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Living Streets: What is a Woonerf?


people walking and biking along a wide treelined street designed for pedestrians and cars

It’s hard to imagine that streets used to be meeting places, playgrounds, business centers, and community focal points. While cars are a necessary part of day-to-day life, the rules of the road should not be the rule of law; residential zones, especially those in urban areas, should be designed around the needs of people, not vehicles.


Something changed about our streets. The places where kids played wiffle ball without the formality of a playground and neighborhoods gathered on holidays to celebrate have disappeared. For those of us born after the advent of autocentric urban design, the idea that roads belong to anything or anyone but the next passing car is an alien concept. 


Woonerf street design is an example of how we can reimagine urban spaces with a more pedestrian friendly, community-minded approach; providing a safer and more enriching living space to residents. Loosely translated from Dutch as “living street” or “shared space” these pedestrian-friendly thoroughfares offer much more to communities than just a way to get around. 


The “Complete” Street

The street is the river of life of the city, the place where we come together, the pathway to the center.

-William H. Whyte


Woonerfs flip the idea that all other forms of transportation (and all other uses for a street) should be superseded by the needs of passing cars. To put it in simple terms, cyclists and pedestrians have the right of way before cars. The flow of traffic continues, but at a much slower pace than you’d see on your typical city street, and priority is shifted to safety and accessibility to human powered traffic rather than the convenience of vehicles. 


This is why woonerfs are sometimes referred to as “complete” streets. Everyone shares the same space without the same sense of hierarchical right of way you’d see in traditional street and sidewalk setup. To be clear, there isn’t an expectation that every street in a given city should be a woonerf; instead they function more like a security island for communities. The goal isn’t to shut down high traffic areas or ban cars from cities, it’s to reclaim some pedestrian and bike-friendly spaces within areas where people live, and encourage economic and social development within them. 


Essential Elements

The concept is sound, but how does a community go about developing a woonerf? 


The obvious answer is signage- it makes sense that you’d want to make drivers aware that traffic patterns (and priorities) are shifting dramatically with prominent  “Now Entering Woonerf” postings. While signage does help, cities that have successfully implemented these walkways have found that softer cues built into the environment are far more effective than signage. In other words, you can control the speed of traffic by making it impossible to drive fast. 


Here are some of the characteristics of a typical woonerf:


  • Gateways: Gateways function as a more significant indicator of change than a simple sign. These can be simple archways, gardens, or other indicators of a shift in attitude. 

  • Limited Line of Sight: Limiting how far motorists can see ahead of them slows them down. Things like curving streets and high density buildings are a couple examples. 

  • Obstructions in the Right of Way: Planting trees, installing benches, and including other features in the right of way enrich the area and make it clear the street is multi-purpose

  • Detailed Paving Patterns: Using intricate and textured paving patterns might make for a bit of a bumpy ride, but they also beautify the area more importantly they serve as a reminder to motorists of where they are.

  • No Grade Separation Between Sidewalk: A raised sidewalk implies a hierarchy in how streets are used. Keeping everything graded evenly literally levels the playing field and tells motorists that pedestrians have equal priority.


The Benefits of a Woonerf

So we know what a woonerf looks like, but how does it benefit the community? Well, other than cutting down on through traffic, there are actually many benefits to incorporating woonerfs into community design.


Safety

Vehicular and pedestrian traffic traditionally do not play well together. This in part is related to urban planning after WW2 placing such a heavy emphasis on drivability. Whole generations have grown up never knowing the streets as the shared spaces they once were were. Meaning that when accidents do happen they tend to be at higher speed and cause more damage. Woonerfs help mitigate these kinds of accidents by routing through traffic around residential areas preemptively. 


Dutch neighborhoods benefiting from woonerfs saw crashes reduced by up to 70%, where studies spanning other parts of western Europe found that injuries in traffic calming neighborhoods fell more than 50%. It’s easy to see the appeal when you consider the implications of these statistics in a bike-centric town like Bellingham.


Community

Streets used to be a place where people gathered and children played. One of the consequences of increased traffic in residential areas is the loss of significant shared and public space. Streets used to be a place where you could connect with your neighbors, and where your commute included your community, and where kids could play and learn about their towns. When streets are reduced to transport arteries from the store, work, and home; our neighborhoods become less connected.


Environmental Impact

Less car traffic means less air and noise pollution. When you make urban centers more walkable, it translates to less cars on the road. Woonerfs also provide an opportunity to efficiently increase our urban canopy cover. More green spaces in our streets keeps temperatures cooler, trap emissions, and help reduce stormwater runoff.


Challenges and the Need for Intention

Woonerfs come with significant benefits, but also present a unique set of challenges for communities and urban planners to grapple with, particularly in the context of American cities. Some of the obstacles include:


  • Access to oversized vehicles (including ambulances and fire trucks)

  • The needs of vulnerable community member including the elderly and disabled

  • Parking

  • Routing high-volume traffic corridors around designated residential areas


Aside from these factors, we must also consider the question of connectivity. Woonerfs shouldn’t be impediments to the flow of traffic and life in cities, they should be more akin to a sort of human-centric greenway that allows the flow of the city to continue around them. Drivers should be clearly directed to alternate routes before ever entering a Woonerf district, and local traffic should be allowed to pass without significant impediment. Woonerfs need to connect to cycling, pedestrian, and automotive routes and integrate with their larger community rather than secede from them.


More Than Just Regulation

Typically, municipal street standards are not oriented from the perspective of the pedestrian, rather they are oriented to the drivers experience…..


It takes more than signs and regulations to change the way we imagine our neighborhoods and communities. While logistical considerations are important, they don’t represent insurmountable barriers. Above all else, the most important factor in establishing woonerfs anywhere is community buy-in. For a community like Bellingham, where issues like green urban spaces, walkability, and housing density are at the forefront of planning discussions, woonerfs offer a comprehensive compromise that could benefit our residents both in the downtown and other urban areas.


ABOUT 

Housing for Bellingham is a community resource that works to explain the fundamental processes and terminology associated with housing-related decisions in effort to inform the public. When the people understand land use planning processes and terminology, everyone can make more informed decisions about housing and land use policies in their communities.

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