Woonerf: Inclusive and Livable Dutch Street

In the study tours I give in Groningen, the Netherlands, I always make sure to stop at a certain neighborhood that every urbanist can appreciate. The neighborhood in question is called Hortusbuurt, located right outside the historical city center, and dates back to the 17th century. The reason I like showing the neighborhood is mainly because of the variety of woonerven it accommodates.  What are woonerven you ask? The following post is a short description of the concept, history and critique.

Quick linguistic note: the Dutch word woonerf (plural woonerven) literally translates to living yard. The concept is common in other countries and obviously bears different names: in the United Kingdom they call it living streets and in Hebrew rechov hollandi (Dutch Street). However, I’d like to stick with the Dutch term, since in every country the concept was slightly adapted. This post is dealing therefore with the classic, original woonerf.

During the 1960’s and 1970’s, scholars such as Niek de Boer and Joost Váhl have developed the woonerf concept in the city of Delft, the Netherlands. woonerven are residential streets in which pedestrians share the street with vehicles, whereas the latter should follow the pedestrians’ pace. According to the Dutch traffic regulations, pedestrians are allowed to use the entire width of a woonerf, while cars are limited to 15 km/h within the street. Using physical barriers and obstacles, the impression that pedestrians can use the entire street is conveyed to its users, while traffic volumes are reduced considerably.

Scholar and urbanist Eran Ben-Joseph published in 1995 a detailed academic paper about shared streets. In the paper, he identified eleven characteristics of a woonerf, which I in turn summed up to 4 main principles:

The 4 principals of the woonerf, adapted from Ben-Joseph's 1995 article. By Lior Steinberg.

  • Visible Entrances: the entrances of the woonerf are distinctly marked by a sign (see below). The sign presents two different street users: people and a car, alongside a house. The Car, however, is smaller than the people and located in the background. It seems as if the designers of the sign have wanted to demonstrate the supremacy of pedestrians among all the street users

  • The woonerf is a shared and paved space, intended to all street users.

  • Using physical barriers, such as curves, car traffic is slowed down.

  • The woonerf accommodates landscaping and street furniture.

As seen above, a woonerf is stripped of many of the conventional street design elements. It minimizes the use of traffic signs and separation between the road and the sidewalk. De Boer’s and Váhl’s ideas were innovative and conscious attempts to mix social activities and children’s playgrounds with traffic. The concept soon became popular in the Netherlands, and received attention in other countries: Denmark, Germany, France and the United Kingdom.

Despite the popularity of the woonerf concept and the fact it was implemented in different countries in Europe, it was also been a target to some critique. The biggest concern about the woonerf is related to the high cost of its implementation, which involved more complicated engineering and design practices. Secondly, the maintenance cost of a woonerf is higher than a conventional street, partly due to the landscaping and street furniture. Moreover, some critics have indicated that that service vehicles and drivers who are not familiar with the street have difficulties to park and find their way around. In addition, since some traffic is moved to adjusted streets, the implementation of a woonerf might have negative effect on its surrounding.

The woonerf sign. People are bigger than cars.

Kleine Appelstraat in Groningen. A typical woonerf accommodates landscaping and street furniture

It’s important to take these drawbacks in mind when planning a woonerf, but I believe that they are outnumbered by the concept’s benefits. It is not rare to see children running outside their house in a woonerf, and it’s hard to convey in words the pleasant feeling one has while walking through these streets. The concept is radically different from traditional street schemes, and offers us an opportunity to re-think our neighborhoods. Who’s in the center? I believe the woonerf sign provides us with the right answer.

The information above is a based on several academic sources:

  1. Appleyard, D. (1980). Livable streets: protected neighborhoods?. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 451(1), pp.106--117.
  2. Avery, J. and Avery, P. (1982). Scandinavian and Dutch lessons in childhood road traffic accident prevention. British medical journal (Clinical research ed.), 285(6342), p.621.
  3. Ben-Joseph, E. (1995). Changing the residential street scene: adapting the shared street (woonerf) concept to the suburban environment. Journal of the American Planning Association, 61(4), pp.504--515.
  4. Carr, S. (1992). Public Space. Cambridge University Press.
  5. Hamilton-Baillie, B. (2004). Urban design: Why don't we do it in the road? Modifying traffic behavior through legible urban design. Journal of Urban Technology, 11(1), pp.43--62.
  6. Hamilton-Baillie, B. (2008). Shared space: reconciling people, places and traffic. Built environment, 34(2), pp.161--181.
  7. Pharoah, T. and Russell, J. (1991). Traffic calming policy and performance: The Netherlands, Denmark and Germany. Town Planning Review, 62(1), p.79.

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Written by Lior Steinberg. Lior is an urban planner, currently based in Groningen, the Netherlands. Follow him on Twitter or read more.