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Public Spaces

A closed street can be a living street

On sunny days, Lafayette Square is filled with people. Tourists snap pictures of the White House behind them. Bicyclists and pedestrians enjoy a space where they, not cars, have the right of way.

Photo by JoshBerglund19 on Flickr.

Although two-block stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue was closed for security reasons, it has become similar to what the Dutch call a woonerf (plural woonerven, which translates roughly to "living street."

A woonerf is a low-speed street where pedestrians and cyclists have legal priority over drivers. In practice, cars, bikes, and people on foot mix freely. Unlike a standard woonerf, Pennsylvania Avenue doesn't regular drivers, but it has taken on many of the elements of the woonerf. Security needs can also close them at a moment's notice. Therefore, I like to call this a "security woonerf."

Since the mid-1990s, cordoned-off areas have popped up throughout the city. Yet, few of them could be called security woonerven. Could this change?

The two most prominent security woonerven in DC are on the east side of the US Capitol and on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. In these areas, activity takes place mainly on foot or on a bike.

Although security vehicles operate in those areas, they're parked most of the time, so pedestrians and cyclists essentially have the run these spaces. These two locations are obviously popular with residents and visitors alike. Both are now important hubs in DC's expanding bicycle network and as important activity centers for all manner of activity: tourism, lunch breaks, leisurely strolls, running, you name it.

Following the tragedy at Oklahoma City in 1995, federal planners redesigned facilities to minimize risks to important buildings from motor vehicles. All across the city, barriers went up, starting with jersey barriers, giant planters, and police roadblocks.

Over time, these evolved into permanent hardened perimeters with bollards, sally ports, guard gates, and delta barriers. As much as possible, these elements were planned with an eye toward improving aesthetics, or at least in comparison to original concrete jersey barriers.

While the two security woonerven at the White House and the Capitol are great assets to the city, other cordoned-off areas are not.

The security professionals who planned these facilities gave little consideration to bicycle and pedestrian access. The spaces are attractive for walkers and bikers by default, because of their lack of traffic. However, it often isn't easy to travel into or through the perimeter of these areas.

Another security woonerf is in the works for E Street, south of the White House. As many commenters noted during the design competition, though, cyclists appeared to be an afterthought in most of the submitted proposals.

Often, small tweaks could really improve access into these potentially great spaces. Even Lafayette Square has access issues on the north side at the Madison Place sally-port.

The State Department closed C Street NW and segments of other roads next to their Foggy Bottom headquarters, but they have not replaced the jersey barriers and planters with bollards and other elements more hospitable to bicycle and pedestrian traffic. The House and Senate office buildings have several cordoned streets around them that only admit authorized cars, but the access points are difficult to get through by bike.

Although Union Station has closed off driving access through Columbus Circle for security, the space was subsequently devoted to passenger pick-up and drop-off, making this potential security woonerf very difficult for pedestrians and cyclists. Thankfully, work already underway on the Circle will improve upon current conditions.

Beyond these spaces, there are a number of closed campuses in DC which would greatly benefit from adopting some of the more successful security woonerven designs. Specifically, I'd love to see security woonerven at the Old Soldier's Home, the future Walter Reed development (both the DC and State Department portions), and the Washington Hospital Center.

Areas around the Pentagon, and Joint Base Bolling also have potential if security priorities are better balanced with pedestrian and bike permeability. Universities like Catholic, Georgetown, and Howard you can get through, but it's not obvious or direct. Even at the Arboretum and the Navy Yard, where trails and woonerven already exist, extended hours would vastly improve these spaces.

Regardless of why and how we established these areas, federal and local planners need to recognize their success, and understand their best elements. Then they can adopt those elements into sites that have potential, but aren't quite security woonerven yet.

Are there other places we could have a great security woonerf? Also, can you think of a better term? Whatever you you call them, if streets have to close for security, we would all benefit from making more of them living streets.

Will Handsfield is the transportation director for the Georgetown Business Improvement District, and has worked on transportation projects in Los Angeles, Denver, and the metropolitan Washington region. Will bike commutes and lives with his wife and two children in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Capitol Hill. 


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Sigh. You are massively misunderstanding what a woonerf is. 'Wonen' meaning 'living somewhere' (not: being alive). And 'erf' is the area around a farm. So, a woonerf is the area around houses where vehicular traffic and people (kids) mingle happily together. Woonerven were designed to slow down traffic and open up space for kids to play.

Lafayette Square and the Capitol Plaza miss both two crucial elements: Houses for people to live in, and traffic.

I know what I'm talking about. I grew up on a woonerf. This one:
View Larger Map

Also, there are no woonerven downtown. Woonerven are intended for use in (Dutch) suburbia, which is a lot more cramped than American suburbia because there is little more space in Holland. To put it in other words: it's cheaper to have cars and kids to share the road than to reclaim more sea.

by Jasper on Mar 30, 2012 2:42 pm • linkreport

While I can't think of additional areas where security could translate into pedestrian/bike space, I think you raise a great topic. The city needs more streets dedicated to pedestrians. I for one would love to see 7th street se around eastern market permanently closed to cars (except deliveries and vendors), not just on the weekend. I'd like it to be a pedestrian walkway between Penn Ave and North Carolina. (It's a completely useless stretch of road anyway.) With the proposed redevelopment at Hine, this could really become the city's first "walkable" community.

by MJ on Mar 30, 2012 2:50 pm • linkreport

Is there any hope at all that the SS will reopen E Street? It's a long way from the WH and would be a great extension of the E St bike lanes (along with traffic)

by @SamuelMoore on Mar 30, 2012 3:03 pm • linkreport

Might I add 3rd street SE between the two wings of US DOT HQ? It has cars turning in and out of the US DOT underground garage, and occasional special but mostly functions as a pedestrian plaza (and in the summer once a week as a farmers market)

by MStreetCrew on Mar 30, 2012 3:06 pm • linkreport

@MJ: I live a few blocks from Eastern Market, and the stretch of 7th in front of the market is definitely not a "completely useless stretch of road". I drive down it, if it's open to cars, when I pick up or drop off people at Eastern Market Metro station -- a somewhat more frequent errand when the kids were in high school than now, but something I did just yesterday. There are of course alternatives which I use on weekends, but they take twice as long or more because of the configuration of stoplights and one-way streets between my house and the station. Still, I enjoy the general traffic-calming effects of those things, and I'd cope if 7th were permanently closed.

@Jasper: Two English terms that might be less ambiguous translations of "wonen" are "inhabit" and "reside (in/at/on)". Unfortunately many translations of "woonerf" along these lines, such as "rural habitat" and "country residence", may also have misleading connotations. But thanks for clarifying!

by A Streeter (formerly davidj) on Mar 30, 2012 3:47 pm • linkreport

I think what the space in front of the White House could really use are some painted bike lanes. Right now, it's a total mess with bikers going every which way, peds stepping in front of bikes or getting out of the way of one bike just to step in front of another. It's an accident waiting to happen.

by Falls Church on Mar 30, 2012 4:00 pm • linkreport

-- Pedestrians, tourists, bikes, Secret Service loiterers - and packs of boys playing street hockey, paying no attention to any of the above.

Still, it's far better than any spaced marred by automobiles, and a pleasant respite in any cross-town commute.

by Sydney on Mar 30, 2012 6:36 pm • linkreport

But remember how much nicer it was when you could drive by the White House and your way to the mundane things in life and look out your window as you were passing the White House and think 'Wow, this is surreal ... that's the White House there ... " ... And of course, driving by it with out of town visitors. It was special ... but the democratic aspect of it, i.e., it being just another house just off a street of city traffic, made it even more special. You'd think 'only in America is our government so open."... And remember making that special trip down there with out of town guests and saying 'LOOK, that's the White House there!" No, you really do have to make a special trip to get down there, AND you have to hope you're lucky enough to find a parking space remotely close enough to it to be able to get out of your car and see the place. It's not like when I first moved to Washington and could drive down to East Executive Drive and park between the White House and it's office buildings. It was special then ... pricisely because it was so NORMAL ... so AVERAGE ... no different from driving to where your dad worked. Now it's a Disneyfied experience meant to resemble what a democracy is. Even the protestors are staged ... Now it's one sole looney for each cause ... Imagine if they dared hanging signs from the White House fence like used to be the norm ... Let's not kid ourselves into thinking this contrived park we have now is in any way better than the real scene that used to exist there. This kind of park can exist in East Potomac. It should exist in the people's president's house.

by Lance on Mar 31, 2012 12:17 am • linkreport

*It shouldn't exist in front of the people's president's house.

by Lance on Mar 31, 2012 12:20 am • linkreport

Driving may be your everyday experience, Lance, but walking is part of the everyday experience for everyone -- and now everyone can walk past the White House in a setting that's safer both from cars and from even larger threats.

by Payton on Mar 31, 2012 11:27 am • linkreport

No, Lance, I don't remember that, because no one would ever want or need to drive around there. What you remember is obviously a bit inaccurate because it doesn't involve stop-and-go traffic and dodging the other incompetent drivers.

In any case, a closed street CAN be a living street, but it usually isn't. Closing a street usually kills it. In the case of the white house and other government buildings, that was the precise intent. Creating a "living" pedestrians-only street requires a major investment in street level retail and residential construction, none of which is ever going to appear in the immediate vicinity of government buildings that need to have their surrounding streets closed.

by Tyro on Mar 31, 2012 11:28 am • linkreport

Weird. I was literally on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. There was perhaps 400 people there (I brought 76). They were largely school kids visiting their nation's capital and eager and excited to see the White House. They had a great time, and felt a little more connected to the institutions that represent them.

That was the same experience I had four days ago when I did it last month. And those times last week. And for the last several years I've been a tour guide. I'll let you know if it's still a "living street" when I'm there next week. But I suspect it will be.

Probably won't be a very locally focused one though. That's ok. Not everything here is.

by Tim Krepp on Mar 31, 2012 11:42 am • linkreport

They tried peds-only on F street, 12-14 and G street, 9-10 downtown back in the '70's with the arrival of Metro. It failed.

by Adam on Mar 31, 2012 11:43 am • linkreport

To an extent, Lance is right. I was born in DC in the '70s and grew up here and have distinct memories of driving by the White House before the surrounding streets were closed. This was indeed rather cool. Catching a glimpse of the White House, like it was just another building or house, was really neat.

But Lance is far, far more wrong than he is right. The area around the White House by Lafayette Park is far more accessible and pleasant than it ever was back in the day. The space is now enjoyed by hundreds on a daily basis. This is much better than in the past when an extremely busy street separated the White House and narrow sidewalk from the park. The brief pleasure that a few commuters enjoyed while driving by the White House in the span of a few seconds is more than outweighed by the improved accessibility we have today without cars. Not to mention that you can still see the White House quite well from H Street so Lance is still free to give his visitors the windshield view of the sites he so craves.

As a general matter, DC is far more securitized today than it was when I was growing up. In almost every instance, this trend is a bad one. Just look at the south side of the White House which is an abomination of jersey barriers and security shacks as well as the inhibited access to the House and Senate buildings. But for the north side of the White House, the change is mostly for the better. We should continue to press for improvements to this space to balance its recreational, civic, and security needs.

by DW on Mar 31, 2012 12:14 pm • linkreport

Even better than driving by the White House was riding by on a Metrobus when the 30s and possibly some other routes rolled up and down the blocks of Pennsylvania that are now closed to motor traffic. The bus windows were large and usually reasonably clean, and somebody else dealt with the traffic. I recommended them to out-of-town visitors as cheap sightseeing, as they also went by the Capitol and across the Mall and even took you to Georgetown. (Tip for @Lance: some of them still go to those places and fairly close to, if not right by, the White House -- and you don't have to worry about parking.)

by A Streeter on Mar 31, 2012 12:48 pm • linkreport

DC is far more securitized today than it was when I was growing up.

You're not the first to say that:

"His father took him to the Capitol and on the floor of the Senate, which then, and long afterwards, until the era of tourists was freely open to visitors...

"The second step was like the first, except that it led to the White House. He was taken to see President Taylor. Outside, in a paddock in front, "Old Whitey," the President's charger was grazing, as they entered, and inside, the President was receiving callers as simply as if he were in the paddock too."

From The Education of Henry Adams, describing his first visit to Washington at the age of 12, written in 1907 when Adams was 69.

by Ben Ross on Mar 31, 2012 1:21 pm • linkreport

16th st mall in Denver is pretty nice. These one of block closures are silly though... better than nothing I guess.

by wd on Mar 31, 2012 1:33 pm • linkreport

I lamented the loss of driving by the WH when the Secret Service blocked off Pennsylvania Ave. in 1995. It was a terrific way of quickly cutting across town. But now that 17 years have passed, I have become used to taking I St east-west. I would love to be able to drive by the WH again on both Pennsy and E St, but that would take a courageous Presidential decision to reopen both.

My memory of driving by the WH came in August 1990, when the US began its initial attacks on Baghdad. Lafayette Square was filled with protestors, and as I drove slowly by the heavy police presence on Pennsylvania I just thought 'how amazing this is, we just declared war on Iraq and here I am driving by the WH in the midst of all this history.'

A once very thrilling and prosaic Washington experience.

by Poshboy on Apr 10, 2012 10:16 am • linkreport

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