Urban Design Study trip – Dutch mistress

Urban Design Study trip – Dutch mistress

Kay Hughes led a group of women architects and planners on a cycle tour of Holland to see what they could learn before the UK severs its ties with Europe

Why is it that Britain has a woeful record of successful city expansion compared with the Netherlands? Why are the Dutch so much better at delivering high-quality infrastructure and masterplans for homes and workplaces? Is it all down to policy and delivery structure?

As Theresa May triggered Article 50 with her letter to the continent, I planned a three-day study tour of the Netherlands by bike with a group of high-profile women architects and planners to find some answers. The riders included: architects Sadie Morgan, Cany Ash, Sarah Featherstone, Vicky Thornton and myself; planners Julie Greer, Claire Treanor and Jennifer Ross; and landscape architect Harriet Bourne.

As a nod to Article 50, the trip was called the Dutch Mistress, after Vermeer’s painting of the mistress who contemplates a letter her maid has just delivered and the news it contains.

This is our letter of response from the continent to the UK. The headlines are: the UK should, in a time of limited resources, spend less time and money on regulating and administrating small issues and spend more on strategic planning, design-led delivery and leadership to achieve more effective outcomes.

We cycled from Rotterdam to Amsterdam via Delft and Haarlem, visiting the offices of Maccreanor Lavington, Mopet architects and Office Winhov en route and stopping in urban extensions in Rotterdam and Amsterdam – as well as taking in the April bulb fields.

The Netherlands is just now emerging from the 2008 recession and so it was only on the second day in Amsterdam North that we saw the most recent wave of city expansions. In the words of Jan Pieter Wingender of Office Winhov, Amsterdam North is “where everything is happening and the city is expanding”.

Certainly, it is buzzing and as an area in transition was a good reflection point from which to compare the more established urban extensions we saw on the trip.

Amsterdam North (or Noord) is an amalgam of former industrial warehouses, new urban plans and self-build housing with creativity at its heart. It takes in the site of the former Shell compound office tower with an impressive 1970s Danish-style “staff canteen” and new housing masterplans by Ton Schaap and Geurst & Schulze Architecten. It includes the NDSM Werf, a vast former shipyard with a hangar-sized warehouse, and is home to artists who moved in during the 1980s and 1990s when it was derelict. It is creative, unmanicured and happily not cordoned off or surrounded by security guards in fluorescent jackets despite the significant ongoing development. Amsterdam North was also where we cycled along a narrow street of car repair garages into De Ceuvel, a lively artistic community begun five years ago when a group of architects leased land from the municipality and created homes, studios, offices and a cafe from old houseboats which “float” above the contaminated soil.

All this is an accepted part of the Structural Vision for Amsterdam 2040, which aims to expand and densify the city and, although unique in character, the area still has the visibly emerging backbone of a structured layout around which a variety of well-designed apartment buildings and new streets with individual architectural homes are consolidated. The area is anticipating further typologies, including zero-energy, low-carbon floating homes adding to the potential vibrancy of the area.

Seeing North Amsterdam in full flow was a contrast to our first day when we visited Kop van Zuid and the huge expansion of the southern side of the city of Rotterdam. Kop van Zuid is a small peninsula of land in the middle of the river which has a mix of big city commercialism – including OMA’s De Rotterdam – and in turn leads further south to the district of Katendrecht and city extensions of suburban housing.

The masterplan for the area started in 1991 with the impressive Ben van Berkel Erasmus Bridge and tram line over the Nieuwe Maas, connecting the port areas on Kop van Zuid to central Rotterdam. New business districts with large, high-density housing extensions behind, such as Katendrecht, were all part of a plan to improve the image of the city and open it up to the water.

These areas felt less vibrant than Amsterdam North but were developed for housing designed to retain and attract the Dutch middle classes to the down-at-heel city.

Although the development of Rotterdam’s southern extensions started 25 years ago and needed endurance to see the project through several financial slumps the municipality has not faltered or allowed the masterplan vision to crumble capriciously as a result of new political leanings. They have simply adapted it to short-term innovative uses and waited until the time is right.

Here, as in Amsterdam, the masterplanning and development included designing the landscape and masterplan and a framework for delivery and seeing it through to completion. Not simply bureaucratically but with design and creative masterplanning leading the process.

In Amsterdam the huge city expansions of Ijburg, Borneo-Sporenburg, Java Island and East Dock Island over the last 20 years now feel like part of the established city. They are well-connected with good homes, places to work and sites for recreation and social infrastructure. A short meander through these areas seems to substantiate a recent Unicef report that Dutch children are the happiest in the world, as groups of them idle past us chatting and laughing.

The Dutch municipalities are not shy of the journey and obviously see it as their responsibility to create good homes and working conditions for their citizens. They lead and set the masterplanning framework and develop design-led spatial plans for extensions.

In Ijburg on the last day we visited an entirely new reclaimed set of co-joined islands started in 2002. The development provides 18,000 homes (for 40,000 people) as well as businesses, sports facilities, schools, tram and bridge connections (some designed by Grimshaw) and a small harbour. The planning grid on each island and the design codes are different but this has created areas with different characters within grid constraints. This includes a rich variety of developments: developer-led, self-designed and private including co-operative housing sites and social housing.

As with Kop van Zuid in Rotterdam it was, in the words of Jennifer Ross, “public sector-led with clear masterplan codes in place and the private sector bidding against those codes”.

Within the codes, which describe volumes and heights but not aesthetics, there is flexibility, and a lack of prescription on how people should live and plan their individual spaces. The flexibility also includes the municipality allocating sites for community bids based on design proposals. One of the more elevating moments on our cycle was our visit to the IJ housing by Daniel Pieters of Mopet architects and others. It is a 21-home co-housing project which the group won based on their design proposals. Its residents share a community room as well as gardens and water jetties. But this has not stopped neighbouring areas becoming the third-wealthiest post code in the Netherlands as individuals commission their own architect-designed housing.

Perhaps these are lessons learnt from previous masterplans such as Borneo-Sporenburg in Amsterdam which we visited on our final day. As Sarah Featherstone noted, the best bits are the intimacy and individualism of the reinvented Dutch canal house where design codes were tight. This topic raised a good level of discussion about the balance between tight design codes and squeezing out the opportunity for baggy space where residents can fill gaps and make a place their own but where a loose approach might lead to dysfunctional design planning.

As more people move to cities the Dutch have not given over the guiding hand of policy to the haphazard whim of developers. They recognise the need for social infrastructure and design-led development and the integration of a variety of social infrastructure and spaces at the outset. The municipalities have faith in their own ability to take responsibility and the authority to deliver it, including retaining design oversight through a building committee.

It was clear to us that the richness and success in delivery and overall quality comes from municipality ownership.

If one looks at UK politics and where on-going polar extremes of populism and political correctness have left us, it is clear that there is a lack of strategic delivery and planning, while we are burdened with expensive overregulation and endless small rules on how we should live in our homes.

It is easy to admire the Dutch who invest in infrastructure, masterplanning and housing, including social infrastructure, while allowing personal choice and freedom for individuals and communities to decide on the smaller elements of what their houses look like and what they do inside them. In this environment creativity is valued at the heart of the latest developments and not pushed to the margin as an expensive addition.

In the decoupling of the UK from the EU I hope we will find the stamina to cast off (often national) self-imposed regulation of the minutiae and focus on city-guided strategic planning, delivery and infrastructure investment with social and sustainable objectives at their heart.

Clearly this makes sense: spend the money where it matters. It would reduce the cost of delivery, giving developers and builders more certainty, reducing their loan cost risk and at the same time reducing the significant cost of petty regulation. As the moment the system can too easily lead to dysfunctional, un-coordinated outcomes to all our cost.

And this is a reason that we nine women set out to engage with our colleagues in the Netherlands and the EU. To let them know how much we value them and to learn about and evaluate the successes of their urban planning.

Borneo Sporenburg

Borneo Sporenburg


Lunch with Daniel Peters and his wife, Saskia at Ijburg

Lunch with Daniel Peters and his wife, Saskia at Ijburg


Communal decking at Ijburg

Communal decking at Ijburg

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