Saturday, August 6, 2011

Woonerf Court

Woonerf: It's the latest cool word in urban planning circles. North American suburbanites have been enjoying their own form of woonerfs for years: Courts, crescents, places and culs-de-sac.

This London cul-de-sac is a perfect living yard: Woonerf.
I first encountered the word woonerf in the Toronto Star more than a year ago. In my reading since then the word has cropped up now and again, most recently in an article by Kelly Pedro in The London Free Press.

According to the London paper, woonerf is Dutch for naked street. No, we are not talking nudism. A woonerf is a residential street stripped of the clear division between traffic and pedestrian rights of way.

Traffic and kids at play share this suburban court.
One idea being floated to improve the London downtown is to convert Dundas or another downtown street into a woonerf. Two little corrections should be made here: First, a woonerf is a residential animal. If you want to release a woonerf in a commercial area, you need a winkelerf. Second, a woonerf is more commonly translated as a living street and not a naked one.

The word may be Dutch but according to Colin Hand the concept originated in Britain with a British road engineer and architect, Colin Buchanan.

In this tale of how the woonerf came to be, a story also retold in the pages of Architecture Week, it was a Dutchman, Niek De Boer, who took the Englishman's idea and ran with it or should I say planned with it.

Woonerfs are streets designed, or redesigned, to force drivers to slow down as they shared the road space with cyclists, pedestrians and children. De Boer named these streets woonerfs, or living yards. His woonerfs were residential in character and the first one was built in the City of Delft in the '60s.

In Toronto, woonerfs (pedestrian oriented streets) are planned for the West Don Lands development.

If you search the web, you'll find examples of Dutch woonerfs with gardens and pedestrian seating nestled in among the shrubs and flowers. These remind me of  the court directly above mine and linked to my court by a well-used walkway.

When I first wrote this I was being a little facetious. Now, I'm not so sure. It's possible that some of the finest examples of woonerfs may be found in North American suburbs.

The Dutch government set design standards and passed traffic laws regulating woonerfs in 1976. Some suburban courts come quite close to following many of the Dutch government guidelines:
  • Playing on the roadway is permitted
  • Pedestrians may use the full width of the roadway
  • Drivers must make allowance for the presence of pedestrians and children at play
  • Speed bumps may be encountered
  • The roadway may curve and shorten a driver's line of sight
  • The roadway may be narrower than that of other area roads
  • There may be flower filled islands and large pots
  • Seating areas may encroach into the area of the street once designated only for vehicular traffic.
If the design principals of a woonerf are applied to a commercial area, the area becomes a winkelerf, which is not covered by the woonerf regulations.

Some suburban courts, crescents, places and culs-de-sac answer many design guidelines for woonerfs. See the following pictures taken near my Byron, Ontario home.

Narrow roadway is not car friendly.
Short line of sight plus park, complete with benches, all act to calm traffic.
A walkway links culs-de-sac making the distance shorter to walk than drive.

1 comment:

  1. Letter to editor concerning street being given sidewalks against the wishes of the residents.

    How quickly ideas come and go in London. Just a few years ago woonerf was a cool word in urban planning. Woonerf is the Dutch word for a residential street without a clear division between traffic and pedestrian rights of way. A search of the Web finds many examples of Dutch woonerfs with gardens and pedestrian seating that bring to mind some very nice small streets in London such as Fourwinds Place in Byron.

    Auburn Avenue is not a woonerf but it is a quiet residential street without sidewalks. Now, the city wants to build sidewalks and longtime residents are protesting. If residents are comfortable living on a street without sidewalks, leave them be.

    If ReThink London was about anything, it was about listening to residents.