Monday, January 19, 2009

Nieuwland, Amersfort, the Netherlands: Win? Fail?

Nieuwland is a housing development in the Netherlands of 5000 homes on about 75 hectares of greenfield. After being conceived in the 1980's as a sustainable community, it took many years to plan and is still expanding. "Sustainability" was achieved by a strong building code policy which enforces low-energy construction and necessitates solar panels. I had the chance to take a tour of the town during which I developed some strong reactions.

- Each section of the city is designed by one or more architects; each of whom took a very different approach to applying their mandatory solar panels. The result is a sort of solar panel design test facility. Some of the buildings look awful while others pull off the feat with charm.
- The radial street plan is walking and bicycling friendly.
- Canals and a small lake are great landscape elements.

- Yuppy takover. Nieuwland fails to reach any socio-economic class other than middle-class families who are drawn to the quiet community for its safety and schools. "Everybody has two kids and two cars," said the tour guide. Boredom lays heavily in the air.
- A three meter earthen wall surrounds the entire community for "sound protection" but feels more like an attempt to make a gated community. By walling themselves in, connectivity is lost and further dependence on automobiles is created.
- The city center is literally a parking lot, depriving the inhabitants of a community feel.
- The one shopping center feels like Disney Land and lacks store variety. There are no street cafes or smaller shops interspersed in the community.
- There is too much street parking and personal garages. People drive into town center despite the bicycle lanes.

Nieuwland is relevant because it is a testing ground for sustainable building and a showcase for what can go wrong in city planning when mixed-use and mixed-economic class issues are not accounted for.