Observations on Urban Form: A Series on Architecture, Planning, and Urban Design
During a week in Haarlem, a Dutch city of 160,000 founded in the 13th century, I was continually struck by how great place it was to to live in today. My daughter was an au pair there this fall, so I could glimpse daily family life. The city is small and personal in scale, yet linked quickly to Amsterdam. Here everyday life is convenient and family friendly, but it is also a full of visual delight. The scale is humane, the architecture varied and harmonious, the landscape lush and accessible. Perhaps most critically, moving through the city is a delightful experience. This changes how you feel, each transition from place to place gives you a lift and brightens your day.
Every morning my daughter took her young charge to daycare across the city. She brought along the dog to get her daily exercise. Our walk to the center was down a narrow street lined with small, repetitive two-story houses that were originally affordable rental houses though many recently have been sold and renovated. Their detailing is simple, the windows are large and often uncurtained; the walk was enlivened by the frequent glimpses into the living spaces inside. Vehicles moved very slowly navigating the lane between parked cars.
We crossed a busy neighborhood shopping street crammed with two cafes, a grocery, bakery, pharmacy, and church that has been converted to housing,then slipped into a park that borders a meandering canal. Swans floated in the water, barely disturbing the still reflections. The tall trees were turning gold against the blue sky while the grass was still bright green. We walked the wide path shared by pedestrians and bikes, separated from the street. Lining the park, the row houses are more expansive and elegant with high ceilings and elaborate doorways. The distinction between the expensive and the more mundane is about subtle shifts in scale and detail, not jarring changes in building typology.
As we left the park and approached the center of the city, the flow of people thickened but streamed along, smoothly set by the gliding pace of the cyclists. Cars carefully made their way through the streets, giving priority to the bikes and baby strollers. As we approached the central station, the cars’ access diminished and the underpass and streets become divided into lanes for cyclists and pedestrians.
The central station has trains into Amsterdam or out to the Hague four to five times an hour. Buses line up outside the station next to electronic signs telling you which ones go where and how many minutes to departure. A quick coffee and we took the bus across town to the daycare center to drop off my daughter’s charge. Then we walked in the tall woods with the dog, the light filtering through the trees, and we crossed paths with other dog walkers in that strange community that happens among dogs and their owners.
The public realm strikes one as extraordinarily humane. Every café is set up for strollers and dogsand many offer books and toys for kids. The center of the town is a pedestrian zone, with rare interruptions of vehicles. Kids have a freedom of movement roaming around car-free streets.
Bikes are everywhere and everywhere is accessible to bikes. Some are fitted with baby seats on the back or miniature seats on the crossbar for toddlers to ride with parents. Many have carts in the front to carry several children at a time. A friend once remarked that Dutch bikes get higher occupancy than our SUVs. Other bikes are fitted out to be delivery vans, small workshops, even fast food purveyors. A ten-minute ride covers most of the town. The terrain is flat–it is Holland–and the bike paths are separated from the road, have their own signals, and get priority at the intersections. Where cycles share the road they are given a separate lane protected from moving vehicles by the parked cars.
On Saturday we cycled to the beach about eight miles away. As we left the neighborhood, the smoothly paved bike and walking paths slip into the landscape away from the traffic. We traveled into open savannah-like parkland for several miles, until we saw on the crest of the dunes a smattering of snack bars, and a hotel, signaling our arrival at the sea. We pedaled up over the dunes and saw the ocean vista open up before us. Descending to the great expanse of beach we found the one restaurant on the sand that stays open all year. In the summer, dozens of these temporary structures line the beach. In the autumn afternoon, kids ran at the surf, dogs chased each other across the sand, and surfers braved the waves. At the far horizon, visible on the clearest day, a long array of windmills spun slowly. A bright sun blazed over the broad tableau.
Back up on the bluff we rode the bike path to the next town, where a train provides connection for those who don’t bike or drive. The village has expanded to include beachfront condos, restaurants, and tourist shops. We looked in the stores, ate apple beignets, and turned back toward home.
Leaving the town behind, we cruised along the bluff, overlooking the sea and watching the sky turn bright pink over the sea as the sun went down.
The citizens of Haarlem have easy access to a vibrant, historic town center, the world capital Amsterdam, expansive parks, a wild landscape, and miles of beach. Most significantly, getting places is characterized by the fun of traveling easily on foot or by bike–and everywhere you look is interesting architecture or beautiful expanses of nature. Just before leaving for Europe, my daughter started driving, finding a new freedom of mobility. But with it comes the stress of traffic, the danger of accidents, the need to pay constant attention to other cars, signals, pedestrians. Even cyclists are a hazard to avoid. In Haarlem, her mobility came with healthy exercise, stimulating views, natural landscapes, and easy connections with other people. It is a wonderful way to live.
Anne Tate is a Professor of Architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, with a particular focus on large-scale sustainable urban design challenges. She has been a policy advisor to governments at the state, region, and city scales. At RISD, she teaches studios and an interdisciplinary course “Beyond Green Urbanism” with sociologist Damian White.