the block!), and a vague yet non-encumbering sense of community (a half-dozen houses constitutes a community!?). Real estate developers love cul-de-sacs; houses sell for more and their brochures can include pictures of happy kids skate-boarding and making elaborate chalk drawings in the cul-de-sac itself.

So, why might an urban planner mistakenly categorize a cul-de-sac as a public space? This bizarre misbegotten spawn of irrational thinking could arise by focusing on one necessary (but not sufficient) aspect of a public space: visibility. In a public space, actors are visible to other actors. For instance, consider a shopping mall or, better yet, the front steps of a county courthouse. People in these two places, both in passing through these places and conducting business, see each other. Because of the layout of these places, it is impossible not to be seen. (For contrast, consider the world of Internet commerce, where millions of consumers come and go without ever having to leave their home or come face-to-face with their fellow shoppers). The quintessential public space was the Greek agora (or its modern equivalent, the New England town meeting), where citizens met to discuss politics. A cul-de-sac does indeed resemble a public place insofar as residents of the cul-de-sac itself are exposed to (otherwise put: can be seen by) their neighbors. That is, a resident of a cul-de-sac, in conducting his daily residential activities (mowing the lawn, going to / coming from work, playing croquet with his kids in the front yard, watching porn with the wife with the curtains open, etc.) is visible to all of his cul-de-sac neighbors. This is in contrast to a traditional street, where one's activities are visible primarily to the house on the other side of the street. In a cul-de-sac, a large amount of a resident's activities are visible to his fellow neighbors.

"Aha!" say those (mistaken) urban planners. "Cul-de-sacs are public spaces, because the visibility requirement is met!" What these planners forget, however, is that a public space has other requirements, including:

1. Heterogeneity of users. In a public space, there a variety of people visiting it. In a park, for instance, there are young couples, old couples, single people, families, homeless people, park employees, high school sports teams, musicians, gardeners, photographers, and so on. In a cul-de-sac, however, the vast majority of people using the cul-de-sac are the residents themselves (a small group of people at that).

2. Heterogeneity of uses. In addition to the variety of users of a public space, there are (logically enough) a variety of uses. Consider Crocker Park, an outdoor mall and frequent haunt of mine. There are retail uses (mostly clothing stores), entertainment (a movie theater), quasi-intellectual stimulation (a bookstore/cafe), and of course dining (plenty of restaurants). Also, there's outdoor space dedicated to lounging (lots of chairs & tables, along with several chess boards). In contrast, life on a cul-de-sac is decidedly residential in nature.

3. Conductivity. Lastly, a public space is not just a place for a variety of people to do a variety of things, it is also a place through which people pass on their way to other places (ok, that was a little awkwardly worded). More simply put, a public space allows people to pass through it. It is like a road, in this sense. Consider Market Square on Cleveland's West Side. This open-air space on the corner of Lorain and West 25th not only hosts a variety of events for a variety of users, but it also readily serves as a thoroughfare for pedestrian traffic around the neighborhood. Most importantly, cul-de-sacs lack this quality. Since cul-de-sacs are by their nature dead-ends in the road system, they cannot function as pass-throughs for non-residents.

Having babbled long enough on the subject, I'll try to wrap things up. My point is this: cul-de-sacs do indeed meet the first requirement of a public space (visibility), but they lack a suitable mix of users & uses, and by virtue of their layout cannot functions as conduits. The practical result is that while cul-de-sacs are pleasant to live on and command a premium in the housing market, they do not in fact constitute public places.


Blogger fester said...

As Jonathan Potts noted in comments at AntiRust, cul-de-sacs are a symptom of an anti-urban bias and not the cause of that bias in residential construction trends and codes. I often wonder how much of the planning guides that encouraged cul-de-sacs were misguided versus just shooting for a different objective as most of the planning profession as it arose from the City Beautiful ideology saw cities as dirty, nasty and uneconomical. Crowds and interactions with strangers were also to be avoided. Therefore cul-de-sacs performed beautifully as quasi-public space while neccessitating a non-urban design.

I don't think that cul-de-sacs are misguided when they were used for the purpose that they were designed for --- instead they are highly optimized pieces of engineering that support the marketing plan and ideological assumptions about what the "good life" should look like.

4:22 PM  
Blogger onetenchelsea said...

Great post.

4:23 PM  
Blogger zkorb said...

I like your definition (or criteria) for public spaces.

How does the element of "monitoring" fit within the the conception of a public space?

The point I'm touching on is how "public" does a public space have to be? Is the mall a public space - even though it is in a privatized area? In Minneapolis, are the skyways public sapce, even though they are private?

According to your criteria, I guess that would be yes, they are public space. I tend to agree, but they are sort of a different class of public spaces. Maybe we just call them "inside public spaces" (i.e. inside the watchful eyes of some hired security company)?

2:57 PM  
Blogger John Michlig said...

Great post (and linked at my blog), but I disagree that there is "visibility to neighbors" on most cul-de-sacs. On mine, "pie-slice" shaped lots mean you can drive your car into your garage, proceed through your house and into your back yard without seeing a single neighbor.

Frankly, you need not have any contact whatsoever with neighbors as the front yard is generally a small wedge.

10:44 AM  
Blogger Stephen Gross said...

In response to John Michlig's comments:

Good point! I was thinking about cul-de-sacs in the South (where I grew up), where driveway parking is more common than garage parking. In that circumstance, it's less common to park in the garage and hide from your neighbors. But you're certainly correct that there are many cul-de-sacs where you can park in your garage and never see anyone in your neighborhood.

1:31 PM  

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