Published in DASH #03 – The Woonerf Today
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The Heritage of the Woonerf

When urban designer Niek de Boer coined the term woonerf in Emmen in the 1960s, he linked his new residential vision to a universally recognized concept: the erf (literally yard or estate), which resonated in the collective consciousness as the open area around a freestanding house or the versatile external spaces of a farmyard. Thus, even in its name, this urban planning innovation evoked nostalgic impressions of village life, where all manner of activities could take place outdoors and on the streets. From this perspective, the woonerf can be seen as a typically Dutch development, which was later imitated around the world. Conversely, it cannot be viewed in isolation from parallel and earlier international developments. In the quest for relaxed, green residential areas, there are obvious precedents to be found in Ebenezer Howard’s ideas about garden cities (Garden Cities of Tomorrow, 1902) and their application in England and the USA, and also in earlier philanthropic plans for ideal working-class neighbourhoods, such as the Agnetapark in Delft (1885). Here, the houses were fused into small farm-like volumes, grouped around communal green spaces.

In the wake of these earlier developments, from the beginning of the twentieth century Scandinavia also built exceptional residential developments with a strong communal character. When, during the Netherlands’ post-war reconstruction, planners were looking for possibilities to build large-scale yet attractive residential neighbourhoods with collective green spaces and communal facilities, Dutch designers took their cue from the Scandinavian model. In the 1970s the woonerf became the dominant form for new residential developments and even adopted its own traffic laws. In the course of the 1980s the traffic engineering principles increasingly came to dominate and the woonerf lost much of its appeal.

Given the renewed interest in the woonerf as a future assignment for restructuring and the simultaneous search for ways to introduce the character of a communal residential environment within new housing projects, now is an opportune moment for a consideration of the origins and development of the woonerf. This article places several observations on the most striking aspects of the woonerf – such as communal outdoor spaces, and their relation to the private house, parking solutions, and the connection with the urban environment – in a historical and international perspective…