We talked a lot about denser cities when the City of Ottawa’s new Official Plan was discussed: more homes on an acre to accommodate a growing population, but also to gain better returns on public transit and make the 15 minute neighbourhoods feasible. But how does that actually look like if it is not Hongkong, Manhattan or one of those megacities in China? Or Madrid, Paris or Rome?
Tons of space
As Canadians, we like to think, “we have tons of space because we live in a big country“, but size doesn’t really matter. Once in a while I get comments on Twitter, when I throw in another cool Dutch infrastructure thing: “Haha, in Canada we commute 100 km, in Holland you will have crossed the country!” Well actually, it is not distance, it is time. It is an economic reality: you can’t really commute 8 hours a day.
Few high rises in Dutch villages
I am currently in the Netherlands. What strikes me is that the Netherlands, despite being the size of Nova Scotia with 17 million inhabitants, there is very little high-rise. You’d expect the whole country to look like Hong Kong with those numbers. But what you do see is a lot of 3-4 storey buildings and townhouses in different price ranges in Dutch villages (it is all expensive though). Some have no front yard at all anymore, but a strip of park space in front of their door, often including a bicycle path. Cars are often parked in central locations or on ‘free’ parking spots along the road, so you often have to walk 50 meters or so. The Dutch love their backyards though.
Foot bridges and Dutch villages
The streets are a lot narrower (yes I know we need snow storage in Canada, no need to send tweets), with pavers rather than asphalt, apparently because asphalt invites higher speeds, as we all know in our North American neighbourhoods. I don’t see many cul-du-sacs. In fact I do, but it is only a cul-du-sac for cars. Instead, quite often there are pedestrian and cycling bridges or pathways at the end of a cul-du-sac to allow for shortcuts: this is to encourage active transportation. The newer suburbs are perfect examples where active transportation is baked into the housing developments.
Adjust for the lowest denominator
You definitely can’t speed much in those streets, it feels very wrong to go faster than 30 kph. That’s right: ‘feels‘, because that is the whole principle behind street design in the Netherlands. The Dutch planners want streets where all traffic travels roughly the same speed, and because a cyclist can’t go 50 kph, they’ll design residential streets for speeds of 30 kph.
You may have seen images of those side roads where drivers cross a raised sidewalk and a bike lane before they enter a side street. It works like a speed bump, or what we call in Dutch a ‘drempel‘ (a threshold). It alerts the driver that they are entering a different space, likely a 30 kph zone.
Driver is guest, and sometimes the cyclist too
What you will see in the following images is that even though the houses are on very small properties, there is common greenspace and the streets belong to everyone, not just to drivers. That is why we have those ‘driver is guest’ signs. I even saw a ‘cyclist is guest’ in our village square yesterday.
4 lane roads are very rare in Lansingerland
I took the following images in Lansingerland (pop. 64,000), an amalgamation of three small rural villages that are overflow communities for the big cities of Rotterdam and The Hague. Rather than unlimited sprawl, with four and six lane arterials (I was in Scarborough, ON last week), the Dutch have chosen to develop villages into bigger places around an existing core with their own retail at walking and cycling distance. The downside of that philosophy can be that there is more car commuting to bigger work places happening if the village is not on a train track. Despite that, you will very rarely see four lane roads, even between the former separate villages.
Make short distances safe
I should note that what you see in the images is not infill, but large new developments around existing villages. Cycling infrastructure is tightly integrated with schools and shopping areas, medical centers and churches and sports facilities to make it a logical choice to take the bike. Because that is where the real win is: make the 2-5 km distance to common destinations safe for cycling. Denser communities combined with good cycling infrastructure is a recipe for densification success.
Bigger is not always better
I am guessing that most houses are less than 1400 – 1800 ft square, and the front yard hardly exists anymore. What often surprises me is the creativity in building design, rather than the cookie cutter stuff in Canada. I think it is more playful to avoid the monotony of the suburbs. No faux Roman columns and French chateau turrets here!
So much water in those Dutch villages
The reason why you see so much water is that all this land is 3-4 meters below sea level. You’d never know, but that is why those bodies of water are there. They drain the land and an intricate, comprehensive pumping system makes sure that water is always at the same level. Water is pumped into higher ring canals. That water in turn is pumped into rivers.
Enfin, take a look at some images of newly built homes (as in the last 10-15 years or so) in Lansingerland. It is not all windmills and cute 17th century canal houses in the Netherlands. (Photos from March 21, 2022)
There is no reason why we can’t build bike paths like this one in new developments in Canada