Putting the Woo in Woonerfs

Putting the Woo in Woonerfs

It’s a warm, sunny day and you’re out for a stroll. 

In most areas of Edmonton, if you were to look down you would see shades of grey — the bland and uninviting hues of our typical roads, paths, and sidewalks. Light grey for sidewalks, where pedestrians stroll. Dark grey for roads, where automobiles reign. Sure, it’s a function of the construction materials at play, but it’s also a simple demarcation that has been baked into the psyche of any urban dweller and one of the many cues that tell pedestrians where they should and should not be.

Since the dawn of the automobile, we’ve been finding ways to keep vehicles and pedestrians separate. In doing so, we’ve effectively sucked the life out of our streets, using colour, texture, and visual cues to keep cataclysmic accidents at bay.

Taking inspiration from the Netherlands, Edmonton appears to be turning a corner in its approach to planning streets and prioritizing the pedestrian experience.

Recent local revitalization plans include reference to the woonerf, a concept originating in the Netherlands and which effectively turns the concept of pedestrian/automobile coexistence on its head. Commonly translated as “living street”, the woonerf is an approach to planning streets that imagines what it would be like if cars, bikes, and pedestrians could operate safely without the need for implicit or explicit barriers for protection.

Witness in all its glory the harmonious coexistence of pedestrian and car. Notice the lack of raised curbs, and the traffic-calming bollards and greenery. Revel in the absence of fear in the children playing soccer, parents drinking nearby, and motorists calmly crawling through to their destination. 

Everybody appears to get by just dandy. No War on Cars here.

On this residential street, which is woefully narrow by our North American standards, these tenants show that it’s possible to create lively spaces in close quarters for neighbours to interact while still allowing traffic to pass through.

You would be hard-pressed to find such a street in Edmonton today, but the woonerf concept is slowly creeping into our approach to planning roads and neighbourhoods. And if you squint, you might just find some local streets that take a lot of inspiration from the woonerf, and are all the better for it.

From “Highlands Neighbourhood Renewal: Urban Design Analysis”. City of Edmonton.

The Soon-To-Be Woonerf

The Highlands community is currently undergoing a multi-year neighbourhood renewal process and the facelift explicitly includes a woonerf of its own. Planning documents show the proposed redevelopment of Ada Boulevard will have many of the same features of the Dutch woonerf in the video above: one-way traffic; narrowed, winding roads; pedestrian seating; and tons of additional greenery to make the space altogether a much more pleasant experience for all. Best yet, they’ve done away with a lot of grey.

In a line not often seen in Edmonton planning documents, the plan notes that “the street is prioritized for pedestrians and vehicular traffic acts as a secondary mode of transportation. Within a woonerf, people walk on the road eliminating the need for designated sidewalks, and vehicles will drive with caution and reduced speed.” 

Ada Boulevard is a pedestrian paradise already; cyclists and walkers flock to the boulevard for an opportunity to get some fresh air with great views of the river valley and even better views of the area’s historic homes. But there’s no sidewalk or path on either side, so most pedestrians simply walk on the road. In recent years, the City of Edmonton has been placing temporary traffic barriers and lowering the speed limit along Ada Boulevard, noting the heavy pedestrian presence. Soon, coexistence will be built into its design.

From “Highlands Neighbourhood Renewal: Urban Design Analysis”. City of Edmonton.

The Mountain Town Woonerf

Over in Banff, Town Council approved a similarly ambitious project right in their core. Bear Street, just one block away from the main Banff Avenue and a significant thoroughfare in its own right, is currently getting a facelift of its own. The Brand New Bear project likewise takes explicit inspiration from the Dutch woonerf. 

In the busy summer season, when Banff is flooded with tourists, both the sidewalks and the roadway on a street like Bear can feel cramped at the best of times, with pedestrians often spilling over onto the road. By virtue of the narrow streets, jaywalking is also common. Town Council read the tea leaves and made a decision to create a space that more accurately reflects how people use it.

What was once a traditional commercial street with narrow sidewalks and plenty of room for cars is being transformed into a much more holistic space on which the barrier between pedestrian space and automobile space is effectively eliminated, creating a much more liveable space for tourists to snag all the available seating.

From brandnewbear.ca.

The Forgotten Woonerf

If you look hard enough, you’ll find some woonerf-esque spaces in downtown Edmonton today. Over in The Quarters, you’d be forgiven for missing the woonerf that is 96 Street, since there’s not much to bring you to The Quarters in the first place. But that will hopefully change in the not-too-distant future.

Note the very slight curb ramps, the curb extensions that effectively eliminate a lane of traffic, and all the available seating placed throughout. It’s a shared public realm that doesn’t demarcate who goes where; instead you’ll see cyclists, pedestrians, and scooter-ers criss-crossing the road while cars acquiesce to the visual cues encouraging them to take it slow and give space to all modes of transportation.

96 Street looking south in The Quarters.

The Not-Quite-A-Woonerf

Only a few blocks away, a cherished street incorporates some of the features of the woonerf, albeit with a little more car-oriented flare.

Rice Howard Way has come a long way in recent years, buoyed by a redeveloped Kelly Ramsey Building and some delicious local eateries. It’s a bit wide and car-focused to truly consider it a woonerf, but its flattened curbs and ample greenery gives off some distinctly woonerf vibes. Every day at lunch — not during a pandemic — Rice Howard Way is typically packed with pedestrians, seemingly with little regard for their own safety for all the jaywalking they do. Fortunately for them, motorists tend to slow down when they hit the circular paving stones that make up the road face.

Despite still giving far too much space to vehicles, Rice Howard Way might be one of Edmonton’s best European-inspired streets. All told, it’s a great space to sit down on a bench with a coffee or your lunch.

Putting the Woo in Woonerf

Woonerfs have reached our shores and our cities are improving because of it, but we’ve still got far to go before they woo the hearts and minds of Edmonton’s residents. Then again, busy pedestrians streets like Rice Howard Way show that there’s a demand for streets made for those on foot.

As a resident of Bellevue, adjacent to Highlands, I witnessed the negativity at the prospect of drivers losing their right to blast down Ada Boulevard at 60 kilometers per hour. But then again, these are the same folks who think more people walking through their neighbourhood is somehow a detriment to the community.

Ada Boulevard is a popular route for cyclists, walkers, and drivers alike. I look forward to seeing how the woonerf will make coexisting just a little bit easier.