Streets for People Too
Integrating Cars and People
The underlying concept of the shared street system is one of integration, with an emphasis on the community and the residential user. Pedestrians, children at play, bicyclists, parked cars, and moving cars all share the same street space. Even though it seems these uses conflict with one another, the physical design is such that drivers are placed in an inferior position.
Such conditions are actually much safer for the pedestrian than in common residential street layouts. By redesigning the physical aspects of the street, the social and physical public domain of the pedestrian is reclaimed. Since this "emancipation" of the pedestrian environment is done with full integration of vehicular traffic, it is not an anticar policy.
The shared street concept gained popularity in Europe and has been applied in several countries, most notably in The Netherlands, where it was first developed and executed.
Its philosophical roots can be found in a 1963 report published in England by Colin Buchanan and the Traffic in Towns team. In 1959, the Ministry of Transportation commissioned Buchanan to investigate the issue of improving urban transport. This was to be done "both in terms of reducing congestion and to come to terms with the car."
Buchanan, a road engineer as well as an architect, brought to the team an innovative point of view. He was able to see the conflict between providing for easy traffic flow and the destruction of the residential and architectural fabric of the street.
In the context of the prevailing philosophy of the late 1950s and early 1960s, this was a unique, if not revolutionary, approach. The team came up with a technique for evaluating and restructuring the urban traffic system by creating specific zones, which they called environmental areas or urban rooms.
These were to be of a different character from typical streets, with traffic levels that would vary according to their functions. Streets would not only be evaluated in terms of their capacity to carry traffic, but also environmental quality as measured by noise, pollution, social activity, "pedestrianization," and visual aesthetics.
This criterion of environmental capacity would then be used in setting standards and limitations. Thus, certain environmental areas would segregate traffic and pedestrians completely, while others would allow pedestrians and vehicles to mix safely in the street. The public domain would be reclaimed for pedestrians by redesigning the physical aspects of the street.
From Theory to Practice
In the beginning, the concepts of "traffic integration" and "traffic calming" in the environmental capacity zones were not well received by the British policymakers, because they seemed to run counter to the major governmental policies of promoting economic development through road construction and railway improvements.
However, the report surfaced again in the late 1970s and provided its major impact when the British Government combined two departments, the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, into the new Department of the Environment. This was the first attempt to address both land use issues and transportation planning as a single entity, yet physical changes were slow to appear.
Interestingly, the Traffic in Towns report had much more impact in continental Europe. German and Dutch planners enthusiastically adopted the ideas and many still refer to Buchanan as the "father of traffic calming."
In The Netherlands, Buchanan's theoretical concepts inspired Niek De Boer, professor of urban planning at Delft University of Technology and the University of Emmen. Trying to overcome the contradiction between streets as places for children's play as well as car use, he saw in Buchanan's concept of coexistence a possible solution.
De Boer designed streets so that motorists would feel as if they were driving in a "garden" setting, forcing drivers to consider other road users. He renamed the street a woonerf, or "residential yard."
At the same time, in 1969 the Municipality of Delft, which was considering redesigning and upgrading road surfaces in inner-city locations, decided to implement De Boer's ideas in some of the lower-income neighborhoods where more child play areas were urgently needed, but which lacked play sites. With resident participation, the design integrated sidewalks and roadways into one surface, creating the impression of a yard. Trees, benches, and small front gardens further enhanced the space.
The Dutch Lead the Way
The Delft experience was a success and the woonerf concept spread throughout The Netherlands in the form of guidelines and regulations. The first set of minimum design standards and traffic regulations for the woonerf was adopted and legalized by the Dutch government in 1976. A brief excerpt from Traffic Regulations for the Woonerf, translated from Dutch, illustrates their innovative and rigorous nature:
Pedestrians may use the full width of the highway within an area defined as a woonerf; playing on the roadway is also permitted. Drivers within a woonerf may not drive faster than at a walking pace. They must make allowance for the possible presence of pedestrians, including children at play, unmarked objects and irregularities in the road surface, and the alignment of the roadway.
These regulations were the basis of the guidelines for shared streets adopted shortly thereafter in many other countries: in Germany in 1976, in England, Sweden, and Denmark in 1977, in France and Japan in 1979, in Israel in 1981, and in Switzerland in 1982.
By 1990 over 3,500 shared streets had been constructed in The Netherlands and Germany, more than 300 in Japan, and 600 in Israel. In some new residential areas the concept was so popular that it became the major type of street.
In each country it is called by a different name: wohnstraßen, or living street, in Germany; shared street or mixed court in England; community doro, or community street, in Japan; and rehov meshulav, or integrated street, in Israel. Today, unified street system is a global term that encompasses the basic ideas represented by the original woonerf.
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Michael Southworth is professor of city design and planning at the University of California, Berkeley. Eran Ben-Joseph is assistant professor of landscape architecture and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
This article is excerpted from Streets and the Shaping of Towns and Cities, copyright © 2003, available from Island Press and at Amazon.com.