At Cato At Liberty, Randall O’Toole provides a list of recommendations for reversing Rust Belt urban decline in response to a study on the topic from the Lincoln Land Institute. He focuses on policies to improve public service provision and deregulation, but he also makes a surprising recommendation that declining cities should “reduce crime by doing things like changing the gridded city streets that planners love into cul de sacs so that criminals have fewer escape routes.” This recommendation is surprising because it would require significant tax payer resources, a critique O’Toole holds against those from the Lincoln Land Institute. Short of building large barricades, it’s inconceivable how a city with an existing grid of streets would even go about turning its grid into culs de sac without extensive use of eminent domain and other disruptive policies.
O’Toole is correct that the grid owes its origins to authoritarian regimes and that today it’s embraced by city planners in the Smart Growth and New Urbanist schools. But while culs de sac may have originally appeared in organically developed networks of streets, today’s culs de sac promoted by traffic engineers are hardly a free market outcome. As Daniel Nairn has written, the public maintenance of what are essentially shared driveways “smacks of socialism in its most extreme form.”
Some studies have found that culs de sac experience less crime relative to nearby through streets, perhaps in part because they draw less traffic. However, it’s far from clear that a pattern of suburban streets makes a city safer than it would be would be with greater street connectivity. Some studies find that street connectivity correlates with greater social capital. O’Toole’s promotion of social engineering through culs de sac to create a localized drop in crime at the expense of a city’s residents’ social capital is not a clear win. If a pattern of culs de sac streets reduces a city’s social capital, it could increase overall crime rates.
O’Toole also makes a smart land use recommendation, suggesting that struggling Rust Belt cities can reduce regulation to foster development. He writes:
Reduce regulation, including zoning rules, so property owners can engage in urban renewal without government subsidies or top-down planning. Historic preservation ordinances may sound cool, but they are one of the biggest obstructions to private redevelopment.
It makes sense for cities like Detroit to reduce or eliminate their zoning and permitting requirements, allowing as many new businesses as possible to take advantage of the their inexpensive prices. Interestingly, this recommendation for deregulation in the Rust Belt directly contradicts his past writings on deregulatory upzoning in other cities. O’Toole’s native Portland has seen deregulation allowing denser development, and in this case he advocates preserving neighborhood character over allowing the market to drive development styles. I’m glad to see he’s changed his tune to support deregulation.
genecallahan saysFebruary 20, 2014 at 8:34 pm
Hmm: it might work in some places to block car flow through but all pedestrian passage. But to cut off pedestrian flow through in a city is a terrible idea: creates dead zones.
engineerscotty saysFebruary 20, 2014 at 9:10 pm
I’m almost certain that O’Toole likes cul-de-sacs precisely because they result in urban fabric that can only be served efficiently by automobiles.
Emily Washington saysFebruary 20, 2014 at 10:50 pm
I think you’re exactly right. I would guess the reason he’s against zoning deregulation is primarily because it makes it easier to travel without a car.
Alon Levy saysFebruary 21, 2014 at 9:16 am
Is it even true that cul-de-sacs reduce crime? There’s a study from Austin that formed someone’s masters thesis – it was linked in an old Infrastructurist comment but I’ll try digging it – that says it’s the exact opposite once you control for socioeconomic status.
Emily Washington saysFebruary 21, 2014 at 11:55 am
O’Toole’s recommendation was tried in a Dayton neighborhood and was found to reduced crime there, but I’m not sure if there were confounding factors http://realestate.wharton.upenn.edu/research/papers/full/513.pdf.
valar84 saysFebruary 24, 2014 at 12:15 am
Culs-de-sac may have appeared “organically” in cities, but that doesn’t mean they were necessarily best for the city. In a chaotic situation, sometimes individuals can do things for their advantage that result in a less than optimal outcome for society as a whole. For instance, culs-de-sac reduce the amount of space dedicated to the street and allow for more building space. By making the street useless for through traffic, you also create a semi-private tranquility zone, which is beneficial for the residents of the street if they prefer calm to activity. However, the disconnection of the street with the rest of the grid may come at a cost for the community as a whole who may see travel trips lengthened.
I think the grid is not the result of authoritarianism so much as the result of actual planning, whether from a government or a private developer. Sometimes, planning from the top down can result in more optimal outcomes while organic organization can result in sub-optimal outcomes, because of the prisoner’s dilemma (an individual decision advantages the one making it at the expense of everyone else, so every individual, if they are rational, would do it, making everyone worse off, but if a planner can instead impose the opposite decision, the outcome is better for everyone).
BTW, it is possible to create culs-de-sac for cars but not for pedestrians. Simply take a street in a grid, and build a barrier in the middle of the street so that cars cannot pass, but pedestrians and cyclists can. But I’m not sure that is what O’toole meant.
valar84 saysFebruary 24, 2014 at 12:31 am
I would point out, after checking, the culs-de-sac in Dayton were done by simply putting barriers to car traffic. Pedestrian and cyclist traffic can easily bypass the gates, the gates themselves are not designed to block them. So they are culs-de-sac only for cars, for everyone else, the streets are still a grid.
The study also points out that after the operation, house values rose. Maybe the transformation into culs-de-sac made the houses there more attractive and led to wealthier, less troubled residents moving in. Or maybe the whole thing was done in the early 90s, just when the crime fever broke, and they waited 10 or 15 years to compare the results, so the recorded decline in crime may simply mirror the community at large. For example, the Department of Justice’s violent crime rate declined from 51.2 to 27.4 per 1 000 people between 1994 and 2000*, that’s almost a 50% decline all over the US in 6 years. Without more information and comparisons with a control sample, it’s hard to pinpoint what, if any, effect the cul-de-sacization had.
hcat saysMarch 1, 2014 at 3:46 pm
There are lots of places, both suburbs and cities, that have cul de sacs for cars, but not for pedestrians. A number of areas of Irvine, California; the so called woonerf Dutch idea that has been adopted, they say, in a few places in Berkeley; the pattern in parts of London of constantly reversing one way streets so it is a Chinese puzzle to bring a car in to a point, but fairly direct to go in and out on foot. And the neighborhoods generally like the cul de sacs for cars; they want the auto traffic to go to the main road and not filter through their neighborhoods. (A primarily commercial neighborhood, like a town center, where shopkeepers want visibility to both auto and foot traffic, would be an exception. They do not ask for these things.)
Marc saysMarch 3, 2014 at 2:34 pm
Does O’Toole’s suggestion differ substantially from Oscar Newman’s Defensible Space, in which culs-de-sac were recommended for troubled neighborhoods?
I think O’Toole raises some interesting points on the historic weaknesses of the American street grid: every street tends to devolve into a too-wide, too-straight, too-high-speed arterial, which is arguably the *major* phenomenon that drove families out towards culs-de-sac as auto travel became more common after WWI (too many kids were being slaughtered by “motorists,” as documented by Peter Norton).
Unfortunately, I still think he’s resorting to a tactic common among statist 20th century planners, and it’s one Jacobs decried: there’s tremendous danger in forcing cities to behave like collections of introverted, disparate, disconnected, cozy “villages,” which only weakens them economically as they’re “sorted out” and carved up, which in turn would probably only increase crime!
This tactic may work fine in static, inert, passive dormitory suburbs, but it doesn’t work in city neighborhoods that constantly need to reinvent and redevelop themselves to remain viable. This requires citywide economic and social connections, which in turn require crosstown travel, which in turn is easily accommodated on a street grid (transit in particular works well on a street grid). In short, forcing cities to behave like suburbs is a recipe for disaster, as documented in 75 years’ worth of failed urban “togetherness” planning.
When it comes to crime, culs-de-sac are potentially a boon to street (i.e. walking) criminals because the cops can’t chase them – this was the case in Baltimore’s Seton Hill where drug dealers kept running away from patrol cars:
However, one can certainly argue that this is not a problem of culs-de-sac, but of policing tactics: despite volumes of “community policing” and “foot patrol” rhetoric in recent decades, urban police departments are besotted with technology-laden patrol cars and by and large refuse to implement foot patrols in the volume and frequency necessary to tackle street crime. As revealed in This American Life’s episode on Compstat, foot patrols are still considered a form of punishment for uncooperative officers in the NYPD.
All this being said, O’Toole’s underlying criticisms of the 19th century American street grid have merit, but this brings up the question of cul-de-sac design: what would an urban cul-de-sac look like? Would it be closed off to ALL travel via berms, fences, and walls, like a suburban cul-de-sac, or would it merely close off auto travel (or perhaps maybe only THROUGH auto travel via geometry/pavement techniques) and leave pedestrian and bicycle access unaffected?* I think the latter technique has potentially valuable application in American street grids, but ultimately I don’t think this issue is anywhere near the crux of the Rust Belt’s woes.
*This is important because, while it may be desirable to remove auto traffic from some streets (at the risk of concentrating them too heavily on the remaining streets and turning them into “traffic sewer” barriers), non-auto through traffic is crucial for street safety. Contrary to popular “small town” nostalgia, the strangers on city streets are not something to fear and drive away; they provide passive surveillance! If I was a burglar, which would I rather hit: an apartment on busy, mixed-use Flatbush Avenue, or a bungalow on a quiet dead-end in gray-belt inner Cleveland when everyone’s at work (i.e. nothing else there but bungalows)?
Alex saysMarch 12, 2014 at 11:32 pm
I swear O’Toole is trolling urbanists with crap like this.
Patrick Prescott saysMay 19, 2014 at 12:39 am
O’Toole confused a bigger single family house with “infill”.
akdetrick saysJune 30, 2014 at 5:24 pm
I grew up in the Dayton area, and had friends who lived in this neighborhood. They explained the barriers as a measure to “slow down drug dealers fleeing the scene”. I knew that wasn’t the whole story, so it’s interesting to finally see this.
Around 2001, the neighborhood wasn’t the worst relative to others in Dayton, but it definitely wasn’t the best. The city as a whole has changed quite a bit since the 90’s, so it’s hard for me to say the barriers made any difference, aside from added pedestrian safety from the traffic-calming effect.