Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

In Holland, the pressures of American-style urban sprawl

After decades of socially conscious architecture, the Dutch lean toward more isolated, car-dependent suburban models

By Jane Holtz KaySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 3, 2002


Water is to Holland as plains and hills are to America – a clean slate for building. Yet, for all its history in pluckily turning bog and sea into buildable land, the Netherlands' dedication to urban and social planning is equally heroic.

Skip to next paragraph

Rich in urban and environmental skills, Dutch architects and engineers have shaped civilized cities, doted on mass housing, and tooled well-crafted buildings. Notably tolerant, its citizenry has endorsed "social housing" or low-income rentals – foreign to market-driven America. From public transport and bicycling, to sustainable space and environmental protection, the virtual island nation has framed standards for the world.

Now, however, some see a shrinking of these urban and social values. In the wake of the conservative election after the murder of far-right candidate Pim Fortuyn, the Dutch worry that market dictates and the move to the right could undo progressive living policies. Some fear that social housing, which once accommodated 70 percent of the population but now is down to 30 percent, could descend still further. Others watch anxiously as suburbanization and motorization expand and new shopping centers spin off the freeway.

Boom times in Europe's new global economy have fed the urge for more space for a swelling population of l6 million in l3,000 square miles (the size of Connecticut). Like the sprawling US population, the affluent Dutch display both a real and a perceived need for more living space. Even before the election, privatization and motorization had begun to worry planners.

There's more of a "free-for-all for developers," says Aaron Betsky, the Dutch-born head of the Netherlands Architectural Institute and former director of the San Francisco Museum of Art. "[It's] the most densely built country in the world," he says. With almost half its land below sea level, "every plan, every road becomes one giant 3D puzzle."

Launched after World War II, the public-housing initiative sought a goal of l00,000 homes a year. This was reaffirmed in l990, and planners expect that number to reach 1 million by 20l0.

Dutch citizens don't shy away from standards and subsidies that make Americans blanch. Strict building and design codes set minimum standards for everything from height to sustainability, but architects exceed them.

At the entrance to a university campus in Utrecht, for example, the handsome Minnaert building by Neutelings and Riedijk features a 30-by-l50-foot pond collecting rain to cool the heat from the classroom lighting. In a handsome library at the Delft University of Technology and a management school in Utrecht, Mecanoo architects combine their "poetic modernism" with a green roof, geothermal heating, and good ventilation for ecological goals.

Beyond the immediate city as well, wind turbines line the highways. To tour from city to city, site to site, is to see the adaptation of the ages: Wooden windmills and steely new turbines churn and spin beside farmland gridded by the canals that recall their reclamation from the sea.

Still, concern is growing about development trends. Allard Jolles, architectural historian at Amsterdam's Planning Department, points out Amsterdam's l965 Zuidoost project, now a grim landscape of antisocial high-rises. Despite its new stadium, the wind-whipped landscape seems as ready for uprooting as rehabilitation, with a proposed shopping center and high-rises. "Collecting rain on the roof" does not compensate for a failure to plan the density that supports urban life, Mr. Jolles says.

Likewise at Rotterdam's old harbor, the environs of Kop van Zuid, site of the barracks for Jewish deportees during World War II, offer new urban redevelopment that seems sterile compared to the vivid past.