Editor’s Note: The Ithaca Voice received the following email from a Dutch citizen living in Upstate New York in response to a story published on Monday, “Ithaca housing project to include Dutch-style ‘woonerf’ roads.”

Contact me at jstein@ithacavoice.com to submit a guest column.


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Why I Shop Downtown

To Brian (Crandall),

I like how you explain the woonerf concept. I guess it is a correct description, but what a woonerf mostly is about is the people living there. The “iron horse” is something that has about the lowest priority. Highest priority is the people, kids playing, people walking, meeting others that live there, that kind of thing. The right of way is that if you are slower, you have the right of way. If anything, motorized vehicles are discouraged to go fast. They are supposed to go “stapvoets” the dutch term for “as fast as walking”, so, about 3 mph?

Here is a link to a youtube movie of a dutch woonerf:

A first thing to note, the person driving around the woonerf is really driving a bit faster than what it should be.

The movie shows clearly that there are many tight turns and small dead end streets. There is play equipment for kids, and many houses very close to each other, in a townhouse style (US terminology equivalent). This kind of housing is typical for the Netherlands.

The population density is very high, so housing (sqft of house and lot) is relatively small. There just is not that much space. You also see that typically there is no garage with houses in this style housing, your car is parked in the frontyard, sometimes under a carport structure. Only when you get a bigger house, you would maybe see a garage. Typically a garage is for one car. For one small car.

A woonerf is very much intended for living. It is not meant as a drive through to the next area. People that go into a woonerf have to be there. You live there or you visit somebody.

What you create is a community. People know eachother, talk to each other, do things with each other, even sometimes go on vacation together and if there is an issue with how somebody behaves, there is a kind of social control in place, the community will let you know that it is not good. It is kind of like a Home Owner Association, but it is not in an association concept, it is much more a “group control” without having a governing board etc. You don’t pay fees. The city maintains the common areas.

From a rendering of the Greenways development in Ithaca

As I see it, the typical population of the woonerf community is younger families. People with kids, up to say high school age. Once the kids leave the nest, parents upgrade to housing that is a bit more suitable for people getting in their 50’s (the dutch typically get kids a bit later in life than people in the USA). A woonerf is found in cities and villages that cater to commuters. You won’t find a woonerf out in the country. Of course there are exceptions.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.