Author Archives: Lewis

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.

Hermitage Museum

The fabulous Hermitage Museum has a branch in Amsterdam.  It’s the only museum open on Mondays.  They have works from the Hermitage collection on tour.  The presentation of the collection is stunning.

Last one in the caravan only has 1 hump!

Last one in the caravan only has 1 hump!

Amsterdam ex pats

Emmy and Lewis wanted to experience living abroad on a somewhat extended basis.  Amsterdam seemed the perfect place:  it’s perfect for the bicycling obsessed, has a wonderful progressive culture, and we’ve been welcomed by just about the most friendly city people in the world.  Most people speak English and a sincere “dank je vel” goes a long way, even if that is your only shred of Dutch.

Museums and sunshine…

Today, Emmy and I took our daughters Susie and Ellie to the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum (our son Jay is slaving away at school).  It was a beautiful day in the high teens and the world was enjoying museums and cafes.

Here are Susie, Ellie, and Vincent:

Passing by Vincent and Vincent

Passing by Vincent and Vincent

On the way across the field, it was necessary to pose on the “I Amsterdam” letters (what is a “sterdam”?)

Emmy, Ellie, and Susie alight on the letters

Emmy, Ellie, and Susie alight on the letters

After an exhausting day of museum hopping, we had to join the hordes basking in the sunshine of the Leidseplein for lunch.  Here, Ellie samples her first beer (ever, honest) with appropriate adult supervision.

First beer

First beer

More Biking in Amsterdam

With all the stories of gentleman riding bikes in tweed jackets and ladies riding in skirts and spike heels and moms toting toddlers to daycare, you might think that bicycling in Amsterdam is a breeze, or a walk in the park, or something that seems very easy.  Well, sorta…

There are dedicated bike lines along most busy streets.  There are separate traffic signals for people, bikes, and cars. There is a network of numbered bike routes throughout the entire country.  The law says that the slowest and most vulnerable form of transportation has the right of way, hence:  pedestrians, bikes, cars–in that order.  The bicycling injury rate in  Holland is 1/5 to 1/9 per billion miles cycled compared to the United States, even though no one wears helmets.

All that is well and good.  For the tourist spending only a day or two in Amsterdam, bicycling is a bit chaotic.  On the narrow streets along the canals, pedestrians, bikes, and cars mix.  Bikes rule and are the fastest.  Amsterdam’ers aren’t out for a leisurely jaunt; they’re going to work, to school, to a date and they’re in a hurry–and you, silly tourist, are in the way.  Don’t stop to make a left turn–just time your turn to go in between the 3-wheeled delivery truck, the Mercedes-Benz taxi, the chic young woman texting while riding, and the elderly woman walking her wire-haired dachshund.  You’ll make it…

It’s rumored there are 18 million bikes for the 16 million people of the Netherlands.  About of million of those bikes are parked outside the Amsterdam Central Station in this double-decker bike parking structure.


Intro to biking in Amsterdam


Emmy likes her “omafiets”.  It’s by Gazelle, a large Dutch bike manufacturer.  It’s called “Ambiance” and has 7 gears, so it is much more advanced than a classic omafiets, which is a black single speed coaster-brake bike. By the way, “omafiets” means grandma’s bike, which is not applicable to Emmy, as yet.

Emmy, Gazelle Ambiance, and micro-car


Lewis brought his gear-head folding bike.  It’s a Bike Friday Tikit, the like of which has not been seen in Amsterdam. They have Brompton’s, but no Bike Fridays.  No one knows how cool he is… (maybe that’s because–you know).  To look a little more Dutch, he added a milk crate to the back.

2014-03-19 11.30.21

Rental bike shops are all over Amsterdam. Instead of renting a bike for the two months we are here, Emmy decided to buy a used bike at a bike shop just one street over from Vondelpark.


We flew in directly from Seattle, departing mid-afternoon and arriving bright and early in the morning.  The morning was that; we were not–having not achieved the necessary state of pre-departure exhaustion or inebriation to sleep enroute.

Taking the canal tour is a great orientation to Amsterdam and demands neither effort nor thought.  We had been to Amsterdam last year and wanted to see something new.  So, we went to the Nemo Science Museum along with hundreds of Dutch families and their happy, cute, very indulged children.

The museum has typically Dutch progressive view of personal education for children.