Many cities in the Netherlands are very old. The street patterns of these cities developed in a time when traffic was very different. For centuries pedestrians, the occasional carriage and freight barrows didn’t pose many problems in the largely narrow medieval streets. But in the early 20th century this changed. Mobility increased and the vehicles that were used in higher numbers changed. Trams, bicycles and later motorised vehicles made drastic measurements necessary. For example in Utrecht where from the 1920s some through streets were widened by demolishing whole blocks of buildings on one or even both sides of those streets. This was even before the advent of the private car.
When after World War II the increasing number of private cars became a big problem in the streets, the solution was again sought in widening those streets. In stead of a single street the whole fabric of the city was now targeted. It took decades to make plans and then to execute them. The number of houses that had to be removed was enormous but the people of the 1950s and 60s had different views on the historic value of cities. To them it was a blessing to get rid of the old dark homes that were almost falling apart anyway. The new wide streets with fresh light modern buildings were welcomed. But when the large scale demolitions were taking place several things became clear. The new streets were good for the flow of traffic but not good for people. It isn’t pleasant to be in a street with tall buildings and heavy fast moving motorised traffic. Also the whole appearance and atmosphere of the city changed. In the 1970s there were gaping holes all over the city of half finished street widening projects. Ironically the open places were all used as temporary parking places. But times were changing. People began to see the value of the historic buildings. The human scale of the old streets was appreciated much more when the wide windy streets of modernism became ever more present. They were hard to cross for pedestrians as well. And it became very clear that the scale of motorisation was so large that the old city centres couldn’t be adapted to it. If you demolish the whole city for the flow of traffic what destination for that traffic would be left?
|Utrecht, Korte Nieuwstraat in 1968. |
Centuries old homes had been removed for the plans of a big through street here. It never came. Today the street is restored, new apartment buildings came in place of this temporary parking lot.
The 1970s became a turning point. A new generation of decision makers scrapped the old plans and the exact opposite was done. In stead of changing the city streets for through traffic, through traffic was gradually completely banned from the city centres. Large pedestrian areas with shops were created. Making these areas places where people wanted to be. Private motorised traffic was diverted wide around these streets. Large parking buildings were built just outside the city centres so cars would not have to enter them, but people could easily reach the shops and other destinations on foot. Removing parking from the centres in itself already decreased traffic enormously. Not every street had to be made car free. By blocking just a few key streets cities were divided in ‘compartments’ with only one or two entrance streets. This makes every destination reachable by car but rat races are impossible. As a bonus the blocked streets remained usable for cyclists giving them a more direct route and an advantage over motorised traffic.
|This video shows the development of the Utrecht Potterstraat. It explains |
the shift in urban planning in the Netherlands from car centric policies to people friendly cities.
I had previously made another video in which the 1950s and 60s road widening plans of Utrecht were shown. You can find it in this blog post.
In the 1950s and 1960s many cities in the Netherlands had plans for the 'improvement of traffic'. If the plans in my hometown 's-Hertogenbosch had been executed, the 17th century home I have been living in for 16 years now would have been demolished sometime in the 1970s. To make way for a through street. It is a strange sensation to see your property marked as 'to be removed' on a 1960s map for 'city improvement'. Luckily the plans in 's-Hertogenbosch never made it passed the drawing board.