Naked streets

20140124 laweiplein drachtenLaweiplein in Drachten, the Netherlands.

How do we improve road safety in residential areas? The answer’s simple: make it riskier.

Naked streets is a concept developed by Dutch traffic engineer, Hans Monderman, who proposed that by creating a greater sense of uncertainty and making it unclear who has right of way on a street, drivers reduce their speed and all street users increase their level of risk compensation. This last principle originates from behavioural theory that suggests people adjust their behaviour in response to the perceived level of risk: in riskier environments, pedestrian and drivers respond by behaving more safely.

The practical application of a naked street involves the removal of all hard safety measures, including safety barriers, traffic lights, warning signs, speed humps, pedestrian crossings and road markings. These are all replaced with road surfaces that do not clearly distinguish between vehicle and pedestrian space, ambiguity in defining traffic rules, and a street environment that fosters eye contact and human interaction. The Woonerfgoed, a Dutch network “focussed on the quality of life on the street” further define the naked street or woonerf (Dutch for living street) as a “street primarily meant as a social space, where people can meet, pedestrians and cyclists can move around freely, and children can play safely.”[1] The woonerf was introduced to the Netherlands in the late 1960s and requires that drivers drive at or near walking pace, or under 20km/h.[2]

Monderman drew international attention with a project in 2001, where he was responsible for the upgrade of the Laweiplein, a crowded four-way intersection in the town centre of Drachten in the northwestern Netherlands. He removed the usual clutter of traffic lights, warning signs and pedestrian crossings, and replaced them with an integrated carriageway / footpath surface and a raised roundabout island of grass. Reviews of the changes a year after completion revealed that:

  • Congestion had decreased
  • Traffic accidents had reduced by half, despite traffic volume increasing by a third
  • Drivers and cyclists were more likely to indicate prior to changing direction
  • Despite the measurable increase in safety, local residents perceived the intersection to be more dangerous[3]

A favourite demonstration of Monderman’s was to walk backwards and with eyes closed into the intersection. Instead of honking or worse, striking him down, the car and bicycle traffic diverted its way around him. The typical binary experience of stop or go was replaced with a slower, organic, more alert and more human process of negotiation. The increased perception of risk was, according to Monderman, essential: risk induces safe behaviour. If residents had not felt less secure in the Drachten redesign, “he would have changed it immediately.”[4]

In the past thirty years, naked streets have successfully been applied around the world. The concentration is highest in Europe: by 1999, there were 6,000 of them in the Netherlands; in 1991, London’s Kensington High Street was transformed into a shared space environment; the upgrade in 2011 of East Street in Horsham, Sussex, was a significant improvement over the existing car-dominated environment; projects have been successfully implemented in Denmark, Belgium, Germany, France, Sweden and Spain among others.[5] An instructive video showing movement through one such project in Graz, Austria, can be viewed here.

20140124 east street horsham before

20140124 east street horsham afterEast Street in Horsham, Sussex: before and after.

We think that naked street principles, whose essential agenda is to balance traffic movement with social uses of public space[6], is an exciting proposal for Drummond Street. The street is already well used, but high speed car and bicycle traffic, particularly during the morning rush[7], is a considerable impediment to being able to enjoy the space safely. This perception was echoed by your briefing aspirations to us, where many of you identified traffic improvements as important to you.


Footnotes:

[1] Introduction to the woonerf; Woonerfgoed; Delft.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Hans Monderman quoted in Tom Vanderbild; The Traffic Guru; The Wilson Quarterly; Washington; 2008.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Philip Booth; Green Streets are Naked Streets; Resurgence and Ecologist; Devon; 2006.
[6] Naked Streets Policy Briefing; Living Streets; London; 2009.
[7] According to our traffic surveys conducted along Drummond Street in October last year, there are 6.5 times more car and bicycle trips per hour during the morning peak than off-peak times.

Image sources:

  1. Laweiplein Drachten, How’s Our Driving? in How We Drive. Copyright Tom Vanderbilt.
  2. East Street before, East Street, Horsham – A shared space that can’t be shared? Copyright for this and the following image belongs to As Easy As Riding A Bike.
  3. East Street after.
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Eduard Wallnöfer Platz, Innsbruck

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This is a fascinating public square designed by LAAC for an open competition initiated in 2008 by the local government of Tyrol in western Austria. LAAC won the competition and completed construction of the square in 2012.

The square is 9,000sqm in area and is resolved as an undulating surface of white, reinforced concrete. Its aim is “to create a contemporary urban public place that negotiates between the various contradictory conditions and constraints of the site. [It] establishes a stage for a new mélange of urban activities characterised by a wide diversity.”[1] We like this project because it takes a single, unifying idea – an undulating concrete surface – and employs it across a large public space to create a diverse range of spatial experiences. In places, the concrete rises up to form bench seats, in others it defines pedestrian entries into the plaza, and in yet others it is shaped around fountains and monuments. Photos of the plaza show a wide variety of people happily coexisting within it, from businessmen, to skaters, to the elderly, to families with young children.

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While a predominantly blank concrete surface might not be a suitable design solution for Streets Without Cars, Eduard Wallnöfer Platz offers a few valuable lessons:

  • Designing for diversity is both important and possible. One of the clearest messages we received from your briefing input into Streets Without Cars was your wide range of backgrounds, interests and activities. We don’t want to exclude people from Drummond Street, nor do we want to dictate how you use it. Whatever design we come up with, it needs to be inclusive and flexible.
  • A singular idea can draw together a very large space into a unified whole. The context of Drummond Street has all sorts of asymmetries: there is a slightly different rhythm of houses along each side; it opens onto Curtain and Fenwick Streets in different ways; the presence of Shakespeare Street is unusual; there is a slight rise towards the north; even the street trees are not in perfect alignment. We want to create a design solution that draws these peculiarities, as well as the peculiarities of the brief, together into a unified whole.

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Footnotes:

[1] Sourced from project description of Eduard Wallnöfer Platz; LAAC; viewed online 20140120.

Image sources:

  1. Eduard Wallnöfer Platz, context plan. All photos sourced from A AS Architecture and copyright Günter Richard Wett.
  2. Eduard Wallnöfer Platz, overview.
  3. Eduard Wallnöfer Platz, aerial view.
  4. Eduard Wallnöfer Platz, undulating surface.
  5. Eduard Wallnöfer Platz, bench seating.
  6. Eduard Wallnöfer Platz, detail at night.
  7. Eduard Wallnöfer Platz, at night.