I'm ending a long drought of no posts on this blog with a letter I wrote to Winnipeg Free Press reporter Mary Agnes Welch. It was in response to her stories in the perspective section of the Sunday edition, June 5, 2005. In it, she listed components of a "smart suburb", one of which was connectivity in the neighbourhood's grid. However she argued that the new tradition of of snake-like cul-de-sacs were a more effective use of land. So here you go, all about cul-de-sacs:
Cul-de-sacs mean wedged lots, which means much of the land on the development site is lost to large back and side yards, and making sure the front yard/driveway is big enough for the owner and his car(s). Perhaps in the low-density modern suburbs, they offer more "development" for your buck, because of the lack of roads cut costs, but this kind of street pattern becomes more costly and wasteful if you try to densify the neighbourhood. (Ie- placing buildings closer together). This cul-de-sac form of planning is not adaptable to changes over time that urban areas face. Imagine the cost to densify Osborne Village in recent decades, for example, if the city fathers had laid out a street pattern of discordant jumbles of cul-de-sacs back in the 1880's.
So rather than agreeing that cul-de-sacs are a better use of land, I consider them to be simply the cheapest, cost-cutting options to developers. The cost associated with building more streets (grids) in addition to providing back lanes might be more expensive, but there was a time when our society -which was making less money than our present one mind you- took the time and care to pave lanes in even working-class neighbourhoods like Point Douglas. Today, developers have no interest in the efficiency, service, or aesthetics of a neighbourhood (or as builders like Greenwood and Qualico demonstrate, no interest in the home's quality), and a City government that is more keen on increasing it's property-tax revenue than ensuring we have neighbourhoods built to last and worth caring about.
Because the cul-de-sac layout, and the garage-houses on them are not adaptable, it makes designing smart suburbs (they're not called "smart" for nothing) more of a matter of necessity, rather than simply one of taste. A looming energy crisis and the end of cheap oil is not so secret reality in the coming years. What future do sprawled out Whyte Ridge "McMansions" have? How can we make use of modern suburbia's design patterns, which are not practical without cheap oil, when oil is not cheap? As the author James Howard Kunstler (the antidote to nutbars like Randall O' Toole) said in his latest book "The Long Emergency", when oil becomes obsolete, the Jolly Green Giant is not going to come along and place our houses closer together, or make the streets more navigable without a car for us.
Cul-de-sac patterns limit mobility and access within the neighbourhood greatly. This is especially true for the members of the community that the suburbs are supposedly geared for: Children. For example, nine-year old Jimmy might live 500 feet as the crow flies from his friend Timmy's house, but to get there, he will need to travel on his bike 3500 feet, down his cul-de-sac and along his suburbs' local Drive (which, because it's the only through road, is loaded with speeding cars) to get to Timmy's cul-de-sac. In addition to children, cul-de-sac suburbs exclude anyone else who cannot, or chooses not to drive.
It can also be argued that grids absorb and disperse traffic better than cul-de-sac and snakelike drives do. And that a gridded pattern, when done right can be more visually appealing than any windy "drives" can. This has to do with the sense of enclosure and safety caused by "street walls" (orderly homes close to the sidewalk, rows of mature trees lining the street, etc.) which is an entirely other matter...
In addition to the lack or adaptability of cul-de-sac suburbs, they also pose a risk to our economy in that they do away with community. Even if your neighbours are "friendly down-home Manitoba folk", a sprawling cul-de-sac suburbs leave little room for public interaction and even friction. (The suburban mentality dictates that when a problem arises, you flee to another suburban pod.) This has ended the ingenuity and creativity that has stemmed from cities throughout global history: places where different types of people interact and create solutions instead of flying to the newer suburbs. Suburbs increase the blandness and mediocrity of a city, and limit their inhabitants local and global perspective. You don't have to read Richard Florida's "Rise of the Creative Class" (I haven't) to understand the consequences of a lack of urban ingenuity... It means a "Brain Drain", which leads to a city's shrinking cultural and technological prominence and economic growth. (Sounds like a city we know eh?) And this, perhaps second only to the environment, is the single biggest reason why the City should have said “No” to Waverly West in the first place, and why we must now at least ensure that it will be a place that works for all of us in the 21st century.