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  • You ever feel like you're just going in circles?

  • So this is Hallsley, a still-developing subdivision in Midlothian Virginia.

  • This place won the National Association of Homebuilders award in 2017, for best master

  • planned community.

  • And there are a ton of cul de sacs.

  • 1.

  • 2.

  • 3.

  • 4.

  • Let's just go to the map, save some time.

  • Cul de sacs are everywhere.

  • They're a symbol of suburban sprawl.

  • But they aren't an accident.

  • They're physical evidence of how one federal agency shaped the suburbsin ways that

  • we're still grappling with today.

  • English suburban plans inspired early suburbs in the United States

  • like Radburn, New Jersey, which offered a unique plan.

  • Founded in 1929, it was designed to be car friendly.

  • But it introduced a street that served more like an alleyway or service road.

  • It was almost a prototype for the cul de sac.

  • Cars traveled and parked in the back of houses, not in front.

  • People walked to and from the train via footpaths that were car-free.

  • Though Radburn wasn't totally finished, today you can see the footpaths that still

  • provide a pedestrian network for residents.

  • But out of those ideas, it was Radburn's cul de sacnot its footpathsthat

  • spread, thanks to an agency with the power to do it.

  • In 1929, the Great Depression crushed the housing market.

  • The bust dragged on for years.

  • “A decline of 92% from 1928.”

  • But due to the stimulation of the national housing act, 1935 presents a different picture.”

  • Before 1934, mortgages required anywhere from 30 to 50% down, paid off as quickly as 5 years.

  • The new Federal Housing Administration, or FHA, insured mortgages for lenders, shrinking

  • down-payments to 20% and extending the mortgage to the now standard 30 years.

  • All that made homebuying affordable and kicked off a housing boom for purchasing and construction.

  • This tidal wave of new construction is an important contribution to the economic

  • rebuilding of America.

  • Home ownership is the basis of a happy contented family life.”

  • I know, you're probably like, how does any of this connect to cul de sacs or suburban

  • design.

  • The thing is, is that the FHA wanted to ensure that all these investments they were making

  • were relatively safe investments.

  • So to do that, they ranked and rated neighborhoods and homes, and then they created guidelines for those

  • ratings.

  • And that is where things get complicated.

  • Some FHA guidelines we'd see today as roughly positive, like minimum property requirements.

  • Think minimum standards for plumbing and foundation of new houses, to guarantee they weren't

  • just junk.

  • Mostly good.

  • Except for the asbestos.

  • Lots of asbestos.

  • On the other end of the spectrum, the FHA explicitly endorsed segregation as a measure

  • of housing quality.

  • I.E. segregation equals good neighborhood.

  • This underwriting manual puts it really clearly: “If a neighborhood

  • is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by

  • the same social and racial classes.”

  • So, these guidelines ran the gamut from mundane to appalling.

  • But developers would be taking a huge risk to ignore the FHA, since these loans sold

  • houses.

  • Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, the FHA's recommendations also included city

  • planning.

  • They started with car-friendly minimum street widths and then expanded.

  • In bulletins likePlanning Profitable Neighborhoods,” the FHA laid outidealsuburban plans

  • which were clearly labeled bad or good.

  • They drew from models like Radburn, but focused on the car and left out the pedestrians.

  • Grid plans were definitivelybad.”

  • Other planswith curvilinear, or winding, roadswere good.

  • That included cul de sacs.

  • This FHA-labeledbadplan shows why curved streets really did make sense sometimes.

  • The dotted lines show topographylike hills.

  • A grid plan would have required a ton of construction to work around the landscape.

  • The good plan — a curvilinear onereduces construction costs and is just nicer to look

  • at.

  • But these plans also insisted on a car-centered vision of the neighborhood, with cul de sacs

  • designed to slow down vehicles and limit through trafficwhile also guaranteeing that cars

  • were necessary to get around.

  • This bad plan would have worked well for public transportation and city services, or a walking

  • commute.

  • But developers couldn't risk bad plans.

  • Thegoodplan was the only safe option if they wanted their houses to sell.

  • Plans drafted thebad waywere revised to fit the FHA's vision of the good life.

  • That was a combination of financial coercion and a quickly evolving sense of what a suburb

  • should be.”

  • Listen, I played kickball in cul de sacs.

  • They have a lot of advantages.

  • They really do slow down through traffic, they create a sense of community, they just

  • have a lot of things going for them.

  • This subdivision here doesn't have much to do with those outmoded FHA guidelines,

  • but it does exist in a culture that those guidelines shaped.

  • The cul de sacit crowded out a million other good ideas.

  • Ideas that could have had a different vision of the suburbs.

  • Ideas that weren't all about - this.

  • Today, some suburbs are changing the plan.

  • There's even a way to make existing cul de sacs more walkable.

  • But it's a little strange that so many places are still beholden to the old FHA's vision

  • of the one good life.

  • This is a proposed black subdivision near Atlanta, from a 1948 FHA plan.

  • The plan included a “planting stripto serve as a visible boundary between white

  • and black neighborhoods.

  • In the same plan, the FHA plotted very elegant curvilinear streets and cul de sacs.

  • That's it for this episode about the suburbs.

  • Let's read some comments from the last episode, which was about Manhattan's grid.

  • These people were smart.

  • They knew it would be difficult to build out a model of the city in Minecraft if it was

  • made out of circles.”

  • This is actually the philosophy they had!

  • They wanted easy development.

  • Very Minecrafty of them.

  • But cities like Boston or London have greater charm and uniqueness but are a pain to navigate.”

  • And this is the big debate at the crux of the videowhich one do you prefer, that

  • uniqueness or navigability.

  • That's it for this episode, we hope to see you in the next one, which actually features

  • a lot of contributions from Vox's YouTube subscribers.

You ever feel like you're just going in circles?

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Why so many suburbs look the same

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    joey joey posted on 2021/05/18
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