Woonerf. Baltic football player, rare Australian bird, or pseudonym for an embarrassed British writer?

The answer, of course, is None of the Above. "Woonerf" is Dutch, and it translates roughly as "living street." From the Streetswiki:

In a woonerf, people on bikes and on foot have access to the whole street, not just sidewalks. Moreover, the street functions as a public living room, where adults gather and children play safely because vehicle speed is kept to a minimum.

While the woonerf was conceived in the Netherlands, the idea has spread elsewhere. This street scene in Copenhagen is definitely woonerfesque:

Copenhagen street scene

The late Donald Appleyard, in his book Livable Streets (with M. Sue Gerson and Mark Lintell; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), described five criteria for a proper woonerf, including:

  • Gateways announcing the entrance to the woonerf;
  • Curves to slow vehicle traffic;
  • Amenities such as trees and play equipment, forcing vehicles to slow down;
  • No curbs or other delineation between buildings and roadway;
  • Intermittent parking, so that cars do not form a wall of steel.

One common complaint in my neighborhood is excessive speed by motorists: the speed limit is 25, whether you're in a school zone or not, and the combination of not-so-straight streets and multiple stop signs hasn't discouraged leadfooting it. Cars, being bigger and heavier and packing a lot more physical force, clearly have the advantage. In a woonerf, not so much:

An intersection designed with the principles of Woonerf eschews all controls. This includes even things like curbs and signage. It removes most cues about behavior, and specifically of the concept of "right of way". Every person entering the intersection must view it as a negotiation. The use of eye contact, body language, and hand signals determines who takes the right of way. In this way all kinds of traffic are peers, regardless of destination or mode of transport. Also each person must focus on where they are right now, and not where they will be a minute from now; they must stay engaged.

Given the tendency of municipal-planning types to want to control as many things as possible, woonerven will clearly be a tough sell, even in areas where New Urbanism holds sway. And ADA rules create a further problem: the lack of clear differentiation between carless and car-accessible zones could be troublesome for the visually-impaired. (A project along Terry Avenue in Seattle eventually incorporated curbs, albeit small — two inches high — and white warning strips were put into place.)

Still, it would be interesting to see some variation on the woonerf theme put into play in Oklahoma City: probably not in my part of town, which is fully built out and nowhere near blighted, which means that no redevelopment schemes are in the works, but perhaps in areas roughly adjacent to the Central Business District, as part of the ongoing effort by the city to lure new downtown residents. It's not like no one in the state has ever heard the word before: BatesLine was discussing the idea back in February, and Blair Humphreys, currently studying at MIT (Michael Bates' alma mater, now that I think about it), surely knows all this stuff.

Where to put a woonerf? I'm thinking the most logical place will be in the area known as Core to Shore, not in the priority area just south of downtown — they're hoping for high-rises and such — but to the west, somewhere in the wedge between Western and Exchange. There's not a whole lot there now — it was a buffer zone for the now-defunct Downtown Airpark, I'm guessing — and for now, land is probably comparatively cheap. The hard part, of course, is convincing a developer that this will actually work, and that he won't lose a ton of money on it. At the moment, though, this applies to pretty much everything.

The Vent

  14 July 2009

 | Vent menu | E-mail to Chaz

 Copyright © 2009 by Charles G. Hill