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  • Marie McKinsey

WTF Is a Woonerf? And Where Can We Put One in West Seattle?

Updated: Nov 19, 2022

Woonerf, a Dutch word, is translated as "a living yard." It is a street where car use is limited in favor of green space and room for pedestrians, cyclists, outdoor seating, and community gathering. It prioritizes people and place over cars.

Now before critics dismiss this idea as being some fancy European thing, look at the photo above. This is Bell Street Park, in downtown Seattle, designed by the Seattle architecture firm, Hewitt. This project was designed with input from the community, bringing their "wish list" for the space to life. It is just one of several projects the firm has built in Seattle.

Another local example of a woonerf is Park Lane, in Kirkland. The city reimagined a two-block area in their retail corridor, with input from merchants and residents, and found ways to combine businesses, open space, cars and pedestrians safely and attractively. This article describes the project and how it was financed. The video below gives you a sense of what it is like to be there.

What do you think? Like the idea of a woonerf?

Where should we put one in West Seattle?

One possibility would be the two-block area in the Junction on California Ave. between Oregon St. and Edmunds. For some reason, California Ave. is a 4-lane highway for those two blocks, resulting in bottlenecks at each end. There is street parking on each side as well, adding up to six lanes in that short stretch devoted to cars.

If there's an advantage to this arrangement, it's hard to figure out what it would be. Despite the crosswalks in the middle of each block, it doesn't feel safe for pedestrians. They have to cross 6 lanes of cars to get to the other side of the street!

Motorists don't have any advantage - those two blocks are congested, and drivers have to watch for pedestrians, both in crosswalks and jaywalking, and other drivers, often jockeying for position to be first out of the bottlenecks when the light changes.

Businesses don't benefit because drivers are too busy with traffic to notice them. Crossing six lanes of cars isn't pleasant for pedestrians, so foot traffic is not what it could be. The outdoor cafe spaces that have been built since the beginning of the pandemic are sitting out in traffic. Diners get a side of engine noise and exhaust fumes with every meal.

Speaking of commerce, a common complaint about projects like this is that they will kill business. It turns out that just the opposite is true. This article, "Why Walkable Streets Are More Economically Productive," provides data about how businesses in cities and small towns across the country thrive in walkable areas, compared to those in car-centric developments. The difference is dramatic. It also explains that the return on investment for taxpayers is much higher in walkable districts than for continually building out more infrastructure for cars.

So what do you say, West Seattle? Are you ready for a Junction woonerf? Or is there another part of the neighborhood that you think would benefit?


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