Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles 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 suburbs — in 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 sac — not its footpaths — that 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 like “Planning Profitable Neighborhoods,” the FHA laid out “ideal” suburban 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 definitively “bad.” Other plans — with curvilinear, or winding, roads — were good. That included cul de sacs. This FHA-labeled “bad” plan shows why curved streets really did make sense sometimes. The dotted lines show topography — like hills. A grid plan would have required a ton of construction to work around the landscape. The good plan — a curvilinear one — reduces 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 traffic — while 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. The “good” plan was the only safe option if they wanted their houses to sell. Plans drafted the “bad way” were 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 sac — it 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 strip” to 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 video — which 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.