A new study suggests the bulb cul-de-sac helps foster cohesion more than other street designs:
In sociologist’s terms, Hochschild ultimately concluded that people who live in traditional bulb cul-de-sacs have the highest levels of attitudinal and behavioral cohesion (covering both how they feel about their neighbors and how much they actually interact with them). People who live on your average residential through-street have the lowest levels (in between the two are “dead-end” cul-de-sacs that lack that traditional, circular social space)…
In his latest research, Hochschild visited 110 homes in demographically comparable Connecticut communities, a third of them located on bulb cul-de-sacs, a third on dead-end cul-de-sacs and a third on through streets. In each case, he tried to interview sets of four adjacent households (as in the diagram above) to home in on how people relate to their immediate neighbors. He asked each household about 150 questions about how they rate their relationship with their neighbors, how often they help each other and socialize together. His results controlled for differences in income, the number of children in a household, and the length of time a family lived on the block…
Hochschild theorizes that there’s something more than self-selection going on here. Hardly any of the people he talked to said they moved to a cul-de-sac in search of (or even anticipating) its neighborliness. Rather, the design of the street itself seemed to facilitate it. If you want to throw a block party on a through-street, you need a permit. If you want to do the same on a cul-de-sac, the street is already effectively blocked off. In a cul-de-sac, Hochschild found, it’s much easier to privatize public space, either by turning the street into an extension of the driveway, or by landscaping the rights-of-way as if they were a private lawn.
Cul-de-sacs create a kind of natural panoptican around children at play. They also give rise to what Hochschild calls “geographically common problems” to be solved, like fallen trees or unplowed snow blocking every family’s exit.
Would evidence from a study like this convince people who don’t like cul-de-sacs that they have some merit? How exactly do you weigh the benefits of community versus the downsides of cul-de-sacs?
Another issue critics might have of cul-de-sacs, even with Hochschild’s findings: they may be good for building internal solidarity with the nearby families – who probably tend to be like you since they live in similar kinds of housing – but that doesn’t necessarily lead to broader social ties and civic engagement. Is a more cohesive cul-de-sac then more likely to engage others outside the cul-de-sac? Or does the time spent building cohesion limit the group’s reach? Such a study could also push those who critique the loss of community in suburbs or amongst sprawl to be more specific with what they envision for community. New Urbanists talk about community all the time but what exactly does that mean? Is it characterized by knowing your neighbors, interacting regularly in public spaces, participating in local politics, all of the above, or something else? Community can exist on multiple levels and it strikes me the cul-de-sac community is an extension of the American household to the similar, nearest neighbors but possibly not much further.