Houten: Living the Future Now.
Yay!!!! Houten’s in The Guardian.
But if you fancy a little more depth, here’s the original.
Happy reading and if you think all this can’t be true, come visit. Houten awaits!
Before I’m out of bed in the morning, our 15 year old has slammed the door and jumped on her bike, heading for school and the mates she meets up with along the way. Last week our 8 and 13 year-olds attended four parties between them and whilst downing the obligatory amounts of birthday sugar they bowled, shot/were shot at by lasers, worked on their glow-in-the-dark mini golf and patted the sheep at the local children’s farm which also happens to have a massive outdoor playground. They traveled to, during and from all those parties on their bikes, without a skerric of fluore or a helmet between them. You’ll see troupes of kids riding all over Houten, to gym lessons, parties, camp (yep, 27ks each way one year), after school care or to sports activities and they do it wind, rain or shine. One of my favorite Dutch expressions is ‘jij bent niet van suiker gemaakt’: ‘you’re not made of sugar, you won’t dissolve in the rain so crack on, on your bike!’
As Australians who know what it is to sit in a car, cycling and the mind-set that makes it possible has always been a big draw for us. We shifted to Norwich from London when the second baby was on the way, in search of a more cycle-friendly life but after 6 years we realized we’d just been pretending and that what really really wanted, was to live in Holland. So, after a particularly wet camping trip in the Veluwe in 2010 and 15 years of dreaming via London, Sydney and Norwich we decided it was time to get real. Eight weeks later, the two Aussies and their three English-born kids were living the dream. And no, it wasn’t easy, with but after 7 years we know it’s the best decision we ever made and we’re seriously thankful we made it.
Utrecht is one of the four major cities making up what is known as The Randstad, an area of approximately 3,200 square miles occupied by 7 million people, making it one of one of the busiest and most densely populated economic areas in North West Europe (the other three cities are Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam). In a way Utrecht reminded us of Norwich with its medieval history and scores of uni students, but in Utrecht there was no doubt: the bike was King, unlike in Norwich, where it was a hard-fought for concept that really never had a chance against the British obsession with the car. From our temporary apartment in Utrecht (insanely expensive) we drew a pencil-circle of neighbourhoods within a 30 minute bike-ride from my husband’s job, determined that in no way was the life-sapping 5 hour-round commute he’d had between Norwich and London, ever going to happen again. Houten was the greenest, most relaxed, comparatively well-established town and had excellent transport links to the other major cities.
So…we’re now Houtenaars, citizens of the modern world-renowned cycling city studied by future town-planners around the globe. It has a population of approx. 46,000 and still building (add another 4000 for the municipality as a whole), is a 10 minute train ride from Utrecht (the largest and most central junction-station in the country), with 4 trains an hour and Utrecht is itself 25 minutes from Amsterdam. In peak hour those trains are full to the brim though many people cycle if journeys are reasonably local and take less than 45 minutes, especially now with the development of electric bikes. It’s surrounded by a figure-eight ring road and beyond that, woods and farmland, all reachable via kilometres of separated and shared bike path.
Houten has been on the map since Roman times but modern Houten, green communal cycling Houten was a project begun in the mid 60’s. It was an overspill for the fast growing Utrecht at a time when all of The Netherlands was looking to expand its housing capacity and is the brain-child of urban designers Wim Wissing and Robert Derks. Derks joined Wissing’s company in 1970, fitting in comfortably with his belief that good urban design comes from walking in the shoes of the everyday people who live there.
Derks consciously studied human settlement throughout the ages so as to better understand which traits best survived trends in the organisation of structured spaces. That in turn lead him to develop his theory of Inversion Urban Design, in which the green spaces are created first and the built environment shaped around them. It’s no surprise then to find his designs focusing on green, open, communal slow-living spaces which work at a human level and in the case of both of Houten’s developmental stages, buck the trend to build for the car. People talk to each other here…because they can…and it’s gorgeous.
The North of Houten was built between 1978 and ’98 and The South from 1997 to today and Derks has been pivotal throughout that history. I didn’t officially know of his continued involvement until writing this, but it hasn’t come as a surprise. I’ve been constantly impressed by the obviously continued commitment to the values established in the North during the 70’s. If anything, there are even more green spaces and children running around in the South than in our older area and for an Ausie used to kilometres of brash new McMansions, it’s been an absolute joy to see that kids out on the street grazing their knees is not just a lost ideal now nostalgically cried over on Facebook. It can be and is, a valuable and invested-in philosophy when it comes to building new conventional modern cities.
It’s hard to measure accurately the percentage of trips made on the bike in Houten or how much people walk compared to how often they get in their cars, but we have friends who might only use their car every few weeks. People do own cars here, although rarely more than one and some don’t own them at all, instead preferring to sign up with one of the share-schemes. Children ride as soon as they can walk (little bikes with no pedals and low enough so that they can scoot along), people with disabilities move freely and independently because the environment supports wheeled transport, elderly people ride everywhere and if they start to feel unsafe on two wheels, swap them for three. Immigrant women who’ve never had wheels are taught to ride and suddenly have an independence previously impossible for them and teenagers are typically fit, well, active, outdoors and socialising while they do it (our eldest rides a round trip of 16ks to school and some kids ride much further than that). Roads are made purposely difficult to navigate, with sharp bends and low speed-limits and cars are often guests to bikes. If you want to move from any of the many small boroughs by car you have to do so via the ring-road, including a trip to your neighbour in the next street if theirs is a different borough. On the bike, that trip might take you two minutes. In the car, ten.
In our case the shops are a five minute bike ride away and we can head off to the supermarket at 6pm and sit to table at 7. We have 20 primary schools, four high schools, sports/ health/aged care facilities and are not far away from a number of large hospitals. The amount of recreational clubs and activities on offer to all ages fills our local square once a year at the activities market and our councillors do their representing business next to the train station, under the modern carillon clock, opposite the library and are easily reached, as we’ve seen again and again when people have issues they need attending to. We have a deluxe cinema, theatre, music school, large amounts of shops and now, lots of restaurants.
Every now and again we get a strange sense of guilt about loving this perfectly planned life and sometimes we watch visitors visibly relax away from a first anxious sense that they’ve fallen into The Truman Show as they realise just how upside-down they’d initially read it all. Here, good public space and architecture is for everyone. There’s a large amount of social housing in Houten but you’d be hard pressed to pick it out, or those who live in it, because there’s little written into those buildings to state who has money and who doesn’t. That equally shared architecture and the wonderful functionality of Houten frees people up to be who they are and far from being claustrophobic, that’s entirely liberating.
Our daughters were old enough when we locked the door that Thursday and got on a plane, to know what they were leaving behind and now, what they gain each day they ride their bikes to school in NL. They love their independence, the clean air and the knowledge that if they need help with something, there’s a whole community just outside the door who know them well and have their interests at heart. They missed their friends at first but growing up in the age of modern technology helps, as does having a whole new community here. On trips to family in London and Australia, all three kids are constantly astounded by how much time they have to spend in the car, how dependent they are on us and just how noisy and dirty everything is. They might have hated us the day we dropped them in the little local mixed school with no language, but they survived and now, looking back, they’re pretty proud of themselves. All that experience means that like many Dutch, they take none of this life for granted.
My family were lucky. We had the Dutch passport my father-in-law handed down to his Australian-born children when his own family left post-war Holland in search of a better life. Not everyone has the possibility of making the choices we did.
But, here’s the point of shouting about Houten as loud and often as I can: none of what Houten stands for is radical or alternative. The Dutch choice to move away from the car, to clear the air, to invest in healthy individuals and the society they make when they talk to each other, is not an unreachable ideal for other cities.
Houten is the future many of us trapped in car-focused societies dream of, but it’s happening right here, right now. There are nothing but choices stopping other cities from making the same decisions this small Dutch city has been making for almost 50 years and continues to make every day. To say I’m sad that other cities are not doing the same is a heart-breaking understatement.
Curious about how this all actually works? Have a look at this entry on Bicycle Dutch after Houten won Cycle City in 2018 and the small film at the end. https://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2018/01/16/houten-cycling-city-of-the-netherlands-2018/
Photo by Queenie Scholtes