While cities around the world experiment with pedestrian malls for their downtown areas, this charming old Dutch city of 100,000 souls has discovered how neighborhood streets can also be humanized and freed of high-speed traffic -- not by banning the automobile, but by making it reduce its speeds to little more than the pace of a pedestrian.
The result is an intensely livable environment in which neighborhood streets are filled with traffic diverters, humps, twists and planters to slow the flow of vehicles, and entire roadways are made available to pedestrians and children at play. Autos, bicycles, pedestrians all operate under a kind of Golden Rule of the street: No one may block the reasonable movement of others, none may endanger the environment for others.
The traffic barriers employed in Delft aren't terribly unusual. Similar devices have been employed in two to three dozen U.S. cities. The unique element in Delft's formula is the superb design of the streets in the "Woonerven," or special residential precincts. Many shapes of brick and cobblestone, laid down in ingenious patterns to guide autos and pedestrians alike, cover almost the entire area from building line to building line. In fact, there's generally no longer a curb at all. The only break in the brick and cobblestone patterns is for the many trees and plantings and an occasional traffic hindrance. Ordinary asphalt and cement surfaces are avoided; even traffic humps are in rounded brick. The total result is a soft, humane environment in which a racing auto would be as out of place as a child at play on a freeway.
Old European cities, notes Peter Jonquiere, Delft's youthful head of city planning, always functioned as Woonerven -- places where the street was as much for socializing, children's play and people walking about as for any kind of vehicular traffic. Ideally, the street is an extension of the usable, livable space of one's own home and yard, a place to sit, to walk, to run, to look, to meet, to wait, to find a parking space -- so long as no single activity appreciably impedes others. But both in America and in Europe, people have been so bedazzled by the very real convenience of the auto that they meekly let it hog all available space, even in residential neighborhoods, banishing pedestrians to sidewalks, imperiling children's safety and creating immense problems of noise and pollution.
The Woonerf solution, tried in Delft and to a lesser degree in several other Dutch cities, simply seeks to right the balance again. Design features convey the impression that the whole street is as available to the pedestrian as the motorist. There are sharp switches in path direction, many plantings and low parking barriers, street furniture and paving patterns to reinforce the image.
Yet the arrangement does little to slow down automobile travel, because major through roads surrounding Woonerven remain principally dedicated to vehicular traffic, as before.
Viewing the charming Woonerf neighborhoods in Delft, one is immediately struck by the rich opportunities in the United States. Residential streets in older U.S. cities with row houses or closely built homes would offer the first, best opportunities to create the "intimacy" of street scene at which the Dutch now excel.
The costs for brick and cobblestone paving, planters and traffic barriers could be significant -- probably more than most city governments would find affordable. But special street-by-street or neighborhood taxing districts, authorized under state law or city statute, might be employed. And the residents would have enhanced dramatically the beauty and livability of the environment at their front door.
What, the American asks, could be done about parking? Americans have more and bigger cars than Europeans (though the differentials are decreasing -- one notes many more autos in Europe now, and a sharp trend to smaller autos in the United States). In Delft, considerable parking is still allowed on the Woonerf streets; the only difference is that instead of lining up parallel to a curb stretching along a whole block, the parking places are at varied angles and often directly adjacent to trees and planters. It's difficult to accommodate as many cars on a normal street, however. That means there must be alternatives in off-street parking if a Woonerf is to work.
The opportunities, however, are ripe: for a breakthrough in how city streets are planned, for teamwork between citizens, planners, traffic engineers, landscape architects, the supervisors of paving, streets and sewers, fire and police officers, all working toward refocusing the splintered pieces of the city street. "We need to get back to the point where a group of people feel collectively responsible for the image and function and usability of the living environment as a whole again," says Jonquiere.
The words are high-sounding but the meaning simple: to make streets work again for the people who live on them. It may be one of the most promising models Europe has offered us in many a decade.