I live in one of those old-fashioned grid-street neighborhoods, where many of the houses are on narrow lots. Although it was built as a suburb, it was built before 1950s suburban cul-de-sac design became the norm.
When we moved here we wanted to be walking distance from a destination neighborhood -- that was our key criteria in a home. Which meant we paid much more for much less space than we could have had living farther from the city core. But we love it, as most people do who live in these areas. But cities stopped building neighborhoods like this.
Enter the cul-de-sac: what buyers want
The suburbs built in the last several decades are filled with large lots and dead-end streets. They are the suburban ideal, bucolic and pretty, where families play together in the backyard, and neighbors smile and wave as they leave the house to drive to work. At least that's the picture we are shown in advertising and developer marketing.
Developers continue to justify these community designs based on consumer demand. A few progressive cities are trying to stop these kinds of neighborhoods, and meeting a wall of resistance from real estate developers.
Surely developers know what their customers want. They know what sells, too -- the pie-shaped lots on culs-de-sac are the first to sell. Buyers say they are safer for their children. And they look pretty.
The problemHere's the problem with cul-de-sac neighborhoods. The houses work great, but the neighborhoods don't.
You can't cut through those neighborhoods, so the congestion at rush hour rivals the downtown core, even on multi-lane arterial boulevards.
You can walk, but there's no where to walk to. So you have to have a car for everyone of driving age. The densities are too low to support public transit without massive subsidies.
All this driving affects health, according to some researchers -- not just from atmospheric pollution, but from lack of exercise and the stress related to driving in traffic. (I note one study below that disagrees, but only looks at physical activity.)
Stay-at-home moms without cars can find themselves completely isolated and dependent.
It turns out that these neighborhoods aren't actually safer. Because there are fewer people, some crimes are more likely, and all crimes take longer to report. There are more traffic accidents in keyhole neighborhoods than there are on grid-streets. (Probably because driving all those curves makes people nuts after a while.) Getting help from ambulance or fire departments also takes longer.
In addition to all this, these neighborhoods cost much more to service for municipalities -- more to collect garbage, more to snow-plow and clean.
So why do we keep building them?
I would argue that people do not always know what makes them happy.
A few social scientists have investigated this, among them John Helliwell (not in terms of real estate, just to be clear). He says you can teach people to make better economic choices that make them happier with their decisions. But left to their own devices, people often make poor decisions.
I think this is the problem with the suburban neighborhood. If we did some straightforward consumer research, we would probably find that people prefer the cul-de-sac approach.
Raw purchasing power is also a factor, of course. People choose among the options they have, and few young families can afford the joys of a single family home in a city core, even if they see the merits.
But this is starting to change. Some realtor sites now provide walkability scores with their listings.
As we start to really address our environmental and economic problems in the coming decade, we will need to figure out how to market things like better neighborhoods and higher densities.
Fast Company blog: Death to Dead-Ends - Will the New Suburbia Omit Cul-de-sacs?, by Michael Cannell, Dec. 29, 2009
John Michlig's blog: Sprawled Out: the Search for Community in the American Suburb. The whole blog relates to this topic, and has some great articles and links.
StatsCan research that suburbanites are just as active: Life in metropolitan areas Are suburban residents really less physically active? (based on 2005 data)
Find your neighborhood's walkability here: Walkscore
CEOs For Cities commissioned a study relating walkability to home value. Read the results here: Walking the Walk