The idea of the child-friendly street can be traced back to Colin Buchanan and his report in 1963 for the British Government - “Traffic in Towns”. Buchanan, a road engineer as well as an architect, saw the conflict between providing for easy traffic flow and the destruction of the residential and architectural fabric of the street. For the first time, road design was seen as not just to serve cars but people as well, and that included children.
The ideas in the report were not initially well received in Britain but in Holland, these theoretical concepts inspired Niek De Boer, professor of urban planning at Delft University of Technology. He saw in Buchanan's concepts a possible solution to overcoming the contradiction between streets as places for children's play as well as car use. De Boer designed streets so that motorists would feel as if they were driving in a "garden" setting, forcing drivers to consider other road users. He invented the term ”woonerf” which roughly means “residential yard" in Dutch.
At the same time in the same city, residents of an alley in the city centre converted a derelict plot into a play area, with a little help of the municipality and a paint factory. Walls were painted, huts were built for hiding and climbing and trees and shrubs were planted.
In another area – in a densely-built district with small houses - a group of residents squatted one of the streets. They claimed it for playing, planting and sitting. The municipality decided to allow this change to happen, recognizing that there was a lack of play area in these working class areas.
This started a process of redefining and redesigning streets that can be described as: ‘streets for children, where cars are allowed, but only within limitations’. Theory and practice merged, with new regulations new types of streets where:
- car speeds were reduced
- pedestrians had right of way to the whole width of the road
- space was created for trees where there was only tarmac
- residents were given a small semi-private zone in front of their houses with greenery and benches
This new type of street could relate back to the historic ‘streetscape’ of the canals streets in Holland as inspiration.
Zuiderhavendijk Enkhuizen ( Cornelis Springer, 1886 Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Stehen Schepel wrote in "Woonerf Revisited":
“The narrow streets alongside the canals performed many functions. Goods were unloaded and traded or loaded again after temporary storage. The ‘stoep’ or sidewalk running in front of the house was used for display and trade, but also for sitting outside and meeting other people. The middle of the street was primarily for pedestrians, but also used by horses with a cart or a sledge. Busy street life brought about a lot of experience for the young. Trees made for an agreeable environment.”
The concept of ‘woonerf’ rather quickly found acceptance by the Dutch government. Special rules for traffic on a ‘woonerf’ were issued. The idea of ‘woonerf’ was adopted by many local authorities and spread to many other countries.
The experience in Delft, shows how cities can be children-friendly by making the streets in front of their homes safer. Linking these streets together has resulted in a whole neighbourhood that is accessible for children to enjoy.
Again from Steven Schepel:
“Low speed minimizes the risk of serious accidents. It leaves road-users more time to avoid a collision and shortens the distance covered, first during the time that it takes to react and then during the process of slowing down."
"If a collision cannot be avoided after all, the blow will be less severe and the injuries will be less serious. But nearly always in incidents at low speed everyone will escape with a fright."
"Security for children depends largely on the presence of adults, not just pedestrians and other non-motorized road users, but also people watching the street out of living rooms and kitchens."
"The interaction with adults (for imitation, confirmation, or out of just curiosity) makes the street extra attractive for children to play in and is a good opportunity for adults to meet one another casually.”
“Independent mobility enables children to participate in all sorts of activities without burdening the parents to fetch them each time. Finding their way they get better acquainted with the outside world and develop their social skills. Independent mobility starts with freedom of movement in the street.Prerequisites are low speed (allowing time to make eye-contact and assess mutual behaviour)and limited amounts of car and cycle traffic."
"Independent mobility must not be confined to freedom of movement in a single street. So the street should be part of a large, wide child friendly habitat. Delft serves as an example, showing that a comprehensive rearrangement of a large district, like the complete city-centre, is feasible. This area, which is 1500 m long and 1000 m wide, is not cut by any major road. However buses and cyclists can cross the town in all directions."
"Moreover child friendly districts should be interconnected by safe, friendly routes for cyclists and pedestrians, for children and elderly alike. Again, Delft serves as an example by having completed a tightly knit, comprehensive network of routes for cyclists and pedestrians all over the town.”
Enjoying life in the city
“In order to foster experience and enjoyment, a child-friendly street can best be conceived as a sequence of outdoor living-rooms, each with its own character.”
Playgrounds on the street: they show everybody that this is a street for living.
The people of Delft believe that:
"a city that is friendly to children is a city friendly to all!"
References: “WOONERF REVISITED - Delft as an example” by Steven Schepel, Childstreet Conference. Delft, 2005: 2 Mb pdf Download
Streets for People Too, Architectureweek