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Dutch Urbanism

August 2, 2011

Last weekend I went on a long-awaited reconnaissance mission to northern Europe, to cities that have a reputation for livability and sustainability that Rome can no longer claim. In fact, my trip was bookended by a transit strike the day of departure (resulting in massive delays, confusion, stress and expense) and another potential transit disaster upon my return caused by a fire at Tiburtina Station which shut down much of central Italy’s train system. These problems seemed to be accepted with resignation and little information, absorbed like bad weather about which little can be done.

By contrast, in Holland transit not only worked well, but it was well-used.  At Schiphol airport there is a bonafide train station with frequent, economic trains to the center of town. Once there one is confronted with two smart options: walk (or rent a bike) to reach destinations in the pedestrian friendly center, or hop on transit (metro/tram/bus) to go further afield.  Cars exist but are a rarity, like an old-fashioned, nostalgic presence amidst more efficient modes of transportation.

Despite terrible weather, cold and rainy, I was able to explore the neighborhoods that interested me, especially Zeeberg and Ijberg, new mixed-use developments on formerly industrial (or formerly non-existent) islands, but also projects from the early 20th century in Rotterdam and Amsterdam, projects where urbanism of a human scale made space for semi-public activities and abundant green (and blue).  I saw much new construction, but unlike Rome, where architects are often absent (despite having a surplus of them) here the hand of designers was ever-present. Designers and planners,  because on deeper investigation it was clear that questions of infrastructure, water, waste, energy and effective land-use had been addressed in depth, through community involvement and interdisciplinary brainstorming, long before buildings began to emerge.  Although neighborhoods like Ijberg were clearly still under construction, the transit system was fully functional, a high-speed tram/train which went underwater at one point making the connection from the central station to the tip of the new island.

I had seen a documentary about the West 8 project for Borneo Sporenberg which explained the rationale behind the planning, and at this point it is clearly a success.

Although Rome is not Amsterdam, there are certainly lessons to be learned.  Both cultures share a sense of flexibility;  in Holland it has been embraced in the form of liberal regulations but carefully enforced, while in Italy it involves strong regulations weakly enforced, but the result is often similarly anarchistic.  In Holland clearly people were free to enjoy city life without compromising others, while Rome still suffers from the privileging of the automobile at the expense of its human master.

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