Dead end for the cul-de-sac?

Special to The Times

CITY planners shun them. New urbanists hate them. Boulder, Colo., all but banned them.

Cul-de-sacs -- those once-beloved icons of the suburban good life -- have become something of a demonized concept. The growing consensus among urban planners is that these lollipop-shaped streets hurt communities by chopping up neighborhoods, isolating children, intensifying traffic woes and discouraging walking.

Then why are so many still being built here?

Leave it to Southern California to defy the new convention. While cities across the country return to streets laid out on a traditional grid system, cul-de-sacs are springing up from Calabasas to Chula Vista. Yes, homeowners often fall in love with the quiet courts and initial sense of built-in neighborliness. But, experts say, just wait.


“The problem with the cul-de-sac is not the cul-de-sac itself,” says Jeff Speck, director of design at the National Endowment for the Arts and coauthor of “Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream.” Over time, he says, “very few streets carry most of the traffic and therefore must be exceedingly wide, creating an environment that is generally unwalkable.”

People inclined to leave their cul-de-sac usually face the equivalent of neighborhood highways -- a pedestrian nightmare of high-speed arterial streets that are unsafe for children and no fun for anyone, Speck says. Dead-end streets that start out as a playground for youngsters, he says, turn into a prison when children get older.

“Age 3 through 8, it’s great. Beyond there, you’re a captive,” says Speck, who along with his “Suburban Nation” coauthors coined the term “cul-de-sac kid” to describe children isolated by geography.

Indeed, woe to the adolescent who wants to walk or bike to a movie without begging Mom for a ride, says Michael Southworth, professor at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design and coauthor of “Streets and the Shaping of Towns and Cities.”


“I have a lot of students who have grown up on cul-de-sacs. They loved them until they were teenagers,” Southworth says. “Teenagers want more freedom to move around. They felt very isolated and really felt dependent on adults to take them to shopping centers and entertainment centers.”

NEW urbanists say the solution lies partly in a return to village design that clusters homes with shopping, schools, parks and restaurants, all within walking distance of one another and preferably near public transit hubs. Downtown Brea is an example. Some developments in Santa Clarita are another.

“All of the projects that we’re exploring now are very transit-oriented, new urbanist in their nature, which means increased density, mixed land uses, vehicle and pedestrian connectivity,” says Lisa Hardy, Santa Clarita’s planning manager. “It’s about trails, linkages, bike paths. It’s about green corridors and streetscapes where people want to walk and feel safe in that environment.”

Adds Speck: “Whenever a new urbanist community with networked streets and community connections competes in the market, it wins.”


But not everyone wants to live within a stone’s throw of a hip restaurant or walk the week’s groceries home, says Colin Drukker, senior planner with the Planning Center, a firm whose projects have included the Newhall Ranch development in Santa Clarita and others in Orange and Riverside counties.

“The market’s not there for that design to be everywhere,” Drukker says.

Do streets laid out on a grid fit more houses per acre? Yes, he says, but density is rising in cul-de-sac neighborhoods too. “Essentially, both can handle high densities,” he says.

Mary Ebersole, a Realtor with ReMax in Long Beach, says buyers still hanker for a spot on dead-end streets. The phrase “quiet cul-de-sac location” can add more sparkle to a sales listing than “new granite counters.”


“It’s like the little black dress,” she says. “It will never go out of style.”

That said, there are good and bad ways to build a cul-de-sac, says Randal Jackson, president of the Planning Center. One example Jackson likes is Woodbridge Village in Irvine, where paths and bridges link cul-de-sac neighborhoods to schools, community pools, athletic fields, restaurants, churches and a shopping center with a small movie theater complex. Although many of the streets look like traditional dead-end streets, pedestrian paths link the roads.

Some cities, including Santa Ana and Berkeley, have modified a few of their older grid neighborhoods for similar effect. Concrete posts force traffic onto the main thoroughfares but still provide pedestrian passage.

And the bad example? Well, Jackson says with a wince, have you ever tried to drive through Mission Viejo?


He draws loop upon loop on drafting paper to illustrate his point. Built largely on hillsides, Mission Viejo’s cul-de-sacs were easy ways to tame rolling ranchland into tract housing. The confusing maze of streets, however, means that outsiders get lost easily.

Residents eventually learn the routes. For Wesley Campbell, 13, the lack of traffic provides sweet stretches of open asphalt for popping wheelies and turning tricks on his skateboard ramp. His father, Stuart, thinks the street plan is great too. He relishes the neighborliness and is grateful that primarily only residents drive in and out.

“We love it,” Campbell says. “You can see the kids when they’re out here.”

AS much as some residents love them, Southworth can’t help but speculate how these neighborhoods will fare in 50 years. He wonders if the cul-de-sac neighborhoods with little public transportation, scant bike trails and only the occasional shopping and entertainment center to interrupt the sprawl won’t someday become dinosaurs trapped in the isolation they originally prized.


When he assigns students the task of reinventing existing neighborhoods, they often punch open the ends of streets and turn them into some kind of public right of way. Sometimes they drop in a day-care center and other services. Though houses at the ends of cul-de-sacs often fetch higher prices, Southworth points out that adherents of feng shui avoid those lots.

The cul-de-sac tracts that ramble over so much of Southern California aren’t necessarily doomed, but Southworth is pretty sure they will evolve because of economic and environmental demands.

“My personal theory is that they will adapt,” he says. “Over time, some of them are going to get connected.” Land-use patterns will change. Certain areas will introduce higher-density housing.

“If you imagine gas going up to $10 a gallon or some ridiculous amount,” he says, “what’s going to happen to all these low-density cul-de-sac suburbs?”




Road to nowhere


FITTINGLY, the history of the cul-de-sac is twisty. Ancient builders created streets akin to cul-de-sacs, most likely by happenstance, in the Mesopotamian city of Ur and in Nineveh, the most populous settlement of the Assyrian Empire, in what is now Iraq.

The Greeks eschewed such an approach and developed the grid system, despite criticism from Aristotle. The great thinker was convinced a maze of streets would flummox foreign invaders.

In industrial London, officials pushed for grid design to battle the growth of dead-end streets plagued by filth, crime and fire.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, suburbs such as Riverside, Ill., and Radburn, N.J., reintroduced the cul-de-sac, but the big turn came when Franklin Roosevelt’s administration advocated it as a cure for traffic congestion. By the time residential construction resumed after World War II, the cul-de-sac was king, especially in Southern California.


-- Dawn Bonker