Idea: The ‘Liquid Grid’ Street Layout, A Replacement For Cul-De-Sacs & Block Grids

Reversing urban sprawl and bringing back city living is going to take some major changes. Once people discover the joy of a suburban neighborhood, despite some serious drawbacks, it’s hard to make them go back to living in the city. So the city must change and evolve and adapt in order to compete with ‘Orange County’. And I believe, it all starts with a new street layout.  

This article is a followup to “The Great Cul-De-Sac Problem And How To Alleviate It“. Give it a read if you want a more in depth look at what happens when cul-de-sacs are taken to an extreme.

First, How The Cul-De-Sac Was Born:

by Norman Garrick

Almost all cities before the 1930s were in a grid design, they were efficient, easy to move around in, and encouraged diversity. Unfortunately they were also noisy, polluted, densely populated, and lacked greenery.

At some point after the 1930s residents got sick of this and discovered the joy of the suburbs. Low density neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city with better schools and room for backyards and swimming pools.

This race to get out of the city has called “urban sprawl” and it exists on nearly every continent and major city in the world. China, South Africa, Australia, Canada, Mexico… It’s hard to name a country that doesn’t have a major city with urban sprawl.

People left the cities because they were essentially, under the inescapable policy of city planners, who refused to listen to the needs of the average human.

The Human Desires That Created The Suburbs:
As animals, we want our own territory, the more the better. We want back yards, gardens, smaller streets, less traffic, less pollution, better schools, quiet nights. We want to be around less people and have more space to ourselves. We want to have fewer but more trust worthy neighbors. We want less regulation over how we can decorate or build our home. We want to live in quiet neighborhoods far from the factories where we work.

Some of these desires are sustainably achievable and some are not. But this is the dream that created the suburbs. And for millions of people the dream DID become a reality. There are LOTS of really nice suburban neighborhoods using both block grid and cul-de-sac street layouts. They’re not too far from a major road linking them to the city, a jobs center, or nearby businesses and residents enjoy peaceful streets, lush backyards, friendly neighbors, and monthly get togethers.

However…

When taken to an extreme, the dream has started to take on the characteristics of a nightmare. As the suburbs became more popular they became more populated, and in order to sell the suburbs you have to sell the emotion of “living far away in a small community where everyone knows each other”. So construction companies began using cul-de-sac layouts to give homeowners a feeling of living in a home tucked far away from the madness of society. Unfortunately the side effect of cul-de-sacs is that they viciously separate neighbor from neighbor and with jobs and businesses far away, they created a culture forced to own a car in order to get anywhere. Your children can’t even play with the other kids on a neighboring street because they literally can’t reach them.

No, you can’t cut through neighbors’ yards, in almost every case where I try to they have fences. Also, in an attempt to prevent any traffic other than residents from going through neighborhoods, many of these communities only have a few roads leading in and out. Guaranteeing its residents an additional 6-8 mile commute each day.

Subdivisions gave rise to tyrant-like “home owners associations” which basically controlled what you could and couldn’t do to your home. Forcing every house in the subdivision to look like a copy of the others around it, and preventing home owners from decorating, painting, or remodeling their homes to their tastes. All in the name of “keeping property values up”.

Contractors looking to capitalize on “the dream” began cramming together as many cookie cutter homes as possible. There goes the “low density, big back yard” advantage of the suburbs. I myself have lived for 5 years in Orlando, Florida and moved 4 times. All the new subdivisions, like the one above, are pretty standard now. It’s hard to find a new neighborhood being built that isn’t crammed together. Not to mention Orlando’s newer residential areas all have extreme cul-de-sacs. You’ll spend 2-3 miles driving around your neighborhood just to get out of it and onto a major road. I moved back to St. Louis, Missouri in 2010 and see the same thing in newer neighborhoods.

In moderation the suburbs were a great escape from the city that didn’t listen to what people wanted. Today however, the suburbs are like soda, sugar, candy, and drugs. People want them even though it’s not good for them.

Back to high density, low freedom, no greenery, tiny backyards, lots of traffic, polluted, noisy neighborhoods. Suburbs are becoming the very thing that families wanted to get away from. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. At least in the city everything wasn’t a 7 mile drive away.

Back to Street Layouts:

Remember, we are comparing STREET LAYOUTS, not county vs. city living. There are lots of cul-de-sacs with little nature and high traffic, and lots of block grid layouts with big backyards and little traffic.

Used for city centers from ancient to modern times, also used for older suburbs. Extremely efficiant movement. Socially open.

Pros:

  1. No traffic bottlenecks. This means all streets share more equalized volumes of traffic. 
  2. Uses less space to fit more people and houses.
  3. Easily expands to fit higher density buildings.
  4. Finding your way around is easier and it’s harder to get lost compared to other street layouts because streets don’t suddenly dead end or curve and go in the opposite direction.

Cons:

  1. The problem with the grid design, emotionally, is that it’s too perfect. Straight lines rarely, if ever, occur in nature. Aesthetically, the grid is too rigid, too man made, too unnatural.
  2. Surrounding traffic might cut through neighborhoods to avoid stoplights or clogged highways / roads causing more traffic to go through residences.
  3. Because you can see down the street for miles it gives you the feeling that you can’t escape the population around you. You have no where to run to. You are surrounded by people and you can see them all by looking down the street.
  4. Sound travels easier when there’s nothing to block it, so that loud ass motorcycle 3 blocks down can be heard much easier when its sound waves can travel down a straight street with nothing to absorb them.
  5. It feels like everyone has access to your home, our natural instinct is to build a home hidden from others for safety reasons. Many people don’t want their home to be “well connected” because they like the feeling of being hidden, being tucked away somewhere where only they know.
  6. Stop signs at every intersection are frustrating and annoying.
  7. Straight streets mean speeding and running stop signs is easier. Although putting traffic circles or speed humps at all the intersections would put an end to that.

Used for suburban areas only. Isolates residents into small communities. Socially disconnected.

Pros:

  1. More space in between homes, which can be used for nature (usually)
  2. Lower density (usually)
  3. Less traffic for some (more traffic for others)
  4. Residents living in dead-ends and roundabouts get a large street with no outside traffic, giving them a quiet safe place for their kids to play.
  5. Since streets curve residents only have a view of their closest neighbors and not the whole street, giving a mental calming effect and creating the feeling of having less neighbors than they actually have.
  6. Outsiders rarely wander in, out of lack of shortcuts through and out of fear of getting lost in the maze. Only residents use the roads, so depending on the size of the neighborhood there is usually little traffic.

Cons:

  1. Takes up massive amounts of land.
  2. Creates a car dependent culture and increases dependency on foreign oil.
  3. Almost always lacks public transit options.
  4. The most inefficient way to get from point A to point B. Increases commute times thus increasing CO2 and pollutants.
  5. Separates neighborhoods and communities from each other. Kids can’t walk to each other’s houses even if they live close to each other, the streets aren’t well connected, so they have to drive miles and miles to get to each others’ homes.
  6. It’s a pain in the ass and a waste of gas for delivery, emergency, and schoolbusses that commute through cul-de-sacs every day.
  7. Emergency vehicles take longer to reach you.
  8. Bottlenecks in large neighborhoods force hundreds of drivers into 1 or 2 streets in order to get out of the neighborhood. This increases traffic along those roads and residents do not get the “low traffic, low noise, low pollution” advantage of living in such a neighborhood the way other residents do.

The Solution:

It has all the benefits of a traditional block grid as well as most of the important benefits of a cul-de-sac without its drawbacks. It emulates the emotional effects that cul-de-sacs create without having the disadvantages of cul-de-sacs. Residents are very well connected and the curved roads discourage street racing and speeders. The use of shared space intersections will mean most cars don’t have to stop completely at each intersection. Resulting in improved traffic flow for getting in and around the neighborhood as well as making intersections safer than those with stop signs and cross walks. Or, speed humps can be used to discourage outsiders from taking shortcuts through residences.

Every block in a liquid grid is unique in it’s shape and no two blocks are shaped the same. North/South bound streets always go North and South and all East/West bound streets go East and West. No more mazes. No roads loop around or suddenly dead end.

By curving the roads we restrict the view of each resident. They can only see so far down the street until it curves off into trees and bushes, giving them more privacy, less noise, and a feeling of having less neighbors than they really have. This feeling of “close range isolation”, being close to everyone without being able to see everyone, allows residents to be in the center of a vibrant community while still being able to escape into their own area of solitude.

Since residents can only see their closest neighbors, it gives them a feeling of a close-knit little town where everyone knows each other.

And if planners leave enough space between homes for bigger front and back yards the liquid grid layout would perfectly emulate the look and feel of the suburbs without the miles and miles of dead end roads. This could be urban renewable solution city planners have been looking for. Now they just have to get their politics and schools in order.

Originally I wanted to use a more rigid liquid grid (above) but I think it looks and feels too… cloned, homogenized, cookie-cutter, man-made, and unnatural. And that’s what people really wanted to get away from when they moved out of cities and into suburbs. Away from perfect grids and towards something more natural and random (think finger prints and leaf veins).

Seeing as how I can’t stand neither block grids nor cul-de-sacs, I for one, would LOVE to live in a liquid grid layout, easily accessible yet private. What do you think?

35 Comments

  1. Hod Benbinyamin says:

    You are the man! always with a great topic and a great way to display the issue.
    I love your articles- keep the good job.

  2. Noj says:

    I live in a cul de sac. With cycle I cross a gap through the fence to get on the main road, with car it takes me 5 minutes. Although how does the liquid grid solve the noise problem ?

  3. Carlosmfernandes says:

    Liquid grid seems a pleasant solution for the traffic problem of cul-de-sac urban design. All the advantages and problems you listed against living in a suburban area remain. But some also exist you have not listed such as entertainment, food provisions, health assistance among others. All in all, yours is a great idea and certainly a way for a better life to ones who enjoy living in a suburban area.

  4. rodrigob says:

    Any idea of the safety implications of continuously driving in curved roads ?

    • You actually concentrate more. You’re less likely to fall asleep or for your brain to idle and daydream. Curved roads are always safer than straight roads as long as the curves are moderate.

    • Yoofie says:

      Just to add to this point, the same reason was used to justify curving highways. Long straight highways caused drivers to daydream/zone out increasing the likelihood of accidents. They alleviated this problem by adding curves and turns to the highways which then reduced highway collisions. I don’t have a solid source to point to, but this point stuck with me when I watched a documentary on the subject.

      Very good post! I enjoy these articles. They are thought provoking and interesting. Keep them coming!

    • SpaghettiMitKnoedel says:

      Yes – you become a better driver. In fact studies show that drivers from mountain regions (plenty of curves there) are among the best drivers because they have to actually learn how the car reacts in different situations and weather conditions.

  5. tomosaigon says:

    Have you looked at examples of this in neighborhoods that (due to existing geography) are naturally curved like this?

  6. Nik0 says:

    Interesting idea. But there is problem of closing the view points to the next intersection. Also disabling the points of orientation because at any place you stand the only thing you can see is a curved street fronts and nothing beyond it.

    • SpaghettiMitKnoedel says:

      It’s just an issue if you are not used to – in europe we almost have no rectangular grids and no one gets lost.

    • Even so, it’s still better than cul-de-sacs. If you’re in a liquid grid you’ll know it, so you’ll know that there’s another intersection after a curve in the road.

  7. Abigail says:

    Many of the cons mentioned for cul-de-sacs can also be solved by pedestrian/cycle lanes. That is, travelling by car, one still has the long-about, tree-like structure to navigate, but by walking or using a bicycle, people can still go quickly everywhere.  Add in a one or two limited access points to the neighbourhood (for instance, passable by pedestrians/cyclist, and having a removable barrier for mass transit and emergency vehicles) and you’ve solved most of the cons. You can even apply that to existing cul-de-sacs (of course, that requires turning private land into public land)

    • Oh wow. It’s beautiful. I never would have found this. Thanks for posting. I’ll have to visit it someday.

    • Tucaaue says:

      Funny, just to the N/NE of your link there’s an example of the cul-de-sacs mentioned in the first part of the article.

  8. Soren Simonsen says:

    Connectivity in the patterns is more important than the pattern itself. Though practical experience shows us that the larger the city, the more important a regular grid becomes. Lower Manhattan in NYC and Boston city center, the oldest and original settlement areas of these cities, have no regular grid but a high level of connectivity—more like ancient cities in Africa, Asia and Europe, where street networks evolved from foot paths. As these cities grew, more regular grids became important to improve connectivity over greater distances, and to facilitate connectivity at a larger regional scale. 

    As the city grows, it becomes more challenging to continue the connections. The regular grid, a product mostly of American city planning movement, allows for infinite expansion (not that you’d want to expand infinitely).

    I think that this post, while appropriately inquisitive, oversimplifies and stereoptypes many complex issues of connectivity. The focus is on connectivity at the neighborhood scale, but doesn’t explore how the idea relates at a regional scale of a city. 

    The writer suggests that one of the reasons for suburban flight was to get away from the pollution of the city. This may have been partially true when large factories were the heavy polluters, but as you look at WHO was moving to the suburbs, the flight was also extremely racially, ethnically and economically based. Additionally, what the photos illustrate is the pollution in today’s cities that largely comes from cars driving into the city from the suburbs, not from the dense core of the city itself. The auto-orientation and resource consumptive nature of suburbs—consuming land, natural resources, and energy in enormous quantities—are neither practical nor sustainable as we contemplate a world population that could approach 10 billion in the next 40 years. 

    I would also dispute the claim that dense cities lack “green infrastructure” that suburbs provide. I would argue that the best urban parks and nature preserves in the US today—Central Park in New York, the Emerald Necklace in Boston, the neighborhood squares in Savannah, and Stanley Park in Vancouver (BC)—were created during the city planning movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and that its the suburbs of the last half century or so lack that green infrastructure. Big back yards for sure, but not the type of public open space that facilitates social connectivity, which is as important as physical connectivity. 

    Continue the exploration for sure. But dive very deep into your research!

  9. Eli Sklar says:

    Bravo. Excellent response to your initial argument.

    And I also would love to live in this Liquid Grid layout.

  10. It seems that the one disadvantage of cul-de-sacs that liquid grids still have (albeit in somewhat smaller measure) is the difficulty of upgrading existing streets to higher traffic boulevards and avenues.

    You can get around this by overlaying a 1-mile grid, which would then be the natural candidates for higher-density mixed-use development.

    • Cul-de-sacs would be impossible to upgrade, they’d just have to be ripped out, but I think liquid grids could handle upgrades. I remember when I was Google Map Vacationing in Hong Kong I saw roads like that, and they had high rises on both sides.

  11. Speldosa says:

    Great post! We really need some originality and eye for design in the blog world!

  12. Great post! really interesting

  13. Interesting post.Thoroughly enjoyed the post. Eagerly anticipating what’s coming next.

  14. Tal says:

    Liquid grid is completely pointless. It is just a grid with annoyingly un-straight roads. I love my gridded home town. It is efficient and not at all confusing. Just build more spread out grids, it is that simple.

    And cul-de-sacs are just nightmares, in my opinion. So easy to get lost, as well as the other cons you listed.

  15. Stephen Ó Bróithe says:

    It’s not really so simple as “this is the solution” – you’re neglecting many other considerations in the design of a street layout.

    Also if you want to have a “liquid grid” layout, it would likely need to be enclosed within larger square-style roads framing the area, allowing for high-volume traffic arterials that can accommodate higher, more rapid vehicle movement as well as transit access.

    Nice idea, in theory.

  16. Joshua Kleckner says:

    This would possibly work for residencies but more commercial districts need a more grid-like structure. Also the other problem to your design is it adds inefficiency by extending drive times and distances. Second issue is this disallows distinction for lots with a concave in front of the house. Perhaps merging the block grid and liquid grid would be a better solution (ie liquid, block,liquid pattern). And also the layouts WOULD have to be for larger properties, either way. Also this would mainly be more conducive to a flat region.

  17. NolaDude says:

    Fyi, it’s cheaper to build cul de sacs, etc. than a grid. A subdivision developer will get a higher ratio of parcels to linear miles of roadway with cul de sacs and therefore a more profitable investment… Tough to stop them without better zoning that includes metrics for intersection density and roadway connectivity.

    • JMac says:

      I don’t know that this is true (and I mean that literally–I don’t know). It seems to me most of the analysis that makes the claim that grid systems are more expensive focus on the amount of asphalt per unit of land. But I question whether this equates to the amount of density allowed per unit of land within a grid system. A developer can almost certainly pack more lots into a grid system than into a system of disconnected streets; but they might have a hard time selling the parcels. This is one of the ideas behind a fused grid system…it is efficient at the macro level while retaining marketability (and even a fair amount of density of development) at the micro level.

    • NolaDude says:

      I see what you’re saying… I think that technically developers could develop just as densely with any street grid. I.e. the street grid doesn’t limit the height of buildings or the parcel size. However, a grid tends to foster a more walkable environment and therefore tends to correspond to dense development, which is also part of a walkable environment. Houses in cul de sac subdivisions tend to have yards, but they don’t have to! I don’t know much about the fused grid but it seems cool. It reminds me of sunnyside gardens in Queens. I would assume that a fused grid is cheaper than a full blown grid because they don’t have to lay down as much asphalt and you would have just as much developable land, if not more (like the cul de sac model). I guess the key is ensuring that ped/bike routes are obvious and inviting.

  18. kam2epk says:

    As we begin to leave the cul-de-sac era, we start to look ahead. Liquid grids could change the way cities and towns are built entirely. The fact that the layout creates variation in the sizes of front and backyards means there may be more class diversity, because since the space in between streets varies in size A LOT, many large and small houses could populate the suburbs with a diverse population. Only thing is the layout is not practical for places that aren’t flat.

  19. Kyle Li says:

    Would the liquid grid not require more resources, more land, and be less efficient in terms of applying both land and resources? In highly dense countries such as china, land values would make things such as this completely impractical. If humans have to choose between form and function, we always choose function – that’s why we see urban sprawl appearing wherever we have this choice.

    It’s a good idea, but like most ideas they get shut down by human nature and only work in extremely niche circumstances.

  20. Patrick Jackson says:

    This is the existing grid in Beverly Hills.

  21. JMac says:

    I’m dealing with this issue right now as a city planner…
    While I do appreciate what’s being accomplished by the liquid grid proposal, I don’t see it as viable for us since it ultimately imposes a local street grid that would not align with “any” existing property lines. What we’re considering is establishing a 40-acre grid of arterials, major and minor collectors, in which arterials would “generally” be along section lines, major collectors would divide sections into 160-acre squares, and minor collectors would be along the 4-acre quarters of those 160-acre squares. That’s how most of our greenfield land is arranged already. Of course, we’re deviating from the standard to accommodate significant terrain features and existing suburban neighborhoods that are set.
    Then we’d essentially accept whatever development occurs within those 40-acre areas (with some interconnectivity rules, particularly for pedestrian passage).
    We’d focus mixed-use development at grid-network intersections: greatest intensity (greatest number of possible uses) where arterials intersect, and so forth. This retains a 1/4-mile pedestrian shed, essentially. Maybe not as master-planned as one might wish, but would at least set the boundaries for private development and the free market to take over the rest. I think it’s pretty similar to a fused-grid approach, but with less prescriptive design of local streets. Thoughts?

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