An Unbiased History of the Cul-De-Sac

–Andrew Wasson

This is the unbiased history of the cul-de-sac.

There is a significant chance that the reader has had a first-person encounter with a cul-de-sac.  You may be a current or past resident of a cul-de-sac; you may know someone who is a current or past resident of a cul-de-sac; you may have driven your car into a cul-de-sac; you may have been the passenger in a car driven into a cul-de-sac; you may have seen a cul-de-sac in some form of print or electronic visual media.  Just in case none of the above applies and you are utterly confused and lost, the following is a useful definition reflecting current colloquial American usage:

In its typical manifestation, the suburban cul-de-sac is a relatively short street, usually less than 1,000 feet, serving up to 20 dwellings.  It is terminated by a circular turn-around space large enough in diameter for service and emergency vehicles to turn around in, with a typical radius of 35 to 40 feet. [1]

The Oxford English Dictionary exposits a more matter-of-fact definition: “a street, lane, or passage closed at one end, a blind alley; a place having no outlet except by the entrance.”

The phrase itself is French – meaning literally, “the bottom of the sack.”  The earliest usage cited by the Oxford English Dictionary is anatomical (“vessel, tube, sac, etc. open only at one end…”) and is dated 1738.  It seems that the phrase was slowly abstracted to other more metaphorical contexts (military, for example), eventually settling into its modern usage to refer to a street in the early 1800s. [2]  Voltaire apparently disliked the use of this term because he viewed it as vulgar. [3]  “Bottom of the sack” is the polite translation — “cul” more accurately translated reads something more like “ass-end.”  The French generally use “impasse” instead.

The cul-de-sac as an urban or residential form has probably existed since the beginning of organized human settlement. [4]  Hampstead Garden Suburb In England has been identified as “the first time a planned development systematically used the cul-de-sac and open court throughout.” [5]  Hampstead Garden Suburb, designed by Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker is a “garden city” (i.e. a city based on the principles of Ebenezer Howard’s utopian view of a self-sufficient city that married town and county). [6]  Unwin and Parker were heavily influenced by a medieval vibe which contrasted starkly to the ordered uniform and monotonous street plans sanctioned by Great Britain’s 1875 “Bye-Law Street Ordinance.” [7]  In Unwin’s 1909 work on town planning, Unwin wrote:

[a]nother bye-law which is not uncommon is that against roads having no through way, known as cul-de-sac roads.  This action has, no doubt, been taken to avoid unwholesome yards; but for residential purposes, particularly since the development of the motor-car, the cul-de-sac roads, far from being undesirable, are especially to be desired for those who like quiet for their dwellings. [8]

Indeed, at the time, in order to employ cul-de-sacs in their plan for Hampstead, Unwin and Parker successfully petitioned Parliament for an annulment in the 1875 “Bye-Law” act. [9]  The cul-de-sacs found in Hampstead, however, bear only extended resemblance to our current idea of a cul-de-sac.  Southworth and Ben Joseph note, “[u]nlike the American postwar cul-de-sac, these are short and narrow, with no circular turn-around at the end.” [10]

The Hampstead cul-de-sacs were also not as systemically isolated as postwar American cul-de-sacs: “Typically, midblock pedestrian walks connect from the end of the cul-de-sac to another street or cul-de-sac beyond.” [11]

Radburn, New Jersey is recognized as the first community to intentionally employ the cul-de-sac in the United States.  In 1924, Clarence Stein and Henry Wright were charged with the mission to build a garden city in America. [12]  The garden city idea had particular appeal at the time to Americans because it held automobiles at an arms-length distance from the residential units. [13]  According to Stein, automobiles flooded gridded city streets with the result that, “[p]orches faced bedlams of motor throughways with blocked traffic, honking horns and noxious gasses.” [14]  Radburn was built on a “superblock” plan of a number of cul-de-sacs built around a “park as backbone.”  This is your cul-de-sac popped inside-out: houses are “turned around” with “living and sleeping rooms facing towards the gardens and parks; service rooms towards the access roads.”

[15]  While cul-de-sacs in Radburn afforded no outlet to cars, there was ready access between the houses to parkland between the cul-de-sacs.  Stein felt that the Radburn design was a particularly safe one for children and would appeal to young families in large part because of the planned separation of pedestrian and automobile. [16]

The Federal Housing Administration is generally regarded as responsible for the rapid proliferation of the suburban form in the postwar era. [17]  The FHA established guidelines detailing ideal subdivisions.  Even though FHA did not wield legal power to enforce its principles, practically speaking, a developer would be plain stark raving crazy to ignore them and possibly forgo the availability of FHA loans. [18]

The cul-de-sac was but one motif available to a developer, to be used in appropriate circumstances, but not exclusively:  “Cul-de-sac and courts may be fitted into the plan so that odd-shaped inaccessible remnants of a subdivision, which would otherwise have but little value, are converted into desirable lots.” [19]  Probably based on the experience at Radburn, the FHA guidelines offered the party-line advantages for cul-de-sacs: notably reduction of traffic hazards and safety for small children. [20]  Strikingly though, FHA also argued that “the cost of street improvements may be greatly reduced as there is no need of wide, heavy paving, and as only a comparatively small number of houses are served in each group, large size water and sewer mains are not required.” [21]  FHA clearly did not appreciate what happens when every single cul-de-sac resident undertakes a twenty-minute drive to the grocery store that would have otherwise been a five minute walk but for a huge catch basin or a chain link fence standing in the way.

Cul-de-sacs in the FHA guidelines start to look much more like modern era cul-de-sacs, but FHA guidelines also conserved many progressive features.  It is clear that the FHA guidelines drew heavily from the experience with Radburn.  The FHA guidelines explicitly referenced a “Radburn type plan” where the houses are actually sited with their back to the cul-de-sac and their front facing paths between each cul-de-sac leading to the central park: “the cul-de-sac roadways are service drives and give access to the rear of the houses.” [22]  Admittedly, regardless of how the houses are sited, residents in this plan would still burden collector streets either way.  Even so, this sort of siting might have led to a much less sterile asphalt and garage-driven environment.

Nor do the FHA guidelines contain patently evil advice on the location and form of commercial development vis-à-vis the cul-de-sac.  They do not suggest that commercial development should be arranged strip mall after strip mall.  They do not suggest that developers should erect cinderblock walls between commercial development and the neighborhood.  On the contrary, the guidelines state, “[t]he location of a shopping center should generally be on or just off a main thoroughfare in the line of greatest pedestrian traffic.” [23]  The FHA also warned against development in a “scattered shoe string manner in which neighborhood shopping centers spring up along the length of highways due to improper zoning and deed restrictions.” [24]  Now that being said, the guidelines still do not read as though they were taken straight from minutes of the Congress of New Urbanism: they still acknowledge that in neighborhoods of “higher priced homes” it is permissible to locate the shopping centers farther away from the residential areas because the residents could likely drive to the stores. [25]

Our friend the cul-de-sac is generally doing quite well today, although it faces increasing calls of criticism, opposition and/or modification.  In one interesting treatment of the cul-de-sac, William Lucy and David Phillips question some of the long-standing “myths” supporting cul-de-sac usage. [26]  For example, Lucy and Phillips claim that cul-de-sacs are really not much safer than other types of street patterns. [27]  They argue that most of the arguments were anecdotal and that whatever studies that were commissioned contained major flaws. [28]  More recently, Virginia announced that new streets that were not connected “with the surrounding transportation network in a manner that enhances the capacity of the overall transportation network and accommodates pedestrians” (e.g. the traditional post-war cul-de-sac) would not be eligible for state maintenance. [29]  Others propose retrofitting and modifying existing cul-de-sacs with additional interconnections. [30]  And yet others are actually advocating for the construction of more cul-de-sacs, albeit ones that are embedded intelligently within a larger community. [31]

Let’s face it — a large number of people are firmly committed to living in them, rationally or not, and will continue to prefer them to a number of other types of living arrangements.  Cul-de-sacs aren’t going anywhere soon.   Yet, cul-de-sacs are not imbued with an automatic community-destroying evil.  Sound planning can produce sound cul-de-sacs.  The history of cul-de-sacs, even as recent as the FHA guidelines, demonstrates that alternative cul-de-sac arrangements are possible, cul-de-sacs can be interconnected with a larger neighborhood, and cul-de-sacs can be located within close walking distance to shops and mass-transit.

[1]  Michael Southworth and Eran Ben-Joseph, Streets and the Shaping of Towns and Cities (2003) at 129.

[2]  Sir Walter Scott wrote in a 1828 journal entry, “Coming home, an Irish coachman drove us into a cul-de-sac near Battersea Bridge.”

[3]  Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, a Contemporary Version (Werner ed. 1901) at 100 (“Fie! Are you not ashamed?”).

[4]     Dawn Bonker, Dead-end to the Cul-de-sac? L.A. Times (3/22/2007)(Citing cul-de-sac forms found even in ancient Mesopotamia).

[5]  Southworth and Ben Joseph at 53.

[6]  See id. 50-55.

[7]  Id. at 51.

[8]  Sir Raymond Unwin, Town Planning in Practice 393 (2nd ed. 1909).

[9]  Southworth and Ben Joseph at 51.

[10]  Southworth and Ben Joseph at 53-55.

[11]  Id. at 55.

[12]  Id. at 70.

[13]  Id. at 70-71.

[14]  Clarence Stein, Toward New Towns for America (1957) found in The Suburb Reader (Becky M. Nicolaides, Andrew Wiese eds. 2006) at 176.

[15]  Id. Figure courtesy:

[16]  Id. at 176-77.

[17]  See e.g. Southworth and Ben Eran at 90-97; see also Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier (1985) at Chapter 11, Federal Subsidy and the Suburban Dream (in-depth examination of the often blatantly discriminatory influence of the FHA on suburban development).

[18]   Southworth and Ben Eran at 90-91

[19]  Planning Neighborhoods for Small Houses, Federal Housing Administration at 15 (1938). There is some indication that cul-de-sacs really started to become a pre-dominant feature in the 1980s.  See Southworth and Ben Eran at 115.

[20]  Id.

[21]  Id.

[22]  Id. at 24.

[23]  Id. at 26.

[24]  Id.

[25]  Id.

[26]   William Lucy and David Phillips, Tomorrow’s Cities, Tomorrow’s Suburbs (2006) (also contains a nice history of the cul-de-sac).

[27]  See generally id. at Chapter 10.

[28]  Id.

[29]  See Thad Williamson, Death of the Cul-de-sac, Richmond Magazine (June 2009).

[30]  See Ellen Dunham Jones and June Williamson, Retrofitting Suburbia (2009) at 24-26 (describing the “connect-the-cul-de-sacs” approach at Laurel Bay South Carolina).

[31]  Southworth and Ben Eran at 128-135.

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