Streetfilms in Holland: Experience the Joy of The Woonerf

Life on a Dutch play street is simply better. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.
Life on a Dutch play street is simply better. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

You know how it is: You send Clarence Eckerson Jr. to Holland and you get more than a t-shirt.

You get a clarion call for change.

If you follow Streetfilms on Twitter, you’ve seen lots of snippets of Eckerson’s experience in the cycling capital of the world. But his full-length mini-doc, “Life on a Dutch Woonerf,” focuses on one of the simplest ways to make urban life better: reduce driving speeds on side streets to walking speed. As a result, drivers won’t bother using those roads (except for a delivery or drop off) and everyone else can enjoy their neighborhood.

Woonerf is the Dutch word for “living street” — and you’ll see why below.

Some New Yorkers — especially those who live in Gracie Mansion — might say, “Well, you could never do that in New York City.” But the Dutch model is eminently replicable on the thousands of New York City neighborhood roadways that no drivers need for through travel. Just put down a few benches, narrow the roadway, eliminate the curb and add a zig zag pattern and, viola, livability.

“They do things that make it nice for people to live here, instead of the cars,” one resident tells Eckerson on camera.

Eckerson explained on his Streetfilms site how he came to find this particular woonerf:

When I posted I was headed to The Netherlands once again to visit, as usual I got a lot of recommendations on what to look at. One of the first people to contact me was Rebecca Albrecht, who moved there with her husband Paul from Boston about three years ago and couldn’t be more delighted to live there.

She mentioned she lived on a Dutch play street (woonerf) and when I looked at the photos she had snapped from the window of her bed and breakfast, my first thought was: maybe this would be an opportunity to get a unique angle from residents since I had ridden on so many similar streets in Amsterdam and in Copenhagen, but didn’t want to be too nosy.

When I arrived the street was full of neighbors and children and they wanted to talk to me about their lovely street. But this is not something exceptional as over 2 million Dutch people live on play/living streets. So take a gander but be warned: you will want the same thing for your block.

Play and ride and just be human on a Dutch woonerf. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.
Play and ride and just be human on a Dutch woonerf. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.
  • Community Board member

    But how do these people get groceries or take an elderly relative to the hospital?!?!?!? What happens if there’s an emergency and a fire truck needs to get through?!!?!?!?!? Argle blargle argle blargle.

  • AJ

    We obviously don’t have elderly people in the Netherlands

    (just to make sure, I’m joking, there are a lot of elderly people in the Netherlands and many of them bike, even going to a hospital they bike)

  • Larry Littlefield

    “The Dutch model is eminently replicable on the thousands of New York City neighborhood roadways that no drivers need for through travel.”

    The real issue is parking, not moving.

    In much of the city street parking is the nearly the only parking, and all the street parking is full (except last weekend, when half the street was empty).

    To get to this point, there first has to be a permit system, and then a reduction in permits over time. By not issuing new ones as old ones are surrendered.

  • JarekFA

    I once saw an elderly woman with like the worst hunchback condition possible, like 60 degree angle walk out of an Albert Hijn, put her groceries on her bike rack and pedal away.

    It kills me that we have these seniors in Brooklyn who feel, desperately, that they absolutely need their cars for their survival and sense of freedom. And you see them on the street, these olds driving their boat sized Cadillacs 4 blocks to the drug store to get their pills. The automobile isn’t freedom. Safe streets for bikes, walking and buses is freedom.

  • AstoriaBlowin

    Just take away the parking and let people figure out what to do with their cars. It’s not the city’s responsibility. Either you park further away from home/work, pay for a spot or get rid of your car.

  • kevd

    what about when they have a Dr’s appointment in Manhattan?!?!?!

  • Driver

    This street is only one block long with a T on either end. I don’t know if that is typical of most streets in Holland (I doubt it), but it is certainly not typical of most streets in NY. It seems like the only reason cars need to use this street at all is for…..parking. Even the Dutch can’t seem to eliminate it on their play streets.

  • Joe R.

    But but but how do they get to their vacation homes in Vermont? How do they do their black Friday shopping? HOW CAN THEY LIVE WITHOUT A TRAFFIC SEWER IN FRONT OF THEIR HOUSE? Oh, the horror. The horror.

  • Joe R.

    Using public streets for personal automobile parking is about the best example there is of socializing the costs of something while privatizing the benefits.

  • They have these kinds of arrangements on through streets too. People just know to be careful. And there are also plenty of streets where no parking is allowed at all.

  • AMH

    I think the happiest elderly people I have ever seen have been in the Netherlands.

  • Bernard Finucane

    There’s parking on the street in the video. Didn’t you notice?

  • Bernard Finucane

    One solution to that is simply to put a few posts in the street halfway down the block. That way you can enter the street from both ends, but you can’t drive through.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Just saw the pictures. No video at work. The parking is only for a part of the street.

  • Brandyn
  • USbike

    At the end of the day, cars still need to be accommodated somehow. Sometimes there are exceptions where you may need to park your car on an adjacent street or even in a nearby parking garage. If they tried to eliminate parking on all these very quite neighborhood streets, that’s going to cause some parking issues for the residents there, and would also necessitate parking garages all over the place, which would not really make sense in all the little neighborhoods and villages. Unfortunately, even in the Netherlands there are too many cars and that continues to increase each year. This is further amplified by all the tourists from Belgium and Germany. All this is putting a lot of pressure on some of the roads and there are even talks about possibly widening some N-roads, although that is not a popular idea with everyone.

  • Brandyn

    Implement and encourage cycling and PT, and the combination of both, by changing the allocation of streetscape; & limit access points in communities to stop side-street traffic conflicts and rat-running, and excessive short-trips via car > road/park pricing > road expansion.

  • Rebecca_A

    This is from

    “While the amount of car trips has remained the same in absolute numbers, car use decreased relatively because the number of residents is increasing considerably in Utrecht, which is the fastest growing city in the Netherlands.”

  • Rebecca_A

    Dutch cities are all different. Maybe 10% of the streets of the older parts of Utrecht are short streets like this one. This is my street.?
    During the day, when many of the cars are gone due to car owners working in different cities, workmen’s vans with small open trailers with low sides, take their place. Small delivery trucks, regularly come down the street. Some of the houses on this street are single family, some are one apartment per floor. There are three student houses. Some homes like my two-person household are car-free. Of the households that do own a car, there seems to only own one car. In this particular area of Utrecht, the one way traffic pattern for cars changes direction every block or so. Bicycles can go in both directions so it’s easy to get around by bike but very round-about by car. The Dutch traffic code is very strict. In the driving manual there is a lot of instruction about driving with extra-caution around children and teenagers. A driver who hits a child is held 100% responsible no matter how egregious was the behavior of the child. I am very familiar with NYC having lived near there. They could do in NYC what they did here, reversing direction here and there on the blocks and putting in chicanes on streets.

  • zach

    There’s no economic drive to build parking lots while there is free street parking.

    It’s easy to make more available street parking: raise the price of the street parking. If a parking permit were $1000/year I think half the drivers in my neighborhood would get rid of their cars, and we could use that permit money to beautify the neighborhood streets, or use it to increase local bus service.

  • USbike

    Yes, I agree that should be the way to go, and overall the Dutch do an incredible job with that. But even still, the number of cars are slowly increasing either through car ownership by Dutch people or from tourists coming abroad (also steadily increasing each year). As Rebecca_A alluded to above, the number of car trips (at least in Utrecht) has not increased in absolute terms and is even falling relative to the growing population. But even still, an increase in the absolute number of cars is going to require space somewhere whether it’s used frequently or not. The Dutch have done a remarkable job keeping things under control, but there are still many challenges ahead the way things are developing

  • USbike

    I’m very impressed by the high standards and laws regarding transportation. I’ve also ready that motorists are always at least 50% responsible (insurance-wise) in a collision with a vulnerable user. It is a bit unfortunate that the same high standards are not in existence, even in the neighboring countries. One thing that I”m very curious about, but have not seen the data on, is whether there’s a higher rate of collisions that occur due to non-Dutch drivers. There are a lot of Belgian and German tourists, especially here in Zeeland. My personal experience with them is that the vast majority are extra careful and often yield to me when they have priority. But there are a small percentage that completely disregard the priority of cyclists, and I had a few brake-slamming close encounters with that. The rules about tourists driving are also a bit too slack. For example, I know that Americans are allowed to just rent a car and drive in the Netherlands as tourists. I was allowed to use my license the first 6 months after moving there, and then it was no longer valid after that.


Temporary Chicanes Calm Mr. Eckerson’s Neighborhood

StreetFilms’ Clarence Eckerson, Jr., shows how the alternate side dance can slow traffic. On alternate side of the street parking days, many communities in Brooklyn have worked out a deal so car owners are allowed to double park without impunity so the streets can get their weekly brushing. (Okay, let’s not touch that argument today.) […]