With two old university friends of mine (all three of us architect planners variously from the private, public and academic sectors) I recently set off on a trip to Almere in The Netherlands. Despite having heard much about it over the years, none of us had visited before, so with a three-day pass in hand from our respective spouses we set off to pay homage. We weren’t disappointed!
A connected place
First a few stats courtesy of my good friend Wikipedia. Almere is the newest city in The Netherlands and now the firth biggest, all built since 1976 on reclaimed polder land. It currently houses around 200,000 people and will expand to 350,000 by 2030. It is connected to the national rail system with six stations of its own, and residents can get to the Centre of Amsterdam in about 15 minutes.
Starting with these connections, The Netherlands is rightly famed for its strategic planning, the benefits of which are clear in Almere. Not only are all parts of the city easily accessible by rail, but the rail preceded development of the housing, ensuring that residents, as they arrived, has the choice to lead sustainable and healthy lifestyles, with movement primarily by foot, bike, bus and rail. Thus each rail station is properly connected to a very reliable and regular bus service with real time bus information at every stop, and priority given throughout to cycles and pedestrians. 500kms of cycle routes and hundreds of cycle bridges and underpasses ensure that cycling is a particularly fast and easy way to get around. What a contrast to the situation at home where the sadly disconnected and unwalkable nature of so many of our new housing developments has been laid bare in a new report from Transport for New Homes.
A place to live
We began our tour at Almere Poort which is the newest part of the city and still under construction. Eventually it will accommodate a combination of higher and lower density areas, social and market housing and both developer and self-build. Immediately we were impressed by the very high quality of construction and by the diversity and innovation in housing design, something, we later discovered, is a feature of the city. Almere in effect amounts to a giant repository of different housing types, with endless variety in the forms and combinations of housing units.
Whilst clearly not everything works in design terms – the Dutch, it seems, also struggle with wheelie bins, back gardens facing onto public realm and with over-engineering –basic height and building line controls and a limitation in size and scale of most developments ensures that an order is kept and nothing is allowed to dominate. In Almere Poort, a well connected grid of streets ensures that the whole thing is very navigable, whist the variety of housing also gives character to the different parts of a city that, by European standards, has been built over a very short timescale. The housing is clearly architect designed and portrays a culture of design that is so different from that here at home.
Another difference is how relaxed and at ease with itself, the area felt, despite being so new. At the centre of Almere Poort, for example, is a shopping area, with a single market building subdivided into units no larger than five metres by three. Each unit sold something different, with the mix being controlled by the retailers themselves in order to ensure a variety of provision and avoid needless duplication. Units could be occupied as a single unit or amalgamated to create larger ones, with no less than 40 micro-businesses supported in a single building. Given how difficult we find it to deliver even a corner shop, this was remarkable and, alongside a school and some separate larger office buildings, created an informal and very real neighbourhood centre to this suburb.
The primary school (in common with others that we saw) was very clearly part of the community, with the children playing out at break time on neighbourhood’s central green space, rather than behind gates and walls as we would have here at home. This seemed a perfectly logical and sensible doubling up of functions that avoided the school needing to have and maintain its own play space. But it requires a very different view about safety and risk to that which pervades in most countries.
Build your own
One of the most interesting parts of Almere Poort was the self-build area that sat right at the heart of the new district. Eventually this will host 3,000 homes in a number of distinct areas each with a particular theme e.g. a live/work area, a canal-side area, an area with larger gardens and one in which collectives of people can build. There is even a ‘build freely’ area where architectural experimentation is encouraged.
Each owner purchases a plot for a standard price and is given a plot passport with plot restrictions set out (e.g. height, building lines, gaps between plots) which then acts as a building permit. Houses vary in size and complexity depending on the preferences and budgets of purchasers with some amounting to not much more than a very simple small box whilst others are larger and more complex. Style varies considerably with many opting for a restrained modern simplicity, although others are more traditional or elaborate; sometimes from a kit and sometimes architect designed. Build rate also varies with, during the current construction phase, much of the area resembling a Swiss (rather than Dutch) cheese with many plots left empty whilst those around are already complete.
All in all, whilst this might seem like a recipe for chaos, in fact the whole scheme gels together very well, helped by the formal plan based on a series of concentric circles and the simple code as defined in the plot passports. For the three of us, it was a bit like being in an architectural sweet shop with, around every corner, something to coo over or condemn, whilst never ceasing to admire the totality. It seems a no-brainer that we should be doing this more at home!
A real centre
We ended the day in Almere City Centre which is a real centre for the new city, featuring a range of business, cultural, retail and leisure facilities in a fine grained mix that seems almost impossible to achieve in the UK. Three things make this centre work. First, it is very well connected to all other parts of the city by train, bus, and cycle path. Second, the area is dense enough to provide the level of use that in turn makes for a vibrant and vital series of streets and public spaces. And third, the area has character provided by a clear and navigable street structure, a varied and largely human scaled architecture, by the mix of activities and uses, and by its setting on the Weerwater lake which sits at the centre of the new town. It is also (as far as we could tell) 100% occupied, with a buzzing retail heart that is suffering none of the ill effects of high streets back home, no doubt because this is a place that people want to visit; a leisure destination as well as a functional one.
The City Centre was laid out in the early days of the new city, but extended from the 1990s onwards following a new masterplan by Rem Koolhaas and his Office for metropolitan Architecture. Here the retail units are larger and more modern and the streets are wider with a less tightly knit urban structure. The new area also features a sprinkling of ‘starchitect’ structures. Whilst not always successful in urban terms and certainly less vibrant than the older parts of town, this part of the city helps to further distinguish the city centre as somewhere special and as a destination (as well as providing something for three aging architect planners to critique!). This was a new but very real city centre, vibrant and active and giving the whole city identity and meaning. Here we have very little that is remotely comparable to offer.
Inspired (and just a bit little depressed)
Having spent a day in the city, drinking coffee and looking over the Weerwaters, towards the end of our visit inevitably our conversation turned to practice back home. On that front whilst we were clearly all inspired by what we saw, we were also just a little bit depressed by the fact in the UK we seem to find this sort of thing so difficult to achieve.
There are off course many differences between the two contexts: socially, in regulatory terms, and in attitudes to the role of the state. But there are also a surprising number of similarities manifest in our similar climates, cultures, and in our shared histories. Fundamentally, what really sets us apart is the reluctance of successive governments to take a leading position in the delivery of housing, and instead to look always to the market to deliver, even though (by itself) the market has so singularly failed to do so for so long.
Arguments over the dominance of our big national housebuilders (who reduce in number with each wave of market consolidation), are well known, as are those relating to the failure to capture the uplift (upon development) in land values and to use that for the public good. Also the reluctance of our Government to deliver meaningful new infrastructure (beyond a few very large pet projects) in order to open up and service new housing areas. This is also accompanied by a failure to set the bar high enough in design terms by providing the environment within which a valued planning service can become proactive and focussed on quality once again, rather than solely on numbers. Deregulating (again and again) and hoping that somehow the private sector will ride in and double its rate of house building is simply unrealistic. We need to be bolder.
Almere demonstrates an alternative vision, and one that starts with the land (in that case Government creates it from the sea) and then invests in it to make it developable. Government (though the municipality) also sets the rules for development, both through commissioning or creating masterplans and then setting the code (often very simple) to which developers, individuals and the state needs to abide. Whilst this simple recipe hides layers of complexity, it is one that works and which consistently delivers far more housing of a far higher quality than is typically the case in the UK.
We concluded that, despite warm words in the recent Housing White Paper and now the NPPF, our Government needs to stop tinkering at the edges of our regulatory processes and start getting serious about housing, not just about its quantity, but also about its quality. This needn’t be a drain on the state, who knows, it may even be a source of profit. It doesn’t necessarily mean the state building housing itself, but it certainly does mean the state proactively enabling a place-led housebuilding process. This, despite all the hand ringing in Government, is something that we repeatedly fail to do.
Professor of Planning & Urban Design
Bartlett School of Planning, UCL