Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Philosophy of the Suburb part 1: The Cul-de-Sac

***Originally posted November 30, 2010***
The Deep Ellum Outdoor Market represents a common occurrence that happens in neighborhoods primed to be successful urban areas. It's important, then, to look at areas not primed to be successful public places to help define what we need urban spaces to be.

Dallas is a place with many people in the suburbs and few public spaces in urban areas.  Over the course of a few entries, I'll be breaking down the suburbs into component parts to figure out what is the ultimate goal of the suburb. If an ideal urban neighborhood seeks to bring people together, what does a suburban neighborhood seek to do?

The first component of suburbia I will cover is the cul-de-sac. It's a French word that means bottom of the bag, but it's also a staple of subdivision design ubiquitous in any suburban neighborhood in any town in the nation.

A cul-de-sac is a street that ends with a bunch of houses circling the truncated area. They were implemented in American subdivision development after World War II with the intention of limiting through-traffic in residential areas. There's no reason to drive down a cul-de-sac if you don't live in that pocket of houses, so cars are filtered out into busier capillary streets.  Traffic, in turn, concentrated in streets that led out of the subdivision, thereby reducing noise, traffic, and air pollution for those lucky to buy up the real estate in less traveled areas.

The cul-de-sac also allows developers to pack more families into irregular plots of land. Instead of allowing people access to larger thoroughfares, developers could fit in a few more houses within the subdivision.  If the developers' layout met a particular quota, there were Federal Housing Administration incentives for people to buy homes in these particular subdivisions.

Let's take a look at the cul-de-sac in it's extreme form. Here is a satellite photo of a subdivision in West Plano.

SW of Parker and Preston. 1/2 mile east to west, 1/4 mile north to south.

In this photograph, it's easy to spot no fewer than 9 cul-de-sacs in the neighborhood. The cul-de-sac design accomplishes its mission by restricting flow into and out of the area to only four roads: Sleepy Hollow Dr., Silver Creek Dr., Coventry Ln, and Bellaire Dr. Only two of them reach out to one of the main thoroughfares, Parker Road! In this case, inner neighborhood traffic is limited to these few roads while the other streets are free from traffic.

The drivers traveling on Parker and Preston, in turn, are completely oblivious to the residents of the neighborhood as those cars race by in a 45mph zone.

Additionally, there are long stretches of sidewalk bordered by a brick barrier protecting the subdivision in a way that no wall ever protected the Alamo.  Pedestrians within the subdivision, like cars, can only leave the neighborhood through one of the 4 roads listed above.  A church-goer living in the subdivision would have to drive to the church at Parker and Preston lest they sully their Sunday best clothes climbing the wall to escape the neighborhood.

The developers of this subdivision seem to have left out a human perspective in the design of the place, as the streets certainly cater to the conveniences of the automobile and not the pedestrian.  In reference to Jane Jacob's four components of a successful neighborhood, this subdivision follows none of those tenets:

1) There are no mixed use buildings.  The closest retail store is farther away than the church and most certainly a drivable distance. 
2) There is a lack of interconnected streets.  That there are only 2 roads that access the closest major street makes walking in this neighborhood a chore, since there is literally nowhere to walk to. 
3) Because there is nowhere to walk to, there are no people on the street.  The closest gathering place, the church, is empty save for a few services a week.
4) There is no mix of old and new buildings.  The subdivision was created less than a decade ago, so all buildings are of similar age.

When the components of successful public space are completely ignored, we have the modern subdivision, centered around the suburban cul-de-sac, which can be appropriately designated by this street sign:

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