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.” Repeatedly, though, he found at the end of cul-de-sacs families who watched each others’ children and took in each others’ mail, who barbequed and orchestrated the removal of snow together, and who considered each other close friends. In cul-de-sacs, these families had a stronger sense of shared social space and territoriality. An outsider stood out.
In sociologist’s terms, Hochschild ultimately concluded that people who live in traditional bulb cul-de-sacs have the highest levels of attitudinal and behavioral cohesion (covering both how they feel about their neighbors and how much they actually interact with them). People who live on your average residential through-street have the lowest levels (in between the two are “dead-end” cul-de-sacs that lack that traditional, circular social space).
These findings, which Hochschild has published in the Journal of Urban Planning and Development, may surprise you. Academics who’ve come at the decidedly controversial cul-de-sac from other angles – traffic management, engineering, and urban planning – have mostly had unflattering things to say about them (many of which we’ve chronicled). Cul-de-sacs carve up communities in a way that makes them unwalkable. They force people to drive more often and longer distances. As a result, they harm the environment. They’re actually less safe than traditional street grids because drivers speeding through arterials in suburbia don’t have to pay as much attention. And cul-de-sacs are harder to reach by fire, police and emergency crews.
Hochschild, now an assistant professor of sociology at Valdosta State University, has heard all of these critiques.