Humphrey School News—July 18, 2016

Passing Judgment on the Cul-de-sac: New Humphrey School Research Gives Suburban Planning Low Marks

For decades, many people have aspired to live the American Dream—with a house in the suburbs, on a quiet street, away from the hubbub of a big city. But it turns out that living on a suburban cul-de-sac may not be as satisfying as living in a dense, mixed-use neighborhood, according to new research conducted by Associate Professor Jason Cao of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

“Density is the lesser of two evils,” said Cao, a faculty member in the Urban and Regional Planning area. Cao said his research is an important step in understanding how urban planning influences quality of life.

Research on that subject has been limited thus far, Cao said. His study is different because it looks at the relationship between neighborhood characteristics and “life satisfaction.” Previous studies on the subject were more ad hoc, and typically focused on environmental amenities like open spaces, parks, and greenways. Those represent only one dimension of the built environment, and often focused on seniors rather than the general population.

Cao’s study focuses on density, diversity, design, and environmental amenities of residential neighborhoods.  Researchers collected data from residents of five neighborhoods in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. Three were urban neighborhoods in Minneapolis—along Hiawatha Avenue, Nicollet Avenue, and Bloomington Avenue. The other two were suburban neighborhoods in Coon Rapids and Burnsville, where access to transit is limited, population density is low, and street networks are curvilinear.

Results: Access is better than privacy

Researchers asked residents how satisfied they were with their neighborhood, which is one factor in measuring their overall “life satisfaction.”

The results showed that while both types of neighborhoods have positives and negatives, the suburban cul-de-sac neighborhood is viewed less favorably.  “The negative impact of the cul-de-sac on life satisfaction is much larger than the negative impact of the denser development,” said Cao.

Urban planners have advocated for denser neighborhoods, with housing, retail, restaurants, public services, and transit all part of the equation. Residents who participated in the study generally liked the accessibility and transportation options available in denser developments. But they pointed out negative effects as well, such as crowds, traffic congestion, noise, pollution, and crime.

Suburban neighborhoods, which typically feature curved streets and cul-de-sacs, also received mixed reviews in the study. Residents perceive their neighborhoods to be quieter and safer. But the downside is the lack of easy access to shopping, restaurants, employment, etc., unless you have a car. Streets are often poorly connected, transit options are limited, and there isn’t a strong sense of community, so some residents in those areas feel isolated.

The study concluded that, “although cul-de-sacs offer a higher level of perceived privacy, quietness, and safety than gridded street networks, the loss in accessibility far outweighs the gain in these aspects from the perspective of life satisfaction.”

“The overall message is that density is better, in terms of accessibility,” said Cao. “People don’t want to be isolated.” At the same time, though, he said planners need to figure out how to promote the positive side of denser neighborhood developments while addressing the negatives. “This raises more questions that need to be answered.”

The study was published in a special issue of the journal Travel Behaviour and Society.  The issue, which was edited by Cao and a colleague, includes several articles that examine the relationship between the built environment, mobility, and quality of life.

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