Why can’t we have woonerven in North America?

Screen capture Streetfilms: Life on a Dutch Woonerf

Streetfilms shows how a road can in fact be many things, not just a place for cars.

When our kids were small, we used to close off the street every June at the end of school for a street party. It was wonderful, we got to know everyone on the street, and the kids all got to play together in the roadway. It was also just one day a year.

In the Netherlands, lots of people get to do this all the time; they live on Woonerfs woonerven or “living streets” (more accurately, living yards). Dylan Reid tried to define it in Spacing magazine:

In essence, a woonerf is intended to be a front yard for the residents who live on it. Cars should be rare, local, and restricted to walking speed. Often the street is configured to be narrow and a bit awkward so that cars have to be careful manoeuvring in it. Parked cars are sometimes arranged to deliberately contribute to this awkwardness. There are no sidewalk curbs restricting pedestrians to the side of the street, and signage indicates that pedestrians have priority and playing children should be expected.

Life on a Dutch Woonerf (Living Street) from STREETFILMS on Vimeo.

Clarence Eckerson of Streetfilms recently visited one in Utrecht, and it looked very much like our street party, with the occasional car creeping through, in exactly the way that Reid described. Clarence describes it with envy:

When I arrived the street was full of neighbors and children and they wanted to talk to me about their lovely street. But this is not something exceptional as over 2 million Dutch people live on play/living streets. So take a gander but be warned: you will want the same thing for your block.

There is really no reason one couldn’t do this in North America, with houses close together opening right onto the road, with the street being your front yard. People still have parking. But as Dylan Reid noted, it doesn’t happen here because of all those other regulations that “specify that all new roads, even laneways, have to have 6 metres (20 feet) of unobstructed width for fire trucks, and fire departments generally insist on a straight line for speed. It’s hard to give a street a cozy, safe ‘living yard’ feel with that much straight open space.”

Really, it is time for a rethink about our roads, our garbage and fire trucks, and our need for speed. That woonerf looks like a lot of fun.