Welcome to Utopia

It is probably the closest point the Dutch ever got to a socialist utopia. Almere, a city of tomorrow, was created to offer comfortable and affordable housing for everyone, in a safe and clean environment. It is probably one of the most idealistic urban projects ever implemented. First of all it was planned and built from scratch: the area where the city stands is a polder, the largest artificial island in the world, and it emerged from the waves of the Zuiderzee only in the 1950’s. A city of 200,000 people appeared out of the blue, in only 40 years, on this new land. And the project is not finished yet: current plans are to develop it to almost twice this size, to 350,000 inhabitants, making it the fifth largest city in the country. It may sound a bit like a science fiction story, but it is 100% real.

The city itself was founded in the mid-seventies, a period when left-leaning governments initiated sweeping social reforms aimed at improving the situation of the less affluent members of society. The oldest parts of the city reflect this goal: simple, basic housing units, surrounded by generous green spaces and connected by winding streets meant to deter car traffic rather than encourage it. The concept was probably inspired by earlier projects of the garden city movement, very popular in the first decades of the 20st century. Small shopping areas, social centers and medical facilities were located conveniently close for everyone, offering inhabitants all preconditions for a comfortable life. The first inhabitants moved here from the cramped working-class quarters of Amsterdam, like the Jordaan or de Pijp, allowing them to become the hipster heavens they are today.

As the project developed, offices and industrial areas were built near the residential parts, stimulating people to work closer to home rather than take long commutes to the big cities in the Randstad area. As a planned city, Almere had from the start a triple network of roads: one for cars, one for buses and one for bikes. They rarely intersect, and the result is the most quiet and relaxed big city in the country. Despite its 200,000 inhabitants, the local level of noise and traffic congestion is similar to that of a small village, at any given moment of the day.

In later decades, Almere became a bit more individualistic, perhaps in line with the overall evolution of the Dutch society. The identical houses from earlier times were replaced, in some areas, by more differentiated and original buildings. Expensive housing projects were built in new quarters, sometimes designed by famous architects. A new city center was developed, and it also became a favorite playground for major architecture firms. However, the basic principle remains pretty much the same: Almere is a city for everyone, with an amazing mixture of cultures and races, where people are a bit more approachable than in the strictly stratified societies of the richer areas in the Netherlands.

The city has a surprisingly bad reputation, especially among people from Amsterdam, perhaps due to its humble origins. I can say for sure that it is largely undeserved, and Almere evolved a lot from the small bedroom town it used to be in the 1980’s. It is amazingly green and peaceful, still very affordable and totally safe. What the city still misses is a vibrant cultural and social life. Population growth and the development of the first higher learning institutions will remedy this situation. In time, Almere has the chance to turn into a serious competitor for the larger Randstad cities, a showcase for modern architecture and a vanguard social experiment for the new Netherlands.

 

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