Geller: Lessons from the Netherlands

Multi-family floating home community is intriguing, despite its many design challenges

There are many lessons that Vancouver could learn from the Nether-lands, a country with a long-standing tradition of doing more with less, and a keen interest in building design and sustainability.

This became apparent to me last month, when I joined a small group of international architects and journalists invited by the Dutch government to experience some of the latest Dutch innovations in urban planning, housing and sustainability.

Michael Geller's photos from a recent visit to The Netherlands

Canadians, of course, played a major role in the liberation of the Nether-lands during the Second World War, and since then, Canada and the Netherlands have enjoyed one of the closest international relationships in the world.

When Canadians think of the Netherlands, we usually think of tulips, windmills and bicycles. What is generally not known or appreciated is that the Netherlands ranks as the second largest source of foreign direct investment in Canada after the U.S. Not only is there a lot of business conducted between the two countries, there is constant and ongoing information exchange.

In my one-week visit, I took in old and new Amsterdam, including Zuid-As, the city's impressive new financial and residential downtown, which looks nothing like the Amsterdam with which many of us are familiar. We also visited new towns and master-planned communities being developed on publicly owned land. (When I foolishly asked a local official how the government came to own so much land, he responded: "It's simple, we make it!")

One of these new communities is IJburg, a neighbourhood under construction on artificial islands created from the bottom of IJmeer Lake. Over 12,000 new dwellings are proposed in a variety of building forms. For me, the most fascinating were two floating home communities. One is similar to Vancouver's Granville Island and Ladner's Canoe Pass Village, where each home is individually designed and floated on to its "lot."

The other was a comprehensively planned "multi-family" floating community unlike anything I have ever seen before. It is marvellous, despite the many design challenges, including satisfying the fire marshal who worried about potential fire dangers, despite the surrounding waters.

Floating home communities in Amsterdam are not for everyone; however, they are seen as an effective way of dealing with rising sea levels and as a solution to the problem of housing shortages in a dense metropolitan area. I could not help but wonder why no one has tried to create similar developments in and around Vancouver.

I had similar thoughts while visiting Almere, a town started in the 1970s outside of Amsterdam. Over the years, its population has grown and one day it is expected to surpass Amsterdam. The town plan includes a number of neighbourhoods, each with its own small commercial centre.

There is also a fascinating city centre designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. While imaginative, it unfortunately suffers from a problem that often arises when trying to give a place a sense of incremental growth, even though it was designed and built all at once. The result is best described as "Disneyland-ish."

Almere includes a variety of large housing developments built by both government and private developers. There is not the same tradition of individuals designing and building their own homes in the Netherlands as there is in B.C., but the Almere planners decided to allow individuals to build their own homes in the latest phases of the community. Within the frame-work of a geometric master plan, not unlike the original plans of European walled cities, people can buy lots – sometimes as small as 800 square feet – and build their homes, often with designs from building catalogues.

To maximize the usefulness of these small lots, homes are generally built without any side yards, meaning each new house touches the ones next door. The planners allow everyone to build whatever they wanted, subject only to fire and safety requirements. The result is astonishing. In many respects, the approach is not dissimilar to that used to build Amsterdam and other Dutch cities in the 17th century.

In Rotterdam, a port city with much in common with Vancouver, I attended the media opening of the International Architecture Biennale. This year's exhibition, titled Making City, included submissions that look at new ways to make better cities with alter-native solutions to those of the past.

Rotterdam is eager to bring more residents into its inner city and recently published a document setting out green and densification strategies for a more sustainable future.

It is also undertaking a fascinating experiment that involves creating the equivalent of a "yellow brick road" through a neglected portion of the downtown, encouraging people to walk the back lanes and bring life back to abandoned buildings. I could not help but think a similar project might help repair portions of Vancouver's Down-town Eastside.

The Netherlands offer many lessons for Canada, and at the same time, we have much to teach the Dutch. To promote an ongoing information exchange, a formal Canada-Netherlands network is being contemplated. Both countries will be the beneficiaries.

– post by Michael Geller

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  • Glissando Remmy

    Thought of The Night

    “A Yay, a Ney and a Maybe!”

    Nothing could better describe the smells from inside Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, than these two words: Camels & Chanel.
    The moment you enter the Free Zone, right after you disemboweled your KLM flight from Vancouver, it’s a nostrils extravaganza; diffused cigarette smoke and perfume.
    The smell of Europe’s hallway! Wait till you get into the living room though!
    But I digress…

    The Yay

    Creativity. Yes, the Dutch, got it right. They figured, “if we start inventing new guidelines, by-laws, restricting views, imposing view corridors, we’re going to get nowhere!” So they let the Dutch to freelance their thoughts around the marshmallow roasting fire. Free form.
    You just read about their results in Michael post.

    The Nay

    I don’t think it is necessary for us to go there and meddle in their affairs. Teach the Dutch? I don’t think so! I think, and I may not be the only one, that they are doing just fine, without our pushed Gregorian style advice-approach. Unless we hate them to death, we should just let them be. If I’m honest!

    The Maybe

    Things I would to take back to Vancouver:
    One pair of wooden shoes;
    A purple tulip bulb;
    One Dutch Stewardess.


    Things missing from this post, IMHO:
    How affordable is their housing, and why?
    What do they do about the Real Estate speculation?
    Who owns most of the land… wouldn’t that be the government? And, it better be, as long as they are making the land out of… water…
    What do they do about their immigration? Cosmopolitan White, eh?
    What’s the most popular color Black… for a Dutch Bike?
    Till then…

    We live in Vancouver and this keeps us busy.

    Loved the pictures, Michael.
    Great post. Wish I was there!
    BTW, how did you find the Red Light District”s Architecture? Some say that to the untrained eye, it looks kinda busty, posh, naked…
    Just curious. 🙂

    • Mira

      Classic, Glissando!
      yes, Michael. I’m too curios to find out more about the Red Light District”s Architecture! 🙂

    • Richard Unger

      Dear Glissando,

      The strangest thing happened. Because of your visual, astute comments, I went back and reread Michael’s post. And guess what, I liked it more! It felt more enjoyable than the first time I read it! That’s peculiar.
      I visited the Netherlands several times during my youth. What I liked about the place, was the fact that they didn’t try to change things at the same rates we do here in Canada. When it comes to architecture, is like a race between two tortoises. But I’ll let Mr. Geller to talk more about it.

      “One pair of wooden shoes;
      A purple tulip bulb;
      One Dutch Stewardess.”

      Sop… they are taken!
      🙂 You managed to go after the simplest and the best things they’ve got!

      Richard Unger MD (Ret)

  • Glissy, chuckle. We’re not making land rights but we are making and selling air rights. And the City doesn’t own them at the end of the day.

    ‘Thought provoking. Not sure where we can create land. Spanish Banks? North Van flats? Continue filling False Creek? Not a chance. The good Lord did quite a bit of that for us — Richmond, Delta, Surrey come to mind.

  • David Gibson

    Buy land, they’re not making it anymore.

    – Mark Twain