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The Dutch approach to

mixed uses, open space,
infrastructure, and reuse as
creative tools may hold some
lessons for practitioners in
North America.


Water is what defines the Dutch landscape. Until 2004, the Maasvlakte Alterra, a research institute for the green
in Rotterdam was the world’s largest seaport, the largest oil shipment center, and the site of living environment located in Wageningen
in the southeastern part of the Netherlands,
the world’s largest steel company, Unilever, and petrochemical baron Shell. Chinese cities has environmentally friendly green buildings
now hold the distinction of being the world’s largest seaport and the world’s largest oil ship- with lush gardens and a biofilter pond/
ment center, but it was the efficient use of water and adjacent land that enabled Rotterdam detention basin that captures rainwater.
to remain such an important business hub for decades.
“Given the precious amount of land available, we can never stop pumping our pold-
ers [low-lying tracts of land],” maintains Aaron Betsky, director of the Netherlands Archi-
tecture Institute (NAi) in Rotterdam and former curator of the San Francisco Museum of

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its environmentally friendly green buildings, which
encapsulate lush gardens and climate-moderating
pools, its constructed wetlands in the outside court-
yards hold and clean stormwater, which is then pumped
into the buildings, undergoes a series of spills and rhi-
zofiltration, and is reused as internal irrigation.
Surrounding Alterra, vegetated bioswales leading to
polders separate the parking areas and pathways from the
buildings. A large detention basin/biofiltration pond cap-
tures all rainwater from the roof catchment system and
overland runoff before returning it to the adjacent farmland
polders. “All buildings [and constructs] interfere with the
environment, so each building should be worth the inter-

The Maasvlakte in Rotterdam, Modern Art. “It’s a full-time job to prevent the Dutch In Amsterdam, two bright red
the Netherlands, was until pedestrian bridges connect the
landscape from sliding back to where it came from.” Borneo Sporenburg housing
recently the world’s largest
seaport and the largest To reclaim their land from the water, the Dutch open developments, which are located
oil shipment center. Those up and dig the land, yet they choose how to develop on reclaimed earthen peninsulas
distinctions have been taken in the rejuvenated eastern docks
this land selectively. The “spatial arrangement of the district; residences open directly
over by Chinese cities, but
it was the efficient use of land is determined by the Ministry of Agriculture, to the canals.
water and adjacent land Nature, and Food Quality, which dictates how the land
that enabled Rotterdam is to be used,” explains Betsky. “Almost 80 percent of
for decades to remain a
major business hub. the agriculture in the Netherlands is subsidized. Farmers
are often paid to not grow profitable crops. The ministry
has decided to preserve open space—to preserve the
Dutch identity and the landscape. The subsidies provide
for the ‘right’ agriculture and landscape,” he notes.
“A fundamental trait of humans is how we satisfy
our desires by changing the natural world around us,”
Michael Pollan wrote in his 2001 book The Botany of
Desire. The Dutch landscape was formed through
human interference with natural processes, yet this
approach has been proven capable of maintaining
the sensitive equilibrium between the environment
and human activity. Through creation starting in 1918

of the Zuiderzee Works, the system of dams and land

reclamation and water drainage systems that hold
back the Atlantic Ocean, the Dutch established goals
for how much land is allocated to agriculture, flood
protection, water control, transportation, and freshwater ference,” says Stefan Behnisch, Alterra’s architect and
reservoirs. Essentially a large-scale planning effort, the principal of Behnisch, Behnisch & Partners in Stuttgart,
program still affects land use today. Germany. For all the generated “interference,” Alterra
Alterra, a research institute for the green living envi- seems appropriately integrated into its environment.
ronment located in Wageningen in the southeastern In Amsterdam, a design by San Francisco–based
part of the Netherlands, exemplifies a number of Dutch landscape architecture firm Hargreaves Associates and
notions about development and land use. In addition to Dutch urban design and landscape architecture firm

66 U R B A N LA N D JUNE 2007


The newly completed Cultural Park Westergasfabriek in the

heart of Amsterdam includes a portion that was reclaimed
from an outdated coal gasification facility.
G U S TA F S O N - P O R T E R I N C .

West 8 illustrates that the built landscape can accom-

modate equally well both human use and ecological
health. West 8, led by Adriaan Geuze, designed an
urban open space for the thousands of residents living
in and near the Borneo Sporenburg housing develop- Also in Amsterdam, the newly completed Culture
ment, which is perched on reclaimed earthen peninsu- Park Westergasfabriek, designed by landscape architect
las in the rejuvenated eastern docks district, Oostelijk Kathryn Gustafson, is a massive 35-acre (14-ha) park, 12
Havengebied. The area is considered remarkably akin acres (4.9 ha) of which have been reclaimed from an out-
to the East Boston piers and new urban development dated coal gasification facility. The park shows how left-
adjacent to downtown Boston’s waterfront. over, unused brownfield sites can be given a new sense
In Borneo Sporenburg, the 450-foot- (135-m-) wide of value for communities. Because it would have been
public green cuts diagonally through the blocks of hous- too expensive to remove contamination completely, a
ing units, providing maximum sun exposure and wind new layer of protective soils was added. The park is now
protection. Many activities take place here: soccer, a draw for both community and cultural activities.
biking, playing, and socializing. Predominantly lawn with As was done in such similar experiments as Parc de
a few lines of trees, the open space has a scale and la Villette in Paris and Duisburg Nord Landscape Park
density that fit in well with the low-rise, high-density and Emscher Park in Germany, the old, unique build-
units. Two bright red pedestrian bridges connect the ings and structures in the Culture Park were retained
area’s housing developments; residences open directly and are now used for cultural and artistic purposes.
to the canals. Dutch minimalism is prominent here: the Activity areas and other spaces are defined by two main
blocks of rectangular two- and three-story units, clad in axes: one is linear and located near the canal-bordered
brownish-red brick with square windows, are punctu- street; the other, the “Path of Dreams,” meanders
ated by the 279-foot (93-m) arching bridges, visible from through spaces identified by such labels as the flower
almost any location on the waterfront. The pedestrian- field, the forest, the beach, and the orchard. The large
scale landscape elements correspond with the urban grassy berm at the northern edge of the park, almost 60
setting and flat terrain. Automobile use is kept to one feet (18 m) tall, serves not only as a lookout point and
side of the public green to maintain the relationship an amphitheater for the turf areas below, but also as a
among the bridges, water, and green space. barrier between the park and the busy railway behind it.

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At a reclaimed military facility in northeastern Ams- ecological awareness could serve as a framework for
terdam, West 8 designed a public landscape that bal- how to address the complications generated by sprawl.
ances environmental needs with personal space for 12 Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and the Hague provide exam-
small, four-story units in a project known as GWL Ter- ples of a fabric of varied land uses, closely arranged
rain. Modernist in style, the units are staggered through- and compressed, that eliminates the excessive expense
out the site, separated by 80 feet (24 m) of open space. of extended infrastructure and exurban sprawl.
Each ground unit has a 200-square-foot (19-sq-m) garden The Netherlands has dozens of medium-sized urban
enclosed by a four-foot- (1.2-m-) high black vinyl chain- centers that it views as potentially malleable, nonstatic
link fence. Additional fencing in the open space sepa- entities that can be redeveloped and redesigned, and
rates vegetable plots, picnic areas, community gardens, applies the practice of adaptive use to them within a
play areas, and other amenities from the wide pedestrian larger environmental context. The 30-year-old center of
greenway that connects these spaces to each other and Utrecht, for example, is being demolished, but its infra-
the larger urban landscape. structure is being reused to meet the ever-changing
All fencing supports evergreen plantings, creating a trends of human urban life.
green barrier, as well as a sense of ownership and pri- The Netherlands constitutes a sustainable and
vacy for residents, while also providing an overall public regenerative landscape. The Dutch use nature in an envi-
amenity and a seemingly larger green space. The north- ronmentally responsible manner, practice stringent agri-

Urban landscapes respond to their ecologies—human and natural.

ern edge of the site has a 30-foot- (9.1-m-) wide, four- biodiversity, and use a systems approach to planning—
foot- (1.2-m-) deep open water channel with reeds, choices that help shape habitats and landscapes. An
cattails, and even a pair of ducks. This basin, a func- ecological relationship with the land, as the Dutch have
tional biofilter unconnected to the existing infrastructure, shown, also can lead to a prosperous balance of agricul-
cleanses stormwater runoff before it enters the sewer tural/economic land uses and landscapes integrating
system, and gives children an opportunity to encounter cities with nature to provide open space for people.
nature more readily than they could at the typically inac- So how can Americans better use the landscape?
cessible, gaping, rock-reinforced canals. Perhaps it is a question of what they want from nature.
The architectual landscapes and dense housing Only by defining clearly how they value nature can
designs in the Netherlands are considered impressive, Americans develop new paradigms for an active rela-
largely due to the social, political, and cultural processes tionship with it. Why do they view their resources to be
they set in motion. The esteemed Dutch polder model less precious than the Dutch see theirs to be? Perhaps
engages all stakeholders in decision making with regard Americans must first make their relationship to the land
to open space and land use. Decisions are not finalized ecological—rather than just view the land as an indefi-
until a compromise is reached that everyone can live nite extension of the built environment. UL
with for the sake of the common good.
Land is used to regulate resource consumption; there R I C K L E B R A SS E U R is director of the University of California
are no monumental anomalies such as super-dense New at Berkeley Extension’s Sustainable Environmental Design and
York City, the New Jersey industrial yards, the California Stewardship Program.
aqueduct system, or the U.S. Midwestern Grain Belt. The
Dutch value their resources—the most important being
land. This small nation, one of the world’s most densely
populated countries, effectively manages to use its land
for housing, recreation, work, transportation, and ecology.
The Dutch model of intensive land use, the contin-
ued exploration of building patterns and ideas, and the

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