Today we have a guest post from Eric Brown, of Brown Design Studio. Eric is a long-time New Urbanist, based in Beaufort, SC.  He can be found at

One of the biggest challenges facing our cities and towns is to deal with the sheer amount of suburban repair work needed. 50+ years of suburban investment with the most world’s most prolific economic engine means that there is much work to undo.

Post real estate melt-down, many commissions have been focused on this type of repair work. In many cases, it is much like the power went off and simply left half-finished developments lying about.  Our goal is to try to repair these areas as best we can and set them up to grow into a type of meaningful place. This begins by tackling the process of transformation of the ever common cul-de-sac.

Ironically, or perhaps not so much so, the word cul-de-sac means “bottom of the bag” in French. So the bottom of the bag in this case, gets you the residential equivalent of a fast food drive through, easy for cars but bad for humans.

cul de sac1







Our case study example here looks much like a typical bottom of the bag below but with a slight “upgrade” of a green space in the middle as a feature.  Also, as a more advanced version of the cul-de-sac, it actually has alley ways feeding some of the lots.

cul de sac2







That little green circle is nicer than pure concrete or asphalt, but does little on its own.  The lot structure is still driving the form of the house placement and you will still end up with something like the next photo, a nicer bottom of the bag.

cul de sac3







What to do?  Well, in many of these types of repair projects, we have many limitations on what we can do.  Often, our project is already entitled or zoned and the client does not wish to go back into that arena.  Other times, much of the actual infrastructure is already in as is the case here.

Our one solution was to begin to define the former bottom of the bag into a multi-use place. Cars use this place but also kids, bikes and humans in general.  It becomes a place that social things happen in as well as a simply visually pleasing space.

We use three basic techniques:

1.  Make a place beautiful.  Places that are not visually appealing are not valued as highly as other places.  Here we add a squared up center green with a large oak tree planting (and other small details such as lighting etc.)

2. Define the place (space): A place must be defined or enclosed in some manner.  Here we focus moving the building form and mass around to create walls for our new space.  It’s the same number of houses, but they are moved around to create something of value.

3. Approach of the space:  This is the one that most designers overlook.  Every interesting space has some type of approach to it.  Here we use a row of palmetto trees to create a tighter street section and rhythm that then opens up to the main space.

This simple fix costs very little in actuality.  We also kept existing utility runs and really only changed some lot lines, house placement and a few ornamental design moves inside the right of way.

cul de sac4






As an alternate, we also looked at another version.  This is a more involved approach as we moved the right of way a little and actually carved out a small block structure in the former cul-de-sac parcel.  Our main goal here was to generate more value by fronting our homes on a more controlled common green vs. a less desirable suburban second tier arterial road.

We used the same basic principles as above but just modified the plan so that 8 of the 12 homes faced the value generating space vs. 4 in the other example.  Since this is a real world project, our client and design team will now have to weigh out the extra value generated in sales of our approach vs. the extra design and engineering needed to convert to this scheme.  Our earlier example, needed almost no additional engineering or approvals.

cul de sac5







There is hope to punch out of the bottom of the bag.  Breaking the cul-de-sac is easy to do from the point of view of a designer of real world solutions to this large problem.  Here, remember that our three main principals; Beautiful Places, Defined Places and Anticipation of a Place were used to build extra value out of typical suburban post-meltdown wreckage.

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3 Responses to What to do with a cul-de-sac?

  1. Earl Bossard says:

    I believe that a major shortcoming of cul-de-sacs is that they do not foster connectivity with neighborhoods and activities in nearby areas not on the cul-de-sac. In Davis, CA many of our cul-de-sacs have bicycle-pedetrain walk/paths to adjoining areas. In some cases we have added such walk/paths as retrofits to facilitate better routes to schools. Providing bicycle/pedestrian outlets to road cul-de-sacs is one way to foster healthier neighborhoods.

  2. Steve Bennett says:

    Those images are tiny – did something go wrong? Even clicking on them, they’re still tiny.

  3. Kevin Klinkenberg says:

    Hi Steve – unfortunately they are pretty low-res. If you want better versions, I’d suggest contacting Eric directly from his website at

    Thanks for reading,


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