On April 12, Michael Shiosaki—Planning & Development Division Director of Seattle Parks and Recreation and husband of the mayor—told a crowd at the official opening that Bell Street Park is adding 56,000 square feet of urban park space to Seattle, which would be based on woonerf design principles. The park is intended to "combine pedestrians, bicycles and cars—all into one plane without curves." He added a little later in his speech: "It's a kind of new concept. We hope this is the model for the future parks."
The concept of woonerf, which means living yard, is not a new thing; it was developed in the 70s when Europe and progressive parts of the US began to see automobiles not as the solution to but the cause of many urban problems. In the world of woonerf, a busy street will be improved by making it more democratic rather than devoting it to privately owned automobiles, the general concensus being that the operators of automobiles drive better and with greater care when they share a space with other modes of transportation. A dangerous driver is one who thinks that the street is only for cars, and focuses not on people but on road signs, billboards, and other cars. Ideally, the woonerf design throws the operator out of the automobile by making them pay attention to people who are not like them, not protected in a thick shell of metal and plastic.
Bell St. Park, our first woonerf, is four blocks long, runs one way, is narrow, provides lots of space to pedestrians, and was funded by the Parks and Green Spaces Levy. The parks people hope that it will encourage outdoor dining "for all existing restaurants in the corridor and proposed restaurant on Bell at 2nd."
What's wrong with all of this? The woonerf approach may have been revolutionary back in the 70s, when everything relating to public transportation looked pretty dismal, but today it is actually regressive. It continues rather than breaks the bad relationship between cars and dense urban cores. It provides planners with a way to avoid making the strongest and most meaningful decision—banning cars altogether —on street projects like Bell Street Park.
I asked Charles Montgomery—a citizen of Vancouver, BC and author of the excellent book Happy City—what he thought of the Bell Street Park:
Woonerven are clever design experiments. In an ideal world—one where vehicle drivers all slow to 5mph or less—they really can become social spaces. The problem is, as the concept is adopted around the world, these shared space zones are being used as substitutes for true pedestrian spaces. Here's the question we should use to judge the success of any woonerf: would I send my eight-year-old out there to play alone? If the answer is no, then this is not a truly accessible social space. It's just a slow zone for cars.
This is precisely the problem with Bell Street Park: it's not a park. It's just a fancy slow zone for cars. Parks are not and will never be for cars. You do not drive a car through a park. You park your car and walk into the park.
All that Bell Street Park tells us is that Seattle needs to find the strength to say no to cars.