Negotiating a new place comes with inevitable comparisons to places you are familiar with. This is an inescapable quality of being human: we integrate new knowledge by embedding it within the systems of knowledge we’ve already constructed. When you visit a new city, it really is difficult to accept it as a place in-and-of itself, and comparisons to London, New York, Toronto, Venice are almost inescapable…

Along these lines, I’ve detected a specific comparison mechanism I’ve employed in my negotiations of Amsterdam: comparing the scale of the built environment. This allows for comparison of two cities not by specific architectural styles, but the size of the elements of the cityscape. My analysis of scale falls along an axis with “cozy, human scale” on one end and “car-oriented hell” on the other, with lots of variation in between.

Here are two fun “scalar equivalencies”, or “synonymous scales” that I’ve encountered and thought-up while exploring Amsterdam. I am sharing them because they stood out as quite stark to me, and allowed me to meaningfully understand these parts of Amsterdam without a constraining comparison. Comparing places by scale allows the places to “be themselves”, while allowing a meaningful understanding of the potential uses of these spaces outside my direct experience of them.

Amsterdam’s IJburg <————> Montreal’s Plateau

IJburg Montreal

Amsterdam’s newest neighbourghood, IJburg, is built in the scale of early 20th century North American urbanism, much like Montreal’s central Plateau neighbourhood. Cozy and compact, walkable and diverse, this landscape is not hostile to car use or ownership. There is density, but there is also space.

Noord Amsterdam <————> Portland, Oregon

Noord AmsterdamPortland

Portland is interesting because it is defined by a sort of “walkable suburbanism“. The streetscapes are dominated by cars, parking lots and strip malls, but wide sidewalks, bike lanes, and lots of interesting businesses and organizations make for an easily navigable city by foot or bike. Amsterdam Noord has a similar feel: in amongst the huge roads, parking lots and car repair shops are nice, human scale restaurants and shops, bike lanes and generally well-scaled streets for non-car exploration.