The New City

Sat 4 June 2011

I went to an exhibition this morning about Leidsche Rijn, the massive development of Utrecht to the west of the city that will add 80,000 people to the city’s population by 2025. Utrecht is already has a population of 300,000, so this will add almost a third again. It’s the biggest urban development in The Netherlands. A good science principle is to hypothesise what you might see and then compare the actual results, and my expectations - maybe my naive expectations - were that it would be an extension of the existing, beautifully compact old city, where cycle transport dominates, and where personal cars are not really needed for commuting and going shopping.

There’s some very good points. With a thoroughness that many city dwellers should long for, the busy A2 motorway that separates old and new is for about a 2 km section being given concrete sides and a roof to bury it. The effect is to remove a major disruption to the idea of unification between old and new. The wide Amsterdam-Rijn canal will still be there, but it’s complete peace compared to the roar of a busy road.

Other good points include the provision of three rail stations well positioned to serve the population, and undoubtedly virtually all the roads will have segregated space for cycles. There’s plenty of open space, and a mixture of low and medium rise accommodation.

One or two niggles have already surfaced. In one district, Terwijde, a local farmer has refused to sell his substantial plot of land for development. What was to go there? - it was only to be the local shopping centre. Currently residents nearby are obliged to travel much further for basic shopping, which may toggle for them the decision to be made between a car and not needing one.

Another niggle, maybe not so important for some, seems to be an assumption that centres for sociability are not part of the planning process for such developments. Whereas the old Utrecht has a centre that is enviable for its proliferation of places for people to meet, from brown bars to restaurants to simple cafes, Leidsche Rijn maybe seems to think that this will happen organically.

But what really started to concern me, as I wandered around this exhibition, was that of course it was a marketing exercise, designed to provide the dream of a place to live. Municipally provided housing has at least a ten year wait in Utrecht, and rents in the private sector are scary, with small apartments starting at maybe €800 a month, and a family size one in a typical area is maybe €1200 a month. They go up from there. The woman very helpfully explaining the exhibit to this curious Brit was able to proudly say that her 21 year old daughter already had her own place to live in Leidsche Rijn. That wouldn’t be the case in old Utrecht. And the bad bit of the dream for me, as I clanked my secondhand Dutch bike back to the cycle path, was the illustrations. Made to look like photos, these digitally generated sunlit scenes of admittedly attractive houses showed people walking on the paths outside, with their car on the drive, and not a cycle to be seen.

That nightmare, that spectre that The Netherlands, one of the few jewels of cycle use in Europe, was being challenged by the deliberate use of an aspiration to own a car with your new home, is one that’s going to give me a few sleepless nights.