The Rise and Fall of the Cul de Sac in Calgary

Posted by Justin Havre. on Tuesday, April 25th, 2017 at 9:28pm.

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The dead-end road with a bulb-shaped end is known as a cul-de-sac or “place” and is an ancient street form that has its roots in the Middle East.  According to Wikipedia dead end streets were also prevalent in Athens and Rome for defense purposes.  Used in England and France in the 17th through 19th centuries as Garden Suburbs developed, the name means ‘end of the bag’ to describe its circular shape.

With North American cities following a grid pattern during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the garden city movement arrived from Europe and with it, the cul-de-sac. After the Second World War ,the automobile started to dictate street styles in new Canadian and American suburbs.  Curvilinear streets which first appeared in 1947 in Manitoba were first recommended in Canada back in 1929, known as the Radburn Plan which was used during the creation of Varsity Village and Braeside neighbourhoods in the late 1960s.

The lot sizes in a cul-de-sac are typically pie-shared with a narrow front yard and large back yard. It’s a popular style of street for estate-sized homes that can make full use of a wedge-shaped lot

Curved streets were designed to be scenic while driving and the cul-de-sac or “place” style of street was touted as a way to calm traffic and connect neighbours.  On the flip side, some urban planners felt they were claustrophobic and interaction between neighbours is contrived rather than natural.  However, cul-de-sacs became standard fare in new Calgary subdivisions from 1958 onward.  Just so the City of Calgary wouldn’t run out of street names, cul-de-sacs in communities started to have the same names but were differentiated by numbers.  For example, 100 block Lake Erie Place SE, 200 block Lake Erie Place SE and so forth.

Often a cul-de-sac will provide an easement or sidewalk cut-through for cyclists and pedestrians between the houses to a street on the next block to provide connectivity for the neighbourhood.  In some cases there are no back alleys behind cul-de-sacs as originally alleys were designed for the home delivery of unsightly items like coal.  With today’s natural gas heating coal delivery is no longer an issue.  In modern suburban street layouts, back alleys are starting to be replaced by green ways and walking paths.

Calming traffic was one goal of the cul-de-sac design, keeping traffic in Calgary subdivisions to a minimum. That helps reduce noise, keeps the air cleaner and is supposed to reduce accidents.   It’s also though that this design would reduce crime because the placement of homes would create natural surveillance by neighbours.   They were also supposed to encourage children to play outside.  Cul-de-sacs are a safer place to put up a hockey net for shinny or a portable basketball hoop.

From a Calgary developer’s point of view, laying homes out in a cul-de-sac was often the answer to fitting the most homes into awkward pieces of land.  It’s more economical to create a cul-de-sac than a long straight road as well.

As positive as the reasons are for purchasing a home on a cul-de-sac in Calgary, the New Urbanists Movement means that the cul-de-sac as a street form is disappearing.   New home developers are creating “walkable” neighbourhoods where the streetscape provides value and interest.  Cul-de-sacs are notoriously unwalkable as they often have no sidewalks at all and in the absence of an easement or cut-through at the top of the cul-de-sac, they’re not very interesting places to walk around.

Some extreme studies are showing that people who live in an impermeable cul-de-sac weigh more than a person who lives on a grid street because of their reliance on automobiles.  It’s also been found in some areas that there may be higher crime rates in cul-de-sacs because there is not enough traffic to spot suspicious people particularly since many people now aren’t home during the day.

But the biggest issue is that the cul-de-sac as part of the new neighbourhood structure does not promote connection with the greater community.   They also don’t lend themselves to creating density in a neighbourhood which is another goal of the new community structures.

Developers are starting to abandon this type of street.  You will still see them in estate communities, such as Bri-Mor’s new neighbourhood, The Rise at Westgrove Estates in West Calgary. There are several cul-de-sacs in this new subdivision but they are connected at the back of the homes with pathways and green spaces.

There are two sides to everything and for people in Calgary, the cul-de-sac will likely always remain a popular place to purchase a family home.


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