I’ve taken about three hundred photos so far in Amsterdam, and many are the kinds you imagine; canals (they’re called “grachten”, here), bicycles, people on bicycles, street scenes, Dutch roof lines… there is a lot of eye candy here. It is a target rich environment, for sure.
You’ve seen those photos, and I’ll even post them, because they are cool and interesting. Well, stupid interesting, to be honest.
But it’s not this most interesting thing I find about Amsterdam. The most interesting thing I find about this place is the built up urban environment, and how amazingly elegant and simple and in tune with the natural environment it is.I bet you don’t think of “natural environment” when you think of Amsterdam, a city of over 800 000, do you? Take a look… six kilometers outside of Centraal.
This is a back yard. There’s a lake just to the left, past the reeds. Would you let your kids play there? Get dirty? Would yo let them play here with friends, unsupervised? No manicured lawns, much of the space is shared. A couple of mornings ago, 0630 or so, I found a fellow swimming.
Here’s a school. It’s a public school based on Montessori principles. (Hell, it probably has a Montessori Principal, as well.) I got sucked into reading their Information Page.
Look how bold, how colourful, how… part of the community it is. No fences. No speed limits. 27 times more bikes than cars. It’s a new community, built on artificial islands, and only 6 kilometers from the hustle and bustle of Centraal Amsterdam. It was just finished in 2012, and it houses 18 000 homes for 45 000 people, and employment for 12 000 people. It’s a complete community, with grocery stores, leisure, restaurants, a beach. Even a cemetery. And it even has a school, and therefore, it has community.
Here’s how transportation works.
Streets are about 50 metres wide (so no stupid excuses or “urban s’plaining” about how moving people efficiently isn’t a priority in Europe). From the outside in, there are nine (or ten, depending how you count them) lanes: pedestrian – bike/moped – pedestrian – car – (median strip) – LRT – LRT – (median strip) – car – pedestrian – bike/moped – pedestrian. People take priority. Cars are accommodated. Everyone pays attention – no fences to protect you from the trains. It simply works. Follow the rules, and it works efficiently.
There are variations on this theme, but the basics are always the same; ample space for people, bikes, cars, and public transit. Here’s us, on the way home at night.
I think one of the big reasons stuff like this doesn’t work here (or rather, has not been allowed to be even considered) is because we are all so socialized to think of life with our own, private bit of land, fences, and all of the problems (like reliance on cars to forage for sustenance) they entail. So when something radical like a “woonerf” is proposed, we all reach for our pitchforks.
It’s not for everyone. Tina likes our yard. I like my lawn, and am fairly proud of it. Still, I’d trade it for this kind of life. In a second.
Speaking of pitchforks, reach away with the subject of… public art.
We need more of it. I can just see the Sean Chu fanboys on #yyccc complaining about this. “It’s a bunch of stacked tables. Not even an efficiently stacked pile of tables.”
Which leads me to the photo that started off this post. This one. It’s us doing one of my favouritist things when travelling.
Fresh bread, cheese, sausage, cheese, currents, and… wine. One of the pleasant civilities of Europe is being able to enjoy a glass of wine or beer in a public park. And in the kind of park that could never be even conceived back home.
Life is not just good, it’s different good. And that for me is the biggest draw of travel; seeing that there are other ways of living beyond the mere “existing” and making do. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a little bit more of this at home? To get it requires that we know there is different kind of living out there.