Exploring the world's built environments and seeking sustainable solutions.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Wonderful World of Woonerfs!

As more and more urban communities focus on sustainable design techniques, a major concern is the phasing out of the automobile. One strategy for accomplishing this ambitious goal is the concept of a Woonerf, a street designed with the pedestrian in mind.

The concept of the Woonerf began in the 1960s with the Dutch architect Niek De Boer who wanted to correct two problems in city streets: inconvenient traffic flows as well as decaying streetscapes. A Woonerf functions as a play street for children as well as a cut through to larger streets while reducing the flow of traffic and forcing drivers to be aware of their surroundings. Characteristics of a Woonerf are distinct gateways, benches, plants, play equipment, and parking with intermittent spacing. The key distinction of a woonerf is the elimination of continuous curbs, placing the car and the the pedestrian on the same level. The benches, trees, and plants serve to direct the car  through the street.  A woonerf is typically marked by a blue sign with a picture of a pedestrian, a child playing, a house, and a car.

On July 18, 2011, I observed a Woonerf in action  on Frederikstraat, about a fifteen minute walk from the Arco Hotel. Initially, I thought cars and pedestrians sharing a single street would prove to be difficult and result in injured pedestrians and frustrated drivers. I observed from 2:15 to 3:00 pm.  

I observed twenty-four bikers passing through the Woonerf within the hour, mostly on leisurely rides or running errands. Fifteen cars drove through, all aware of bikers and driving very slowly. Thirty one pedestrians walked along the street, mostly mothers with small children and older couples who appeared to be tourists. Also many children ran through the street when no cars were around, and no accidents occurred. 

The Woonerf in Amsterdam had a very pleasant, relaxed atmosphere. Many pedestrians were lounging on the sidewalk, like the man above. Overall, no one seemed to be worried about getting hit by a car, and several small children were able to roam the streets freely.  

Woonerfs are an innovative urban design feature that effectively reduce traffic flow in residential sectors of cities and towns. They physically raise the pedestrian to the same level as the automobile, empowering those who choose alternative modes of transportation. It eliminates excessive traffic noise and speed, and creates community gathering spaces. A few drawbacks are the costs of renovating these streets, as well as the constants maintenance required to keep the street in good condition. Also, although traffic is thinned out on one street, the mass of transit will simply move elsewhere. Nevertheless, Woonerfs are a step in the right direction and can be improved with increased community involvement.

-Annalise Reichert

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