Houten is a suburban community just southeast of Utrecht. This community is known for its bicycle infrastructure and family amenities. This neighborhood has a unique design that keep motor vehicles on a ring road that surrounds the city. Each neighborhood is located along the inner ring of the road and with very few opportunities for vehicles to bisect the city. This ring road, in essence, acts as an urban growth boundary.
…..There are 31 residential districts, each is only accessible to cars via a peripheral road encircling the town. A network of different types of paths for cyclists and pedestrians has been created throughout the area, with a direct backbone thoroughfare to the town centre. Only in residential streets cars are mixed with cyclists. Mostly all schools and important buildings are located along the cyclist’s backbone. The railway station is right in the centre of town. Every fifteen minutes a train takes travelers to Utrecht (regional centre, pop. 350.000) in ten minutes. The peripheric road is closed for bicycles, all crossings are made at different levels, by tunnels or bridges.
What makes Houten famous is it’s bicycle infrastructure. Starting in 1966, Houten created a master plan that would emphasize the bicycle as the primary means to commute within the city. Because of the city’s structure, people are encouraged to travel by bike (mostly within the city) and train (to employment opportunities in Utrecht). The urban design offers distinctive qualities that include the accessibility of a major railway station (with ample bike parking), green belts and water zones throughout the whole city that promote recreation and beauty, and a high standard of accommodations and housing for different groups. As mentioned previously, a major design accomplishment is the fact that cyclists and cars are able to avoid each other, thus avoiding potential conflicts. This is done through an extensive network of separated bicycle tracks that connect the different districts of the town, while cars have to go to the city ring road before they can go to another part of the city.
During our visit in Houten, Andre our host at the City, stated that many people (outside of Houten) consider the city “boring”. This sparked a conversation amongst the Portland State and Northeastern students as to why. Our conclusions were not all that surprising. As in the United States, suburban development is catered to family living away from the hustle and bustle of urban developments. When contrasting Houten to Utrecht there are clear urban development and social characteristics that make them distinctly different. After this brief conversation, the question shifted to whether or not ‘we’ would choose to live in Houten. I personally answered no. Not so much because it’s a suburban community, but because like many smaller towns and cities in the Netherlands, there is no emphasis on community character. As an urban designer and traveler of most of the United States, one thing that makes U.S cities and towns intriguing is the culture(s) that inhabit them. Very rarely do you find two cities/towns that are identical. However, here in the Netherlands, everything is homogenous. Every town has a Hema, a Jambo, and sandwich shops. There is no emphasis on mom and pop stores, or unique suppliers of goods. That lack of ‘character’ is something that intrigues me about the NL. Is this institutionalized or just nationalism? I’m not sure.
From a transportation standpoint, Houten has lived up to their name of being one the best bicycle cities in the Netherlands. The emphasis on safety is unmatched in the U.S. It really us quite a marvel and Houten clearly takes the cake by strictly limiting car use through their city. This creates safe streets in which everyone can enjoy. It opens up street as a public space, which is clearly something that missing in the U.S. By limiting the car use, children and families are able to extend their often small homes into this public realm and this creates a character that defines each neighborhood.