Let’s face it: compromise is rarely good. Whether it’s Congresspersons trying to agree on a “grand bargain” to restart the government, or an incompatible couple trying so hard to make things work between them, compromising tends to end up as the worst of both worlds. Compromise is the rule when trying to shape a complex urban environment where millions have a stake in the outcome and everyone clamors to have their say. The results, unsurprisingly, are skewed towards the mediocre: unwalkable, unbikeable wastelands where commuters idle in gridlock for hours every day. The changes that must happen to make our cities work are not ones that can be attained by compromise.
Why, then, hasn’t compromise been bred out of the human psyche by natural selection? Because on rare occasions, a compromise can prove to be more than the sum of its parts, and it can prove not just enlightening but transformative to those on both sides of an issue. Such a compromise is being reached right now in Chicago, and it has a goofy-sounding Dutch name: the woonerf.
A woonerf is a street on which all are welcome, but pedestrians and cyclists have priority. It’s the kind of street you might expect to find in the bustling center of an old European city: built for people, but the occasional car can get through if necessary pick up or drop off goods and passengers. But woonerfs are not just for city centers; today, you can find them all over the Netherlands.
Chicago’s first woonerf will be the result of a compromise. DePaul University wanted to pedestrianize a block of North Kenmore Avenue that runs through their campus. With the popularity of the automobile on the decline among young people, urban universities (including the U of C and Loyola) are responding by making their campuses more people-friendly. But predictably, DePaul encountered opposition from the surrounding community, who did not want to lose a north-south thoroughfare. The woonerf was thus proposed as a compromise.
As with all compromises, particularly ones that remove parking spaces, not everybody will be happy. But the woonerf, unlike the original pedestrianization plan, is going to have a huge impact for drivers and non-drivers alike. What drivers lose in speed, they will make up for in humanity. They will be put face-to-face with a living city, rather than stuck in a dead expanse of asphalt and bumpers. Pedestrians will learn that they deserve, and can achieve, freedom of movement without fear of being murdered by indifferent machines. A pedestrian-only block is nice, but it will be ignored by drivers and reproduced only in niche areas of the city. A woonerf can change the way we perceive our urban landscape.
Compromise is rarely good. But compromises like the woonerf are what give me hope for the future of the city.