The small town of Haren, located in the northern Netherlands, was recently launched into (inter)national fame when a Project X party catalyzed riots and vandalism by partygoers; however, I first knew the place for its well-known, but similarly contentious woonerf (pl. woonerven). A Dutch approach to the more commonly known term “shared space,” woonerven are traffic-calming techniques in which people, cars, and bikes exist together without clear (or any) delineation of who belongs where.
It was in The Netherlands that the shared space concept first made a comeback among urban planners seeking creative solutions to decreasing pedestrian fatalities. Known elsewhere as “residential yards,” “naked streets,” “home zones,” and “shared zones,” woonerven may be found in more residential settings, functioning as extended outdoor play space for children, or in a town center, bringing vehicles into the public space realm. Beyond the amalgamation of street infrastructure, limited signage is available.
Why should traffic engineers agree to such a void of organization? It may seem counter-intuitive to some, but such ambiguity acts psychologically to impact the user (pedestrian, driver, and cyclist) to encourage more observation, intentional movements, and safe decision-making. A 40% reduction in pedestrian fatalities occurred for those first Dutch projects.
According to the UK’s Department of Transport, indicators of a well functioning shared space include:
- “Pedestrians in the [roadways];
- Increased levels of social interaction and leisure activity;
- People spending longer in the street (evidence of an enhanced sense of place);
- Drivers and cyclists giving way to pedestrians;
- Pedestrians crossing the street at locations, angles, and times of their choosing;
- Drivers and cyclists giving way to one another.”
Now considered as part of a toolkit for sustainable transportation, shared space continues to be included in contemporary street plans. But concern has been shown for the lack of accommodation for certain citizens (especially those with visual impairments). In Haren, changes to better delineate certain functions in the woonerf were made due to residents claiming they felt unsafe. For urban planners it is always a goal to make cities and the public realm more accessible; utilizing the woonerf can have positive implications for some, especially children. For others it may pose a serious risk.
So what decision can be made when accessibility increases for some and not for others? Is there a way to include all users of the space?
Credits: Images and data linked to sources.