Woonerf on Woodlawn: the community’s shared living room


By Barbara Leckie and Joel Westheimer

Imagine a street’s speed limit set at the pace of the average pedestrian. Imagine walking, cycling and playing as a priority over motorized traffic. Imagine urban green spaces multiplied rather than reduced. Since the 1960s, this vision of street design has been a reality in Europe. It could be a reality in Ottawa, too. Indeed, a few innovative streets – Murray Street in the Market and Cambridge Street in Centretown – have already realized similar visions. And now the word is out on Woodlawn Avenue in the Glebe.

On a sunny, cool morning in mid-May, about 20 residents of Woodlawn gathered with Councillor Shawn Menard, his assistant Jonathan McLeod and the city’s lead engineer Josée Vallée to discuss street construction. The staffers wore fluorescent vests, and Menard still had bike clips on his pants from his ride over.

The catalyst for this conversation was the proposed Woodlawn Avenue reconstruction to modernize the road, sewers and water mains. We stood in the shade of two oaks and a maple tree as we discussed the impact of the construction on the street’s majestic trees.

Our overall goal, however, was broader. We wanted to create a Woonerf street. Most of us, when we first heard the phrase “Woonerf streets,” were mystified. What-streets? we asked. But as we researched the principle behind the Woonerf street and the support it had in Europe, we were convinced that it could be a model for Ottawa too.

Woonerf streets originated in Delft, a canal-ringed city in the western Netherlands, and the word is variously translated as “living street” and “shared street.” It privileges the life of the street in all its facets – children, adults, seniors, animals, birds, foliage and, of course, the trees – and has been called “the community’s shared living room.” Our street’s proximity to Lansdowne Park and two seniors’ centres makes it an ideal candidate for such a vision. Like many living rooms, it is intergenerational and often filled with visitors. With a lively street life, it is already our community’s shared living room, but its decorations are scant and its invitation to slow down or sit down are minimal.

We liked the idea of seniors taking their walks down a street explicitly designed for pedestrians, with bump-outs large enough for native gardens they could tend and benches on which they could sit. We also liked the idea of emphasizing the ways in which the street could be a community: children coming from their private backyards to play together on a street where traffic has been calmed through effective and aesthetically pleasing design.

For almost a century, our cities have been planned for cars. The history of the shift from an emphasis on pedestrian life to prioritizing the automobile is difficult to trace but the Joni Mitchell lyrics “they paved paradise to put up a parking lot” nicely captures a phenomenon that many recognize. We often forget that the plans we make now impact not only our lives in the next several years but the lives of those to follow for another half century or more. It makes sense to ask what sort of public spaces we want to create for Ottawa’s future. Do we want parking lots and maximized parking? Or do we want green spaces, pedestrian walkways, bike lanes, benches, flowers and places where children can play?

Our vision for a new Woodlawn Avenue is still developing. But it’s already been a community-building phenomenon. We’ve had four, animated, in-person, street meetings with dedicated residents, a survey by the city with results tabulated in a PowerPoint presentation and circulated to residents, a city-organized, online, consultive meeting to which the city’s lead engineer Josée Vallée and Darryl Shurb generously gave more than three hours of their time and an open invitation to send ideas to Vallée via email. At our meetings, we used white boards to brainstorm ideas, and residents drew blueprints capturing what they wanted to see. We revisited ideas, refined our priorities and developed collective goals.

We hold high hopes that our vision will be realized and that our street could even serve as a model for a revisioned Ottawa. Many of our urban streets could be designed with principles that privilege the needs of the people who live there. It could be a feature of our city that brings tourists here to see how street design can be organized around people and trees and other living things rather than around cars.

Woodlawn Avenue, although beautiful, is currently filled with potholes, and the sidewalks are rutted and falling apart. Underground, the pipes are corroded and must be replaced. This infrastructure renewal is an example of public works, and public works, when they work for the public, are one of the great successes of modern society. The community, through its taxes, pays for improvements that benefit all. Public works projects are not specific to the Glebe. They are everywhere. Each year, across the city, streets need to be dug up, pipes replaced and new paving laid. Each time this happens is an opportunity for a Woonerf street.

We began this process as an exercise in imagination: our street narrowed to one-way, with generous sidewalks, traffic-slowing bump-outs with planters for flowers to be tended by residents at the seniors’ centre, a mid-street parkette with a bench for socializing, bicycles and native-plant community gardens. When we began, we didn’t realize that we were in the process of imagining not only a new street but also a new way of working together. In collaboration with the city and each other, we had conversations that were wide-ranging, feisty and fun. Together we sought to imagine what was possible. For us, it has been an inspiring example of what a community can do when it works together with the support of the city.

Barbara Leckie is a professor at Carleton and Joel Westheimer is a professor at uOttawa. They are both long-time residents of Woodlawn Avenue. 

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