Monday, April 11, 2011

Why is the City So Livable Today? Amsterdam Targets the Car

...There are many things that make the Dutch capital unique. But the most amazing of them all: It's the only urban place I know that has continually improved itself over the past 20 years.

Every time I visit there are fewer cars, better lifestyles and more reconstruction of the historic buildings. Even the weirdness of the of the street drug culture has toned down. There don't seem to be addicts on the streets. Women walk and bicycle alone all over town at all hours of the night.

The cultural scene is incredible, with music, movies and theater from all over the globe. Every imaginable ethnic food is represented among the thousands of places to eat. There are outdoor street markets, flea markets, and farmers' markets. Coffee houses are everywhere. The many miles of canals are lit up at night like rivers of glass reflecting the 17th-century buildings that have been so lovingly restored during the prosperity of the last 20 years.

Several years ago the people of Amsterdam voted (again) to reduce the number of parking spaces available in the city by several thousand. Coupled with a cheap and excellent tram and bus system, a high tax on auto ownership, and gasoline that costs $4.50 a gallon, the inevitable result is a place where living takes precedence over driving.

On most city streets you can jaywalk without worrying about cars, though you do have to look both ways to avoid being run down by a cyclist. The Dutch take their biking seriously and they are notoriously flagrant in running red lights. (Hey, there's hardly any vehicle traffic anyway.) Even without a bike, almost all of downtown is within walking distance.

So how do they create such a place? Good planning.

Holland, and Amsterdam in particular, has always had a reputation as a place of acceptance and experimentation. Yes they have a notorious red-light district, but that only means they can control and regulate it and take much of the criminal element out of the business. I've noticed a significant decline in the number of whacked-out hard-drug users on the streets since I first came here 20 years ago. Effective and visionary urban planning has created a compact urban zone with defined limits. Jump on a bike and you're out in the country in 20 minutes, surrounded by fields of flowers and cows. There are strict restrictions on zoning and building. While they may be the embodiment of onerous government control, the result is one of the most glorious and historic cityscapes in the world.

Of course there are problems. One is coping with the flood of tourists that pour in every year, especially in summer. That's part of the price of living someplace so lovely, as we California coastal residents know all too well. Another is the continuing struggle to provide adequate housing for everyone. The population density is extremely high, even if the feel of the city is one of spaciousness rather than crowding. Housing is tight and not inexpensive, though real estate prices look very reasonable next to New York, San Francisco or Paris.

Still, the overall feeling is an almost unbelievable livability that I've yet to find in any other town anything close to its size. We did a house trade in Amsterdam for a month, living on a block that was quieter than any in my town of 427 residents. Yet Youssou N'Dour was playing in a club three blocks away, there was a Japanese restaurant just around the corner, and just across the canal was a flower market that boggled the mind and the eye. I fled the urban scene where I grew up because it just didn't seem to work anymore. How refreshing to discover that it still can.

Raven Earlygrow lives in Point Arena, Calif., where he is mayor and runs a small organic vegetable farm, owns part of the Arena Theater and a rafting and sea kayaking travel agency and a bookstore/cafe. He also started the local farmers' market. This article originally appeared in the Feb.-Mar. issue of Coast magazine.