Monday, March 30, 2015

The Paradox of the Cul-de-Sac

Last week I posted this article from The Atlantic about how urban design--specifically long blocks and meandering street patterns--can lead to less walking and poorer health for residents. The cul-de-sac in particular gets a bad rap, a feature that leads to homes that are literally and figuratively cut off from the surrounding environment. So reviled is the cul-de-sac that they are often banned, or at least discouraged, in newer planning codes. I've recommended such code language myself.

But I have a confession to make: I live on a cul-de-sac.

Actually, here's the real confession: I love living on a cul-de-sac.

This sits uneasily with me, given my extensive knowledge of the reasons I shouldn't like cul-de-sacs. I know my cul-de-sac interrupts a grid network that's clearly desirable, given the number of people who hop the neighbors fence at the end of the cul-de-sac. I realize that I have to travel an extra three blocks every time I leave my house to go to the grocery store, and that I'm more likely to drive because of those extra blocks (well, I'm probably not more likely to drive, but my neighbors might be).

Even so, I love the fact that there is (seemingly) less traffic on my street. I love that my kids can play soccer in the space in front of my house, and I love that our neighborhood can do things like, say,  shut down the street with orange cones and set up an obstacle course for toddlers as part of an annual block party without getting grief from the authorities or needing a street closure permit.

I was struggling to reconcile this cul-de-sac love with my seemingly contradictory love of walkability, until it hit me. It's not the cul-de-sac that I love, it's the fact that it allows me and my neighbors to reclaim street space for people. Our street isn't just for moving traffic, it's for playing baseball, blowing bubbles, and practicing skateboard tricks. It's for interacting with the people next door, creating the social connections that are as critical for good health as exercise.

Most of the streets in our community aren't cul-de-sacs. Most of them aren't for people, either. They're too wide, they lack trees and landscaping, they don't have well-maintained sidewalks or bike lanes. Is it any surprise that people prefer not to live on these streets? Planners can ban cul-de-sacs all they want, but until we can make our roadways people-friendly, residents will still want to live on cul-de-sacs. Even me.

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