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?