We hear a lot about the great cycling conditions in Amsterdam, for obvious reasons. When I spent a few months there in 2019, I found myself looking at the urban form around that bike lanes and found that the streets and buildings play their part in creating the city’s famous bike-friendly conditions.
In most of inner Amsterdam, people live in 4-6 storey brick apartment buildings. Different neighbourhoods and suburbs have unique versions of this medium density typology because the city has grown through several waves of development in the last two centuries.
The ‘case study’ in this post is in the Oud-West neighbourhood, about 10 minute’s ride from the city centre. What I liked about this neighbourhood was how intimate and human it felt, while still being very connected to the rest of Amsterdam.
The Kalff Plan
The Oud-West came out of the The Kalff Plan, an expansion plan put forward in 1877 by Jan Kalff, the then-director of Public Works. The Plan proposed a new residential belt around the perimeter of the existing city. It is characterised by layouts that followed existing landscape, infrastructure and urban patterns. The Kalff Plan is one of a series of planned expansions to Amsterdam as the city grew over the 19th and 20th centuries. The buildings in Oud-West date from the late 19th /early 20th century and their art-nouveau detailing adds to the neighbourhood’s style and texture. These days, the Oud-West is well on the way towards being gentrified, because it’s a lovely part of the city to live in – close to Vondelpark, close to the centre, but off the most beaten of the tourist tracks.
Let’s dive into one intersection: where the streets Tweede Helmerstraat and Alberdingk Thijmstraat (don’t ask me to say those out loud) meet. The intersection sits within a cluster of short blocks (each about 100mx50m) that are bounded by arterial routes, secondary connectors, and canals. It’s highlighted with a yellow circle in the diagram below.
The arterial routes have total mode seperation, with a cross section best described as: pedestrian/bike/traffic/tram/tram/car/bike/pedestrian. The internal residential streets are shared, and are mostly one-way for cars.
Shops, cafes and other businesses line the ground floor of the arterial route to the west and the one to the south, and business store-fronts are dotted throughout the neighbourhood, usually at the corners. These were useful as landmarks and added to the diversity of activities within the area.
Where Tweede Helmerstraat and Alberdingk Thijmstraat meet, the entire intersection is a big raised table flush with the footpath around it. The arms of the raised table extend about two metres into each street. Within the footpath, each corner is populated with trees and street furniture, including clusters of bike racks, and planter boxes.
Both streets have the same asymmetrical cross-section formed by the car parking layout:
- On the south or east side, angled car parks with occasional buildouts for bike racks.
- On the north or west side, parallel carparks with a build-out and tall tree for every three car parks.
The streets’ asymmetrical cross-sections are important, because on the southern part of Alberdingk Thijmstraat, the width given to angled car parking has been allocated instead to a small playground running the length of the block. The playground is actually slightly wider than the strip of angled parks, so the street has been offset to allow for it, and there’s no parallel parking opposite it.
This playground is a very compact, clever use of space. The designers have used all the space available and created:
- A rubber-surfaced terrain with climbing equipment embedded into it, so the whole surface is about play
- a low wall all along one side provides a place for parents to sit
- A tiny hard court with steel soccer goals
- A bulk bike parking area which also allows clear access to the supermarket
- And a footpath running the length of it, between the playground and the buildings.
The playground is the only dedicated public recreation space within this cluster of blocks (the nearest park, Vondelpark, is a 7-minute walk away), but I saw plenty of informal amenity and evidence that people are making public outdoor spaces their own. In Amsterdam you often see narrow garden beds built into the footpaths in front of buildings, which residents plant and maintain themselves. This means that there’s a huge variety of green as you walk down the street, from weedy messes, to beautiful herbaceaous borders, to 2-storey-high climbers ascending to a balcony above.
These little pockets of green become shared ‘front yard’ space. Even at the beginning of winter there are signs that people happily claim space on the street: pot plants, collections of old chairs and entire picnic tables are found arranged on the footpath.
You do feel surrounded by people all the time: the sound of neighbours heading up and down creaky and narrow Amsterdam stairs, buzzers ringing, people crossing the floor above you, the washing machine in the apartment next door, glimpses of people in the windows of houses across the street. People are conscious of their effect on their neighbours, and there’s an unspoken agreement to be mindful of each other’s presence in their lives.
I enjoyed the sense of being tucked away in a calm, connected, neighbourly world – experiencing the quiet slowness of the streets, the ease of moving around by bike and on foot, all the clues to the presence and human-ness of all the other residents, and the playground as a small focus of activity in amongst it all. Although you can see from the photos that it’s not a car-free neighbourhood, the tight road cross-sections, the one-way system, and the human scale of all of its parts made it feel like a low-traffic neighbourhood.
I think that this corner of the Oud-West is a compelling example of how the classic ‘best practice’ urban residential design elements work when you get them right and put them all together. The majestic trees and art-nouveau flourishes do their bit. But it also seems that if you stripped it back, all we find is good geometry with room for the community to get on with inhabiting the space in the way they want to.
A post-covid epilogue
This post comes from time spent in Amsterdam at the end of 2019, just before COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the Netherlands and the rest of the world. I wanted to know what had changed in the last 14 months so I contacted a friend who’s still there. The first thing she said was that everyone’s enjoying how nice it is without the city’s usual tourist hoardes. The second thing she talked about was ‘the terraces’, a name used for a new kind of pop-up space on the street. The Council has allowed cafes, bars and restaurants to extend their outdoor eating spaces onto the street, to allow for social distancing. Although this often involves spreading into two or three car parking spaces, there’s been little pushback. Amsterdam’s residents are – anecdotally, at least – in favour of the terraces. People like having fewer cars on the street, and enjoy the atmosphere the terraces have created.
The Council briefly experimented with widening the footpaths on certain main roads by pushing cyclists out of their cycle lanes and into the street to slum it with the cars. This, however, did not go down well and was soon abandoned. Bikes are still top of the food chain in Amsterdam.