American Sprawl and Dutch Neighborhoods
Experience of Dutch neighborhoods and American suburbia from a Norwegian point of view.
After my first experience with the neat manicured but desolate American suburbs, I moved to one of the densest most urban places on the planet, the Netherlands.
A lot can be said about the beautiful historical downtown areas of Dutch cities. That is what the tourists see and what is shown online. However, I want to convey a different side. Whether you are tourist in America or the Netherlands, you will not spend any time in the suburbs. Here I want to take you to the suburbs to give some sense of the life in the suburbs.
Mind you, this is not an attempt at giving a balanced portrayal. This is partly a criticism of how American suburbs have been planned. American suburbs offer a lot of benefits that I think people are quite familiar with such a large houses and yards, surprisingly often with swimming pools. There is certainly an affluence seen few other places in the world. Yet the American suburb suffers from being built with a very individualistic mindset and without much consideration to public spaces or life without a car.
For those who have grown up in such a world, it may be hard to imagine something different. Thus I thought looking at how Dutch neighborhoods are built and organized would be interesting.
Dense Neighborhoods, But with Plenty of Green Areas
In the Netherlands, there are 423 people per square kilometer. In the US in contrast there are only 34 people per km. Thus there is no space in the Netherlands for the large urban sprawl found in America. But does that mean the Netherlands is some dystopian urban jungle? Far from it. The picture below shows a typical Dutch suburb. The front yards are tiny by American standards but the Dutch make the most of them by having a lot of flowers, hedges, bushes, etc.
As you can see from the satellite photo of the same area below, the backyards are taller. These typically have tall fences, so people utilize the full space. The Dutch are quite creative with these. Sadly I have no pictures to show from inside Dutch backyards but you can find anything from fishponds to little hedge labyrinths.
What I want to call attention to, however, are the green public spaces. You can see several playgrounds and there are long green paths you can walk or bike next to the canal.
Below you can see what the area along the canal looks like. Everywhere I have lived in the Netherlands there has been a lot of areas easily accessible like this where you can take a pleasant Sunday walk or bike trip.
I want to contrast this a bit with a more typical American suburb. This is from Grand Forks, where I lived for about a year. It is very different with very wide roads. Every house has a large front yard.
If we look at the same suburb from an aerial photo, you can see a significant contrast from an Dutch suburb. I deliberately picked a large area here to show how large an area can be in the US with just the same kind of housing repeated over and over again. Despite all this space, there is in fact no public space, such as playgrounds or little parks. Yes, there is plenty of green here, but it is all private.
Let me clarify. There are of course parks in American cities. And they are often large. My point is that they are often distant. It is very common for neighborhoods to not have a public green area or playground nearby.
Despite all this space, these American neighborhoods are in fact not that great for e.g. biking. We can contrast with the main roads going through an Dutch neighborhood. Despite much less space, the Dutch have made room for clearly marked red bike lanes on either side of the street.
In fact, I could go on for ages showing pictures of how well thought out the bike lane system is in the Netherlands. Here is from a denser area with more traffic. A shopping street. Here they shield bikers from car traffic by doing car parking in such a way as to shield the bike lane from car traffic.
It is hard to convey just through pictures how this is experienced or works. In the Netherlands the biking infrastructure is not just extensive, but also made to make you as a biker feel really safe biking. This cannot be stressed enough. In the Netherlands there is a high number of young children and elderly who are biking around in the neighborhoods and in the city itself.
Many other countries may brag about biking, but most of the time you really only see young sporty guys utilizing the bike infrastructure. The system has not really been made for a broad section of the population. It has really been made for the sporty and healthy ones. In the Netherlands it is for everyone.
It is hard to really convey this in writing unless you actually go visit and see it for yourself.
Health and Autonomy
This elaborate biking infrastructure has many profound consequences. One is to give young people great autonomy. Dutch teenagers can, from an early age, go around town with their friends. They can bike to the movie theatre, meet up at parks, bike to a soccer field to play, or just go somewhere to eat.
The second important effect is health. Dutch people are not sports idiots like Norwegians and Americans. If you walk around Oslo you might be forgiven for thinking the national outfit is sporting gear. The Dutch bike casually on city bikes. Norwegian tend to use racer bikes or go off-road with mountain bikes.
Americans also have a fair share of people crazy about sports or the gym. Yet the average Dutch person is in much better health and slimmer. It is very rare to see fat people in the Netherlands. Especially you can notice older people in the Netherlands staying in shape longer. The reason is pretty obvious. They bike a lot.
Frankly, I think I was in my best shape ever while living in the Netherlands. Sure, I went to the gym and went jogging regularly. But perhaps more importantly I was biking for at least 1 hour every single day. It would be biking to my classes. Biking to the store to do shopping. Bike to a friend’s house, to the movies, a restaurant or just about anything. Because it is so easy to bike in the Netherlands and the cities are dense, it is simply a lot of fun to bike there. You go around so effortlessly and you never have to bike for too long to get where you want to be.
I didn’t bike 1 hours straight ever. That was simply an accumulation of multiple shorter bike trips.
While the Netherlands is highly urban, flat and with little wild nature, it still have a very accessible countryside. When I lived in Utrecht, Netherlands I could easily go on walks along the canals in the countryside like the area shown below called the Kromme Rijn.
There are certainly nice green areas in many American towns outside of towns but they often have no clear destination. When you walk or bike in the Dutch countryside there is always a tea house, pancake house or something similar you can stop buy to enjoy a drink, hot chocolate, pancakes or whatever with your hiking friend. For instance, I would often walk out in the countryside to this place called Theehuis Rhijnauwen.
There were swans on the water, and you could borrow these little paddle boats or canoes. Or you could sit outside in the sun with an iced tea. Families would bike with their children there in the weekends. It had a very nice playground with some really steep slides.
When I talk to Americans about this kind of stuff I often get replies similar to the one I quoted in an earlier story:
Oklahoma City has many excellent museums, amusement parks, an excellent riverfront and hiking area, but we are also only just an hours drive from several lakes where we enjoy boating, hiking, or just to set and look at the (small) mountains. Or if we wanted larger mountains, a few more hours and we could visit the Colorado Rocky Mountains, and hike through ancient Anasazi ruins.
And this is profoundly missing the point I am trying to make in stories like this. “Only an hours drive away” does not make something accessible. I am talking about stuff here which does not require access to a car at all. I never had a car in the Netherlands. I was just a student and I could do anything with a bike.
The problem I had when trying to access the American countryside was that I met a landscape that looked pretty much like this most of the time:
That is not particularly attractive. There is nowhere to really go to. It is just a desolate landscape stretching out forever. There is no nice walkable path to follow. No pancake house at the end. Nor is there an old windmill. The Netherlands is a country where people have lived for thousands of years and with a rich history, so there is something historical left behind all over the landscape. When you bike around in the outskirts of the city, you will always find random things of interest such as this windmill.
There are of course incredibly beautiful areas in the US, but the problem is that a lot of the outskirts of the cities are not easily accessible. One thing is that cities are so spread out that it takes a long time to get there. The next problem is that these areas tend to not really be all that walkable. You have to put on your hiking boots and bring food. It is more like a big day out.
I spent a lot of time in Utah and hiked in areas looking like what you see below. But that wasn’t something you did on a whim. We planned it. Got up early. Had backpacks with food, and went driving for quite some time to get there.
It is very different from the Dutch countryside experience, where you need no planning. Just walk on a whim. When you get hungry there is a pancake house or something similar around the bend.
You Are Cherry Picking!
When trying to tell a story like this, there is no way to present the full nuance. It does not make sense to pick images or places at random. When I picked pictures for this story, they were partially random but I also deliberately looked for things which could convey the experience I had living in these different places.
For example, I picked a desolate area outside of Grand Forks, while I could have picked a nicer green area around the river. Likewise, there are plenty of places in the Netherlands that are far from picturesque but which I did not pick.
However, the picks were made to convey what is a generalization of an experience. I remember on several occasions trying to just walk until I got to the outskirts of Grand Fork. Every time, I was met with desolate landscape like the one I showed you. Am I generalizing all of America based on one city?
No, I don’t think so. I traveled extensively across the US, I even sat on a train looking out over the landscapes for days. And I could clearly see a clear distinction between European and American landscapes. America has a lot of beautiful wild nature, but also a tremendous amount of dead boring flat and featureless farming areas. Common to both, however, is that there is almost no trace of civilization. Americans live in large sprawling urban areas, but as soon as you exit this area, the transition to complete wilderness of vast farming areas is quite abrupt.
Europe is very different in this regard, especially in a small country like the Netherlands. When you go into the countryside, you will find the legacy of a country that has been there a long time. You will pass old manors, windmills, taverns, canals, and even old fortresses. You seldom have to travel far before you reach some smaller town or village.
In the US, various towns tend to melt in with a larger urban area. There is not much countryside between a towns. You drive down a road and suddenly you cross a magical line and you are in another town. This difference is not by accident.
Dutch city planners are not, for example, allowed to place new developments in such a way that they make towns and cities melt together. That is important in such a densely populated area as the Netherlands. If you are not careful, you will get stuck in an enormous metropolis which seems to stretch on forever. By having some countryside between every town, you create that feeling that nature or the countryside is always close by and accessible. Yet you never fully leave civilization. You don’t need to pack your survival gear.