Cul-de-Sacs Build Community, But What Kind?

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The Atlantic Cities published an article today titled "

The Case for Cul-de-Sacs

," highlighting the research of sociologist Thomas R. Hochschild Jr. His findings: "[cul-de-sac] residents experience the highest levels of attitudinal and behavioral cohesion, followed by dead-ends, then through streets." They're the most neighborly, in other words. It's an interesting finding, and worthy of greater study despite the negative environmental and mobility impacts cul-de-sacs are usually associated with, but the first two paragraphs of the article reveal a major flaw in the study's analysis. Emily Badger writes:

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."

This is how we're introduced to the story of how wonderful cul-de-sacs are for social cohesion. Doesn't that seem wrong to you? It never addresses how absolutely perverse it is that the mere appearance of a stranger would warrant a call to the police, nor does the study consider what it says about the kind of social cohesion found in cul-de-sacs.

Hochschild says he's "concerned about the breakdown of community and of society," but it seems to me he's taking a very narrow view of both of those terms. His research reflects very positively on the influence of cul-de-sacs on the social interaction among its specific residents, then it completely ignore the question of communities and society more broadly, including how those residents interact with the wider world. His experience in Connecticut implies that the findings might not be quite so positive.

In "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," Jane Jacobs wrote extensively of the "turf" effect that isolated developments create, and the us-versus-them, insider-outsider mentality that often accompanies them. Edward J. Blakely, author of "Fortress America,"

writes of gated communities

(essentially a more extreme version of cul-de-sacs) that "[b]ecause streets and parks are accessible only to those living within the community, they begin to feel more like private living rooms and are defended fiercely against intruders."

I don't mean to dismiss the very real benefits of one-on-one and family-to-family social connections. They're critically important to both physical and mental health, and our cities and towns should be be designed to encourage them. And I'm definitely not saying that all cul-de-sac communities succumb to these kinds of divisions.

The point here is that communities are more than a small group of individuals at the end of a street, and society is far, far more than the sum of those small groups. If cul-de-sacs can only build a sense of community by turning within themselves—by transforming every unexpected visitor or passerby into "them," the outsider, the enemy—that's not an outcome worth striving for. That's street at the expense of neighborhood, neighborhood at the expense of city. It's zero-sum, pro-uniformity, and anti-society.

One of the greatest things about the density, diversity, and connectedness of cities is how effective they are at encouraging acceptance of other beliefs, other lifestyles, other everything. When we talk about communities we should be more mindful of who belongs in them—and, if we really want to know whether they're worth emulating, who they deliberately exclude.