Property: The road to nowhere: Patrick Matthews reports on the development dream that led to a dead end

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BROOKSIDE Close, the setting for Channel 4's soap of the same name, is unmistakably a product of the Eighties - not so much because of the style of the houses as because of their layout, facing each other around a cul-de-sac.

Developers saw an obvious advantage in this arrangement: it helped squeeze houses into awkwardly shaped pockets of land. Parents were delighted to find that their children could play outside without the dangers of through traffic. The police saw culs-de-sac as 'defensible' spaces where neighbours could keep an eye on each other's property, and which offered no getaway routes to burglars.

Yet the signs are that 'Brookside' housing will soon be consigned to history. Connected streets in the traditional 19th-century style are coming back. The fashion for branching networks of roads which end only in culs-de-sac may itself have reached a dead end.

Part of the reason for this is social isolation. The groups of Eighties houses called 'clusters' or 'mews courts' may be free of the bustle and noise of city streets, but not everyone benefits from living in a backwater.

Dr Derek Munday sees large numbers of patients suffering from stress caused by loneliness. His general practice is in a cul-de-sac called, incredibly, Brookside Close - but sited in a development outside Reading rather than on Merseyside.

'If you go to older areas,' he says, 'you get a mix; elderly people as well as young couples. But Lower Earley is a rootless, granny-less society in which most people are in their late twenties to late forties. There is nobody there from 9am to 5pm when the children come back. Health visitors say loneliness is the new problem of modern estates. People like to see life going on around them - and you don't get that in a cul-de-sac.'

The choice town planners have is between building connected streets and 'route hierarchies'. In a route hierarchy, a feeder road running round a new community will have a number of roads leading off it. Each in turn branches before petering out in a cul-de-sac. This second system tames the motor car: drivers within sight of their destination can be slowed to walking speed and persuaded to give priority to pedestrians. Chelmer Village outside Chelmsford is a self-contained development built according to the precepts of Essex council's design guide. Most residents praise it. Others observe the failings predicted by academic critics of urban design; failings now recognised by the planners.

Michael Barber, a young father, and his friend Christian Bradley live near the centre of Chelmer Village, at the furthest point accessible by road. They describe a becalmed area, animated only by the manoeuverings of lost drivers who have ventured into it by accident.

'We've been here three-and-a-half years but we don't see much of our neighbours,' says Barber, 25, who is unemployed. 'Everyone keeps themselves to themselves. Around here it's just get up, go to work, and come home. There's nobody about. It's dead.'

Bradley, 19, cannot understand the unpopularity of the communal areas. 'Just over there, there's an enclosed forecourt with a square in the middle and a bench. The bench is going green because nobody ever sits on it.'

He would be less surprised had he studied at the University of London's Bartlett School of Architecture. There, Professor Bill Hillier is a strong opponent of 'defensible' enclosed areas and what he calls the 'pseudo-village full of focal spaces'. Such spaces, he believes, will be under-used because nobody wishes to appear rude by monopolising the territory they share with neighbours.

On a visit to the United States, Hillier observed the complicated social conventions at a new housing development in Phoenix, Arizona. There, a courtyard with a fountain had been created for the residents. 'I never saw anybody sitting in it, and the rule seemed to be that if you saw anyone sitting in the complex you walked past them without acknowledging them. But when you met the same person outside the area, you'd greet them and say 'Hi'.'

The Hillier thesis is that places designed to be separate from the flow of people are more likely to encourage crime and vandalism - the exact opposite of the 'defensible space' idea upheld and promoted by the police in the design guidance they give to developers. Professor Hillier's colleagues and students have made systematic studies of inner-city housing estates, which they believe support the view that deserted places are more dangerous. Researchers at Oxford Brookes University School of Architecture have also tried to find out if crime rates vary much between culs-de-

sac and conventional streets. Professor Michael Jenks found a higher level of petty vandalism in streets and rather more serious burglaries in culs-de-sac.

Professor Hillier does not suggest that culs-de-sac cannot work. The old City of London was built around streets leading on to mews and courtyards. And, important though housing design may be, it is rarely the deciding factor when it comes to quality of life. The Barbican development in the City of London looks like the worst kind of 1960s council estate, but its wealthy residents escape the social ills supposed to accompany high-rise living.

The developers of Chelmer Village are busy designing a new community outside Braintree. It will be pierced by a spine road giving on to a road network, using mini-roundabouts and sharp bends to restrict drivers to a safe speed. Its designers are less concerned with promoting 'enclosure' than with the newer buzz words of 'permeability', 'legibility' and 'accessibility'.

In layman's language, what they are creating is an estate that is easy to find your way around - not something you would associate with the earlier development. 'Chelmer Village is one big labyrinth,' says Bradley. Barber points to a neighbouring block of flats that can be reached by car only by driving to the outside of the town and then returning along a separate branch.

Chelmer's vicar, Colin Hopkinson, was confronted by an unusual excuse for non-attendance at his church: though it was only a few minutes' walk from where they lived, parishioners said it was impossibly distant by car.

His church has since produced the first ever map of the footpath network - but Mr Hopkinson continues to come across lost sheep. 'Even after three years, I'm still discovering clusters I didn't know existed.' -

(Photograph omitted)