Patterns of Urban Settlement

Cities are laid out differently in the Netherlands than in the US.

First, the Dutch have made a virtue of living with density.  For them, it’s better.  It’s gezellig (see other post:   ).  Most houses are small and share outer walls.   In cities with canals, such as Amsterdam, Haarlem, and, well, most Dutch cities, canal houses are 3 or 4 stories high and only 6 meters wide.  Think of “brownstones” in Brooklyn or “walk-ups” in Boston, but much more compact.  In the Netherlands, it’s not just a city or two–it’s nearly the entire country.

Because the center of the city is often historic, there are restrictions on demolition and reconstruction.  The city should preserve its historic character.  And there is nothing more charming than a city of canals. As a result, the center of the city is where many people prefer to live. Shops, restaurants, and cafes that people need for comfortable daily life are nearby.  A few businesses that can use small home-sized offices also exist in the city.

Factories and office buildings are built around the perimeter of the old central city.  The highway ring around Amsterdam is the A10. Along the A10 are skyscrapers (sort of–the Dutch don’t like anything to be too high because it might lose its top in the wind), oddly shaped mid-rise office buildings cantilevered over empty space because–well, because it’s possible, and huge entirely modern factories.  This is where people work.

Finally, some Dutch people seem to grow weary of gezellig.  They want the ceilings to be a bit further above their heads and they want staircases that don’t require human body compression to use.  They want their kids in their own rooms.  Out in the country and beyond the city center, you do see detached single family homes.  In a lot of towns, these are quite small and often built with shared exterior side walls (see Edam:   ).  But, in parts of the countryside and in the affluent areas of Haarlem, there are very large duplexes and large separate single family homes.  In fact, in Haarlem some suburban and quite substantial homes have thatched roofs.

The result of this is a nicer pattern to urban living.  People live in compact places close by their favorite restaurant-cafe and cozy shopping street with small shops that provide the essentials.  They go out of the city to work via the tram, the train, possibly by car or motorbike, and if not too far, by bike.

Compare this to American-style living.  The ideal–except in places like Manhattan or San Francisco–is to avoid density.  Space is the ultimate freedom and fulfillment of the American dream:  a single family home surrounded by some patch of personal greenery.  As a result, cars are essential to get to work and to forage for the necessities of life.  Never mind, for a moment, the environmental impact.  Just consider the stress of car trips, parking, and the time involved.  Neighborliness is almost a thing of the past.

From an environmental standpoint, the paradox is that a dense city is more environmental than a spread out city. Less land is used.  Electricity, water, gas, cable (for internet or TV) all run shorter distances.  Multiple family buildings are less expensive to heat and cool.   There are many fewer car trips needed for day-to-day life.  Networks of trams or buses become convenient because they connect many more people to the destinations people want to reach with only a very short walk and a short trip.

What’s remarkable about Dutch cities is that density is pleasant and often beautiful.  In the US, density often implies dilapidation or urban crime.  Less so in the Netherlands.  Many, many places are extraordinarily pleasant.  Of course, not all Dutch are rich and not all places are quaint.  But, even extensive low-rise buildings designed for less affluent families are close to shopping, schools, and recreation.  This seems to be a conscious choice made by Dutch city planners who have adapted the coziness of historic cities and towns to accommodate more people and a modern economy.

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