IJburg

IJburg is Amsterdam’s newest neighbourhood.

Though the Netherlands is known for its land reclamation projects, IJburg is built on soil and sand that has been transported and piled up along the Eastern banks of the IJ (pronounced like eye), the major waterway that runs between North and Central Amsterdam and eventually to the North Sea.

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IJburg

As it is the focus of much current development in Amsterdam, IJburg is home to some very experimental (/cutting-edge/progressive) architecture and urban design. A lot of it comes from the schools of urban planning and architecture that are viewed as best practice today: the avoidance of single developers and monotonous housing projects with little architectural variance, and the championing of mixed-use, diverse and walkable settlements — the tenets of contemporary urbanism toward the realization of a “livable city”.

One way these lofty ideals are being achieved is the allowance for people to design their own houses.  As peoples’ preferences are unsurprisingly varied, there is a lot of diversity in housing-form. Classical Amsterdam Canal-houses are set alongside dramatic post-Modern homes. (For example, an entirely yellow facade, articulated by small windows on the upper floors). The result is a highly varied and engaging streetscape and a whole-hearted departure from the traditionally homogenous suburb.

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A starkly yellow facade, alongside less extreme post-modern homes

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Urban Planning, a relatively new, and constantly self-justifying discipline has yet to fully heal its reputation from the misguided and heavy-handed plans that defined the field in the 1960s. The success or failure of IJburg, and the urban plan that is guiding its growth, will make a strong statement about the legitimacy of the theories of Urban Planning — and indeed of the entire discipline – today.

Grey

I visited IJburg on a grey March day. The cold wind blew fiercely, making biking difficult, especially on the bridges between the neighbourhoods and islands of Indischebuurt and Zeeburg along the way.

That despite the weather, I felt good in IJburg, is a real testament to the quality of this housing project. A good place feels good in the shimmering days of mid-Summer, but also on the greyest, coldest Winter afternoons.

As a place of urban experimentation, IJburg inspired a lot of thought. Here are some notes on the neighbourhood that I jotted down while exploring earlier today.

☉IJburg is a strong skeleton for a city. But because it is intensely planned, it unavoidably feels that way. People react negatively to places that feel over-planned: spaces that are sterile and uninspiring. With time, however, the messy urbanism that makes cities spontaneous, dynamic and desirable will find its way into IJburg. Once the buildings and infrastructure begin to decay, and the neighbourhood is truly lived in, this has the potential to be an exciting part of the city. IJburg is healthy bones.

☉(Another related possibility is that if there were an economic collapse, and developers/the city became no longer able to continue with its development, informal ways of engaging with urban space becoming the norm, IJburg would provide a good setting for creativity & experimentation)

☉The newest parts of IJburg, those developments at its edge that are mostly vacant or are in the process of being constructed also feel full of potential. Unlike that ghostly feeling you get from the newest phase of a gated community in Florida or empty towers in resort condominiums built for time-share users, the emptiness of the newest parts of IJburg feel like they will soon be home to a busy and well-used city. The potential-energy in IJburg is palatable.

☉IJburg is built strongly in the tradition of a early 20th century North American urbanism. It is cozy, and people-sized, but is makes space for car use. The scale reminded me of Rosemount or the Plateau in Montreal.

☉Rather than thinking of IJburg as an extension of central Amsterdam, it might be better to conceptualize it as its own world: a nearby, highly connected village. IJburg’s communications with Amsterdam are strong. The 26-Tram runs every 6 minutes mid-day, and commuters are invited to bring their bikes on board (the only tram in the city to allow this). At €1.95 per trip, the ride is affordable. The 26 also takes an interesting journey through the city from its Eastern edge to the centre. More of a commuter-train, the tram’s route is equipped with level railroad crossings that stop traffic until it passes. This makes the journey to Centraal Station quite fast.

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Toward the end of my exploring, I found a part of IJburg that has not been built on yet. It is a heap of sand that protrudes out into the IJ. It is a wild, desertous dune-scape, that, though empty now, feels alive with the city that will grow over it. I walked to the edge of the sandy peninsula and stood, facing the water and the wind. I thought to myself: the Netherlands is a present place. Not too caught up in its history, it embraces and is playful with growth and change.

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