Photo by Gamma Ray Productions.

My wife and I both grew up on cul-de-sacs.* These popular elements of 20th-century housing subdivisions have come under considerable criticism. However, there’s a lot we can learn from their biggest success: providing safe and visible spaces for children to play largely unsupervised.

We’ve discussed the flaws of the cul-de-sac before. By limiting street connections through a subdivision, they force all traffic onto major arterials, creating congestion and leading cities and counties to constantly widen them, making them even less pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly.

It’s much harder to walk or bike to other houses, to school or the store when the only route is a very long one, especially requiring travel on a major arterial. Buses have to take circuitous routes or stop far from most houses. Snowplows, emergency vehicles, and other municipal vehicles have to follow longer routes at greater cost.

However, while urbanists and municipal officials aren’t fans of the cul-de-sac, many people who grew up on one loved it, at least until they were teenagers. Cul-de-sacs provide one major advantage over standard grids: a better environment for kids’ play. In the new book What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs, a collection of essays pondering Jacobs’ ideas in the modern day, Clare Cooper Marcus argues that the New Urbanist push for street grids over cul-de-sacs neglects the needs of children.

Kids playing in a cul-de-sac. Photo by alaskanent on Flickr.

My wife loved growing up on her cul-de-sac. Almost all houses had kids around the same age.

They played roller hockey and held bike races on the low-traffic street. They played kickball in front yards, unconcerned that it would be dangerous if the ball rolled into the street. They played flashlight tag in the cul-de-sac and around the houses, with the parents confident it was safe because someone could always see kids from their window.

I grew up on a cul-de-sac, too, but didn’t enjoy it nearly so much. I did learn to bike in the cul-de-sac, but mainly played in our front or rear yard. One reason was that there were relatively few houses around our cul-de-sac (4), as our neighborhood had much larger lots. The houses were also set far back from the street, meaning parents couldn’t see the cul-de-sac from their kitchen windows.

Kids used to play in the street on grids, too — my dad grew up in the first-wave suburb of Lynbrook, New York, on a rectangular street grid, and would play street hockey. Kids even used to play on the streets of Manhattan. But the cycle of rising traffic and widening of roads made streets into less hospitable places for children, while parents became more protective at the same time.

Cul-de-sacs may work great for smaller children, but as children get older, they prefer the mobility of being able to walk or bike to see their friends, even friends who aren’t next door, and to get to stores, bowling alleys, arcades, skate parks, or wherever teens congregate.

The solution is not to continue the domination of cul-de-sacs, but to design other, even better spaces for children. Marcus points to developments that use “shared outdoor space,” where houses cluster around large, common yards visible from all houses. Essentially, these are cul-de-sacs but not used for transportation. Many suburban cohousing projects follow this model.

“Garden side” of some Greenbelt homes. Photo by Matt Johnson.

Many new developments are building these spaces, but they’re not new. In fact, many of the earliest suburban models had shared green space, including one of our region’s planning icons, Greenbelt, Maryland.

Old Greenbelt, the original 1937 “garden city”, has two doors to every house: a “service side,” facing the roadway, and a “garden side,” facing green space covered with gardens, play areas, pedestrian and bike paths, and more.

Essentially, Greenbelt has two “grids”: the roadway grid for cars, and the garden grid for people. Residents walk to the stores (centrally located and connected via pedestrian and bike paths) along this garden grid, creating “eyes on the street,” just without motor vehicles, and facilitating social interaction.

Matt Johnson wrote, “I regard it as the most tragic of missed opportunities that we were unable to build America’s suburbs the way we built Greenbelt. Unlike other suburbs, Greenbelt does not suffer from a lack of interaction (Bowling Alone) or a lack of alternative transportation modes.”

Blocks of townhouses (like in central Washington) or closely-spaced single-family houses (like much of Arlington) are great development patterns for almost all ages, but unless designed right, they don’t fully accommodate families with small children. Parks are great, but parents need to actively transport kids to the park and watch them while there (or make arrangements with other parents). The cul-de-sac, shared green space, Greenbelt-style “garden side,” or other land use patterns allow for kids to play safely while parents take care of other responsibilities at home.

Woonerf sign. Photo by anabananasplit on Flickr.

Still, most areas are already built and lack shared green spaces. What can we do? Marcus suggests the woonerf, the street that puts pedestrians first and allows traffic but only at slow speeds and with design cues that clearly tell drivers they are guests rather than owners of this space.

That could return many neighborhood grid streets to their function when my dad was a child, as spaces where children play with breaks for the occasional car. Game on!

Tonight’s ReThink Montgomery session, with Joan Almon of Alliance for Childhood, will discuss “how planners can design and build spaces that make it easy for children to be active.” The Alliance argues that children need at least 60 minutes a day of undirected play time, but currently get only 12.6 minutes per day. We mustn’t neglect children as we work together to improve urban and suburban neighborhoods.

* Some will insist that the plural of cul-de-sac is “culs-de-sac,” but I don’t like it.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.