People who live in them actually have greater social cohesion, according to one sociologist.
In a weird way, Thomas R. Hochschild Jr. actually first encountered the social cohesion of cul-de-sacs in his latest research when he wandered into one in Connecticut with his clipboard and polo shirt, and someone called the cops.
That never happened on the other types of streets he was studying, places where it would turn out the neighbors didn't know each other as well, and it was less clear who "belonged." Repeatedly, though, he found at the end of cul-de-sacs families who watched each others' children and took in each others' mail, who barbequed and orchestrated the removal of snow together, and who considered each other close friends. In cul-de-sacs, these families had a stronger sense of shared social space and territoriality. An outsider stood out.
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).
These findings, which Hochschild has published in the Journal of Urban Planning and Development, may surprise you. Academics who've come at the decidedly controversial cul-de-sac from other angles – traffic management, engineering, and urban planning – have mostly had unflattering things to say about them (many of which we've chronicled). Cul-de-sacs carve up communities in a way that makes them unwalkable. They force people to drive more often and longer distances. As a result, they harm the environment. They're actually less safe than traditional street grids because drivers speeding through arterials in suburbia don't have to pay as much attention. And cul-de-sacs are harder to reach by fire, police and emergency crews.
Hochschild, now an assistant professor of sociology at Valdosta State University, has heard all of these critiques.
"I understand the reasons why," he says, "Some of them are logistical reasons. But I think what they’re not taking into consideration are the social advantages of living on a cul-de-sac street."
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.
"Time and time again," Hochschild says, "the pattern I saw with these various questions I asked was that people who lived around the circle of the bulb, they thought of their neighbors like family oftentimes."
He asked people to respond to this statement: "The friendships and associations I have with my immediate neighbors mean a lot to me." 31.4 percent of "bulb" residents strongly agreed, 28.9 percent of dead-end residents did as well. Only 5.4 percent of through-street residents felt the same. Similarly, 25.7 percent of bulb respondents strongly agreed that "a feeling of friendship runs deep between me and my immediate neighbors." No one on a through-street said that.
Families on cul-de-sacs? 40 percent of them had borrowed or lent food or tools to their neighbors at least once in the previous month.
And on the through streets: 18.9 percent had.
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.
To Hochschild's thinking, all of this means that we may want to weigh the social benefits of the cul-de-sac against the engineering critiques of how they fit into the larger street grid. Or, better yet, he envisions designing cul-de-sacs that more directly connect to main, walkable routes to school or the grocery store, in an effort to address both schools of thought.
"As a sociologist," he says, "I’m concerned about the breakdown of community and of society, and there’s a lot of research that indicates that people today are less likely to know their neighbors, they're less likely to participate in neighborly interaction."
Build cul-de-sacs where neighbors might develop that social cohesion, he says, and more people may watch out for each other, and feel less alone or alienated. Hochschild's forthcoming research further suggests that people who know their immediate neighbors are also more likely to care about and become involved with their neighborhood at a larger scale.
"I wouldn’t claim that cul-de-sacs are a panacea, a cure-all for community problems we’re facing," he says. "However, I think that it’s a piece of the puzzle."