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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The cul-de-sac is a symbol of suburban life. Since the end of World War II, millions of these lollipop-shaped dead-end roads have been built on the fringes of American cities. In recent years, however, the cul-de-sac has fallen out of favor with urban planners and architects. Some cities have even banned them. But cul-de-sacs still have a lot of fans. To understand why, NPR's John Nielsen recently returned to a cul-de-sac he lived on when he was a kid.

JOHN NIELSEN reporting:

Next time you take a plane flight, look down out of the windows and if you're over a city, you'll see a grid-like network of streets connecting houses, stores, and offices. If you're over a suburb, you'll see streets that look like trees. The trunks of these trees are big feeder roads. The leaves are the cul- de-sacs, like the one I'm standing on right now next to Jeff Speck, the former architect who now works for the National Endowment for the Arts. Behold the American dream, he says, circa 1960.

Mr. JEFF SPECK (Director of Design, National Endowment for the Arts): One, two, three, four, five houses surrounding a circular drive. Each house looks inward at the donut-hole of plants in the middle. Each house is very carefully designed with windows on the front and back and not on the sides, so they don't really see each other.

NIELSEN: The cul-de-sac we're standing in is in Carderock Springs, Maryland. It happens that I lived in this cul-de-sac many, many years ago when I was in the sixth and seventh grade. And I had some trouble finding my old house because the trees are so tall now. But some things haven't changed. First of all, you can still hear the rumble of traffic from the nearby freeway.

Mr. SPECK: And the other thing we hear are the birds. And that's actually the Scylla and Charybdis of the suburban condition. On the one hand, you do have this feeling of a close contact with nature, because you don't have cars going by every minute within the community. The only cars that come by are the cars that are going to be parking nearby.

NIELSEN: On the other hand, there's the problem of having to drive your car almost everywhere. Or in Speck's words, an uneasy feeling…

Mr. SPECK: That your car is no longer an instrument of freedom. It is now a prosthetic device.

NIELSEN: Driving is the only way to get from a typical cul-de-sac to a restaurant, a store, or an office. And usually, on the roads that funnel cars back towards the trunk of that tree, the traffic is awful.

That's one reason why planners like Speck do not think much of cul-de-sacs. Neither do anti-sprawl activists and some city managers and mayors. If this group of critics has a leader, it's probably William Lucy, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Virginia. He says a national debate over the future of the cul-de-sac is now brewing.

Professor WILLIAM LUCY (Environmental Studies, University of Virginia): The era of the cul-de-sac is certainly threatened. It's a battleground, and the professionals tend to think that the connected neighborhood is the good neighborhood, and the developers and the realtors are more of a mixed mind.

NIELSEN: Lucy says the first American cul-de-sacs were built in Radburn, New Jersey in the late 1920s. By the mid-50s, they were everywhere. Lucy says developers had learned that cul-de-sacs allowed them to fit more houses into oddly-shaped tracts of land, and build right up to the edge of a river or a property line.

Prof. LUCY: Going over the lines had two problems. One, it was expensive to try to traverse these obstacles. But second, it made connections to other neighborhoods or other subdivisions, and that was contrary to the notion of safety.

NIELSEN: Lucy says safety has always been a big selling point for cul-de-sacs. From the beginning, builders noted that they gave fire trucks extra room to turn around in, and they prevented strange cars from speeding past your house on the way to somewhere else.

Early ads for cul-de-sacs often pictured children riding bikes in the streets, he says. But these days, those images seem grimly ironic to the people who actually look at safety statistics. For example, according to Lucy, cul-de-sac communities have turned out to have the nation's highest rate of fatal auto accidents involving young children. Even worse…

Prof. LUCY: The actual research about injuries and deaths to small children under five is that the main cause of deaths is being backed over, not being driven over forward. And it would be expected that the main people who would be doing the backing over would in fact be family members, and usually the parents.

NIELSEN: Armed with arguments like these, critics of the cul-de-sac have won some victories in recent year. In cities like Charlotte, North Carolina and Portland, Oregon, construction of cul-de-sac-based suburbs has basically been banned. In other places, cul-de-sac communities have been retrofitted with cross-streets. But there's one very important group that still appears to be in love with the cul-de-sac: homebuyers.

(Soundbite of telephone ringing)

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)

Terez Kellerman(ph), a realtor who lives and works in Carderock Springs, says they still line up for the chance to live on dead-end streets like these.

Ms. TEREZ KELLERMAN (Realtor, Maryland): When I put ads in the post about a house that has just been listed, if it has a cul-de-sac, I say cul-de-sac location. Location within location. It's no through-street. Nobody will race by, not even the teenagers that sometimes go on their little racing sprees, because they can't go anywhere.

NIELSEN: A recent study backs Kellerman up. It shows that buyers will pay 20 percent more for a home on a cul-de-sac. Even Jeff Speck, the cul-de-sac critic with the National Endowment for the Arts says he understands the attraction of these places. In recent years, Speck's helped design some well-known grid-like new towns, where it's possible to walk to places like the corner store. But for some cul-de-sacs, like this one in Carderock Springs, Speck says he might do some extra driving.

Mr. SPECK: You know, I'm not embarrassed to say I would, if I could afford this, I would happily raise a family in this environment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NIELSEN: Speck says this isn't just an American dream anymore. In countries like the Philippines, China, and in parts of the Middle East, he says cul-de- sacs are fast becoming all the rage.

John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: And you can read more about the safety myths of cul-de-sacs at npr.org.

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