Thinking Dutch

By: Brian Sandford | BSA ‘17

Typical Boreneo-Sporenburg Street

Typical Boreneo-Sporenburg Street

Hello from Deutschland! I’m in Europe for three months with Wentworth’s study abroad program, and so far it has been a whirlwind of different cities and cultures. We recently visited the Netherlands, a relatively small country with a number of excellent cities, including Amsterdam, Utrecht, and Rotterdam.

One unique characteristic of the Netherlands is the widely held belief in the capacity of architecture and planning to improve people’s lives. I believe this idea holds so much power because Holland, as it is also known, would not exist without urban planning. A majority of the country is situated at or below sea level; for thousands of years the Dutch have had to invent ways to create land. They originally built the iconic windmills that many associate with the Netherlands to pump water out of the ground to create dry land. Much of the city of Amsterdam was built in areas that used to be water, and the city of Rotterdam needed to be completely redesigned after World War II. We had the opportunity to talk with Dutch citizens from different professions and walks of life, and they all agreed that good design is a powerful way to improve the world around them.

This idea is expressed in the Dutch right-to-live law. It is national law that every person in the country has a right to a safe, clean, well-built home. The Dutch people understand that when individuals have homes, they are less likely to be unemployed, less likely to have substance abuse problems, and can have better access to medical care. Because of this attitude, the Dutch government heavily subsidizes housing for Dutch citizens from all socioeconomic levels. In stark contrast to low-income housing in the US, these apartments are well built. They are integrated into the urban fabric, and almost every new apartment building in the country is required to have units reserved for this purpose. They are also open to a far wider range of people, such as teachers, policemen, and lawyers. Even the name is different. What we call “low-income housing” in the US, the Dutch call “social housing”. There is no stigma attached to living in these apartments, unlike “projects” in the United States. The effect this has on the health of cities, and the health of the people living in cities, is observable and intense. We saw very few homeless people in all of the Dutch cities we visited, and the urban environments were active and dense.

The "Whale"

The "Whale"

One of the best examples of this housing strategy is a building known as the Whale. It is a large apartment building in the bustling neighborhood of Borneo-Sporenburg, and has an unflinchingly contemporary design. It houses a wide variety of people in a variety of apartment sizes, from smaller studios to larger duplexes. The mayor of Amsterdam even lives there! Can you imagine the mayor of any major US city living in a building where some tenants are subsidized? It’s unheard of. Yet the Dutch see this as completely normal. 

Recently in the United States there has been strong opposition to large urban planning projects. This resistance is due to a number of  reasons, including the past failures of Modernist planning and the current crop of greedy investors making money at the expense of public good. Locally, Boston residents still mourn the destruction of the vibrant West End and decry its bland replacement. But the Netherlands provided a refreshing counterpoint against this current of pessimism. The country intrinsically understands that rigorous, human-centric design can enhance cities in a very personal way. It helps individuals, but it also helps cities as a whole. While the United State is a much larger country, with a wider variety of cities, even a gradual adoption of the Dutch positive attitude could really improve our urban environments for all varieties of people.

The "Whale" over Boreneo-Sporenburg

The "Whale" over Boreneo-Sporenburg