The Woonerfs Are Coming!

The Wharf, a nine-block woonerf near the Potomac River in Washington, D.C.

Enter a new term into the vocabulary of Virginia land use: woonerf.

Woonerfs, according to this brief treatment by real estate information firm CoStar, is a word of Dutch origin meaning livable landscape. Increasingly, developers in the United States — and the Washington region in particular — are adopting the Dutch/Flemish technique of creating public spaces where pedestrians and vehicles have equal priority. (Woonerf is pronounced, as in the Dutch, vu-nerf.)

“You invent streets but take all the rules, the curbs, the signposts away and so people can walk the street, and cars enter at their own risk,” said Stanton Eckstut, a founding partner in EE&K and designer of the Wharf project in D.C., which features a woonerf.  These street-like spaces welcome pedestrians, bikes, cars, strollers and dogs alike.

Part of developer JBG’s plans for National Landing, which will be home to Amazon’s HQ2 in Arlington and Alexandria, includes a woonerf-like pedestrian pathway connecting two major office towers.

Said Eckstut: “When you add walkability and transaction between the internal needs of the building — office-users, multifamily tenants, hotels — and the external needs, or the public realm, you create more value for the developer. People are more likely to pay more because the space is so well trafficked by all modes of transportation.”

In shared spaces, motorists drive very slowly and carefully, and accidents are rare — at least in the Netherlands, where there are some 6,000 or more woonerven (the plural of woonerf in Dutch). No telling how the concept will translate to the United States. Does anyone in Holland ever drive like Washingtonians?

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One response to “The Woonerfs Are Coming!

  1. Equal priority between cars and pedestrians means someone is going to suffer significant injury or death. In the right locations, pedestrian walkways are a good idea. But absent the stray delivery vehicle during off hours, the police need to keep the walkways motor vehicle free. And planners need to be judicious in where and when they place such walkways.

    Walkability is also a misnomer when used by developers in an attempt to get density where there is heavy traffic. For example, several property owners are pushing to create relatively high density using the walkability word at the busy and dangerous intersection of Chain Bridge Road and Old Dominion Drive.

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