After living the majority of my life in the United States, specifically, in the expansive state of Texas, there are two aspect of cities that I’ve had to reconcile when considering various urban processes here in The Netherlands: scale and time.
Scale because things are close and accessible here. The hour-long drive I would sometimes make just for a dentist appointment back in Texas dwarfs the 19-minute train ride that will get you from Amsterdam’s Amstel Station to Utrecht Central. The same goes for walking distances. Time because these cities (maybe except for Almere) have been around much longer than most places in the U.S., and the urban form and architecture of course reflects this.
To illustrate, in my hometown of Houston, the Metropolitan Statistical Area’s population is just over 6 million covering a land area of 26,061 sq km. On the other hand, the Randstad area (a combination of the four largest cities, all in southern Holland) has a similar population of 7.1 million and covers only 8,287 sq km. The difference in population density is even larger.
The Randstad has been part of urban planning policy for quite some time. Urban growth in the Randstad is carefully considered whereas any growth (even building new houses) is severely limited in what the Dutch call the Green Heart, a pristine, open green space between the Randstad’s polycentric urban centers. Spatial planning favors the conservation of the Green Heart to the point of a decision to construct 8 kilometers of a train line underground instead of scarring the landscape above.
Such influential planning policies, along with compact city approaches and geography, have left the Randstad very dense and eliminated much of any potential sprawl. Each city has developed separately but well-connected inside and out of the region.
After being in the Netherlands for a few months, visiting the various centers reveals that Utrecht has a specific and unique feel to it, differing from Amsterdam. The Hague has a stately approach to its architecture (as it is the capitol city) and Rotterdam, being severely bombed in WWII, has a newer, contemporary city center. Each one involves an urban form that creates a walkable and bikeable place despite their differences. Both time and scale play a part of this, and it makes me wonder if such rich, dense, and diverse polycentricism could ever be successfully implemented in the United States. What do you think?
Credits: Images and documents linked to source.