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One more 'woonerf,' albeit flawed, a little less whoosh

Dutch concept slows traffic

By Anthony Flint, Globe Staff, 1/18/2004

The harmonious coexistence of cars and pedestrians continues to be a primary task for those designing and redesigning our urban environments, and the Dutch strategy of the woonerf -- streets with landscaping and different kinds of paving that accommodate both on more or less equal terms -- is catching on throughout the Boston area.

The developers of IKEA at Assembly Square in Somerville have promised a ''shared" car-and-pedestrian area in front of the home-furnishing superstore. A woonerf has also been proposed for a portion of Cross Street in the North End, part of the restored street network over the now-submerged Central Artery.

But Brookline has been a pioneer, and its latest offering -- Webster Street between Beacon and Harvard streets at Coolidge Corner -- is a fine if flawed example.

It's fine because when motorists turn right onto Webster Street from Beacon they know this is no ordinary thoroughfare, and certainly not a place to speed through on their way to Harvard Street. The conventional street disappears in a Mondrian-like patchwork of different brick pavings in front of the Marriott hotel; there are no big curbs, and sidewalk and street are all at the same level. Landscaped ''bump-outs" extend out into the street periodically, encouraging reductions in speed. This is not cars-only territory.

It's flawed only because the Brookline public works department doesn't seem to grasp the concept and has painted white lines and big right-turn arrows on the street -- in one case, right over a stone paving that was intended to be a more subtle delineation. There are also black-and-yellow striped metal rectangles planted in the bump-outs, as if the shrubs and the bump-out itself weren't obvious enough indications of its existence. Thus the Mondrian painting gets an overlay of magic-marker.

A true woonerf blends the realms for the pedestrian and the car, to put those modes of travel on equal terms. Some streets in the Netherlands have absolutely no signage or lights or warning signals; it's impossible to tell where the pedestrian realm ends and the car realm begins, and that's the point. The design gives the driver signals to slow down and proceed with caution, to figure it all out.

Conventional streets, with their flashing lights, bright signs, and lines and arrows painted on the road, allow drivers to switch off their thinking, to be guided on autopilot. But that's the way 99 percent of the streets in the United States are built. There's plenty of room for emergency vehicles, snowplows, and garbage trucks on Webster Street. But a culture has built up around the conventional approach, and the traffic and safety engineers just can't let go.

''The whole concept is to create an interesting and even ambiguous environment that forces drivers to pay more attention," said Werner Lohe, a Brookline resident who has been a champion of the ''shared" or ''community" street. ''Traditional street marking takes the driver's focus away from that and gives a sense of false security."

Webster Street is still a marvelous experiment. It was designed by Craig Halvorson and paid for by the developer of the Marriott hotel, Richard Friedman, who built the Charles Hotel in Cambridge and knows about urban design, having led a task force on how to keep public spaces secure and accessible in Washington, D.C.

The ''shared street" was a benefit offered to the community to win over residents who were wary of development on the town-owned parcel, along with discounted parking for locals and a promise not to open a full-service restaurant. The promise of an innovative street design helped persuade environmentalists and bicycle advocates to support the project, said Lohe.

Streets like this have a built-in constituency -- anyone who walks down it or lives near it. A livable city is one where residents find it easy to get around on foot without feeling like they're taking their lives in their hands; a pedestrian-friendly environment makes it more likely that people won't use their cars; and streets are every bit a part of the public realm as a park.

But it's clear that advocates and private developers aren't sufficient to bring about a true woonerf. The traffic engineers need to be in the room, and they need to understand the concept. A fact-finding trip to the Netherlands may be in order.

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