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Word of the day: woonerf (residential area)

The WOONERF is spreading all over Canada. You can find them in cities like Montreal and Ottawa and it looks like Toronto and Calgary will follow soon. No doubt this originally Dutch idea of urban renewal will continue to spread over North America. It will take root in South America, Australia, Asia and from there it might even return to Europe… 

How do Canadians look upon their ‘woonerf’? They have welcomed the ‘shared street’ very warmly as an area that includes child-friendly green spaces, bike paths and a tolerant attitude toward the family car. How does the most recent Dutch edition of the Van Dale dictionary define the WOONERF? As an area difficult of access for cars because of its layout. (woonbuurt die door zijn aanleg moeilijk voor auto’s toegankelijk is). There is no proper translation for a ‘home zone’ which is characterized by strict restrictions to slow down traffic.

I live in Voorburg near The Hague and I reside in a small flat overlooking such a WOONERF. I consider het (yes it is a ‘het-woord’) WOONERF as one of the great accomplishments of our welfare state. Next year in 2014 we will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the WOONERF. By now the entire the Netherlands is riddled with these residential areas where you can walk at ease and where children can play without fear of being hurt or maimed by traffic.

According to Nicoline van der Sijs’ ‘lending dictionary’ (uitleenwoordenboek) the first WOONERF was built in 1964 in the Dutch municipality of Emmen in the province of Drenthe in the north eastern part of the Netherlands. The idea was conceived by the Dutch urban developer Niek de Boer (born 1924).

WOONERF is a combination of the words WOON (from the verb ‘wonen’ -> ‘to dwell’ so ‘home’) and ERF (farm yard, estate). When the Dutch think of an ERF they immediately associate the word with the BOERENERF. A farmer (BOER) has a house and around it the yard. The verb ‘ERVEN’ means ‘to inherit’ so an ERF is handed on from parents to the children. This inheritance is called het ERF.

The Dutch associate the noun ERF with rustic farms. Urban architect Niek de Boer intended it that way: a green area, ecologically sound and safe. But if you look at the Dutch WOONERVEN now, they are far from the rustic green that they should have been. All over the WOONERF cars are being parked and there is hardly any parkland with trees and nature for kids.

Anyway, let’s bite back our moans and count our blessings. In the seventies traffic had grown immensely and it was making more and more victims, especially among children. Over 500 kids were killed in traffic accidents each year.

In 1973 a group of Dutchmen had enough and protested. They started the pressure group “Stop de Kindermoord” (“Stop the Child Murder”). The Dutch government reacted by making money available to pay for safe cycle paths, pedestrian areas and WOONERVEN. Their protest was a great success because it not only led to a reduction in children’s deaths but also to a rise in cycling, reversing the previous trend.

On 27 November 2013 the BBC programme Witness discussed the 1970s road safety campaign which changed the face of the Netherlands (How Child Road Deaths Changed the Netherlands).