Count up how many streets you know of where parents would let their kids play without supervision – and I mean play ON the street. How many did you get?
I got zero. The street where I live has about 30 houses in it, most of which have small children – there are about 20 kids under 12 in the street, yet they never play in the street simply because it isn’t safe. Despite our street being a poor connector and therefore having low traffic, motorists still hit 50km/h and don’t slow down even when there are pedestrians present or children riding their bikes on the footpaths.
This instalment of the Front Yard Blitz aims to reclaim the neighbourhood street as a shared space. The sheer amount of land area devoted purely to the car is obscene – research shows (this is a good paper – worth a read) that roughly 20%-25% of total urban land area is devoted to roads, and that doesn’t include car parks, car-related retail and facilities etc.
The Woonerf (Dutch translation as ‘living yard’) is a shared street designed to allow cars and pedestrians to co-exist. This is a ‘living street’ where pedestrians and cyclists have legal priority over motorists. In the UK they’re called ‘home zones’ and the US ‘complete streets’.
The concept is simple; a combination of street narrowing, traffic calming, landscaping, surface treatments, signage and place making all combine to make the street a ‘pedestrian zone where cars are permitted’, and for most of our suburban streets this can be easily achieved within the existing carriageway widths. And motorists must drive at walking speed.
The slowing down of cars is the key enabler – from this we open up huge tracts of area that can be put to better use. The US Federal Highway Administration has a good primer on Traffic Calming – this plan gives ideas on how a reduced street might be activated;
If you’re dubious about the speed limit thing – check out a previous post that might put things in perspective.
By reconfiguring our streets we open up a number of opportunities, such as
- reduced paved area and runoff, requiring less stormwater management and reducing heat island impacts
- increased habitat
- improved street appearance with more trees and gardens
- increased socialisation and re-activated streets where children can play and families can congregate (also leading to improved passive surveillance and reduced crime)
- reduced traffic noise
- increased safety for pedestrians
The Woonerf only works for lower traffic streets, but amongst the various design elements and approaches lie solutions for all streets – it’s a matter of appropriate interventions to suit the street. A good case study is the Borderline Neighbourhood Living Street project – the 6 year $2.1M project was a big task but the multiple benefits extend all the way into a tighter and happier community.
So, we’ve managed to get the power lines underground, reduce most of our stormwater outflow, and now we’ve dealt with street widths and traffic which creates the maximum opportunities for what comes next.