When I visited Berlin in 2015, workers had just been busy tearing up a few blocks of Maaßenstraße, near Winterfeldtplatz.
Being an ignorant visitor, I presumed it was just another ordinary road project. As it turns out, it was the beginning of an effort to give some of the street back to the people in the community.
Upon returning to this central area of Berlin in September 2016, I found the mixed commercial-residential street was rebuilt to include a form of woonerf.
Woonerfs, an idea first conceived of in the Netherlands, are streets designed for shared use with cyclists and pedestrians, often with emphasis on these rather than on cars. Indeed, Dutch regulations demand motorized traffic on woonerfs proceed at a walking pace. (Not surprisingly, the word woonerf literally translates from Dutch to English as “living yard”.)
Calgary, the Canadian city I call home, has seen resistance to one proposal for such a measure. City officials have been talking for years about constructing a woonerf in a laneway in the Inglewood neighbourhood but it’s been repeatedly given the thumbs-down by some residents.
While Calgary continues to wait and see if its first woonerf will ever be built, we can look to Berlin’s Maaßenstraße as a fascinating example of how this can be done.
Of course, a traffic calming feature is meant to … well … calm traffic. The speed limit there is only 20 km/h. The drivable portion of the street, once straight, is now curvy. There is some parallel parking, so it can be difficult for two cars to pass abreast along those portions of the street — but it is doable with great care, at low speed.
Clearly, the intention is to keep drivers from speeding and from what I’ve observed, it does the trick. The neighbourhood, in return, got a bit more sidewalk but that wasn’t all. Up popped a bicycle parking area, to facilitate the commute for shoppers and maybe even those heading to the nearby Nollendorfplatz U-Bahn station. A few parts of reclaimed street space were turned into play areas for children. There’s new public art, including little cubes dotting the edge of the sidewalk all along this two-block stretch, each painted with a unique motif.
It is an active demonstration of how urban residential streets don’t have to be drab — rather, they can be welcoming, multipurpose and accommodating to all users.
For those places where woonerfs are appropriate, Maaßenstraße looks to be something to emulate.