Boomtown Almere. Form follows lifestyle / Boomtown Almere. Form follows lifestyle

In Holland, it appeared, there were many houses. Houses that had never been visited and examined by the architectural critics. Out back there was a garden with a shed for the lawnmower and the kid’s bikes, and out front 30 x 30 cm cement tiles leading up to the front door and a car parked neatly beside the kerb.1 The Fourth Report Extra (VINEX) of 1995 had foreshadowed the construction of 800,000 new dwellings over a period of ten years, most of them in the Randstad. A staggering figure for one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Geuze wondered aloud whether the new generation of 800,000 dwellings should continue to be designed and built in precisely the same fashion. Since then there has been a spate of publications analysing suburbia: its inhabitants, their lifestyle, their motives for living in suburbia.2 As if an exotic species had descended on the country and, whether we liked it or not, imperceptibly made deep inroads into our culture. The city was suddenly no long city, the village no longer village. In their place there was the diffuse city, the urban landscape, edge city, urban sprawl, the city without hierarchical organization. While urban renewal and metropolitan restructuring has been monopolizing everybody’s attention during the past 25 years, suburbia has been left to its own devices. Now the race is on to catch up and the best place to begin is the largest low-rise town in the Netherlands: Almere. What does suburbia have to teach us about cities and city life?

In 1968, South Flevoland, the last of the IJsselmeer polders, emerged from the waters of the former Zuiderzee: 44,000 hectares of pristine, empty land. The south-west corner of the new polder was earmarked for the town of Almere, a stone’s throw from the northern part of the Randstad and the Gooi region, both of which suffered from a serious lack of space. Amsterdam, Utrecht, even the province of Gelderland, all vied for the new-born’s favour. If they could not adopt it as their own then they begged to be allowed to enter into a close administrative relationship with it. On the new land the authorities listened politely to the pleas of the old land and proceeded to go their own way. For while the wave of democratization had sent a shiver of apprehension through administrators and official agencies in the rest of the Netherlands, the planners on the new land literally and figuratively enjoyed ‘carte blanche’, thanks to a unique administrative set-up. The body responsible for the development of the polders, the IJsselmeerpolders Development Authority (RIJP) fell directly under the Ministry of Transport and Public Works. For the execution of plans the Authority was therefore answerable to the minister alone. Town council, Provincial States, citizens: none of them existed yet.

The structure of the city

How did this new city turn out? In 1971 RIJP produced its first public report: Observations on the development of the new city of Almere, a prosaic reader with the odd diagram or two. As if the designers of ‘the city of the future’ felt that the proposed solutions went without saying. As indeed they did, since several basic premises were not open to discussion. Such as the decision, taken at the outset, that ninety per cent of the housing would consist of single-family dwellings because this was what was chiefly lacking in the Randstad. The ideal inducement in other words to persuade people to move to a brand-new city in an otherwise empty polder.
Just as unshakable as the preference for a low-rise city was the decision that Almere should consist of several, more or less independent cores, each with its own central amenities. This polynuclear structure offered numerous advantages. To begin with, as the construction of Lelystad (begun in 1963) had demonstrated, it was no easy task fitting a town centre into a new, still growing urban area. To make the city attractive to newcomers it was necessary to start building the centre straight away, as close as possible to the first residential areas. Only then was it possible to offer people a congenial living environment right from the word go. On the other hand, this required enormous up-front investments that would only be recouped if and when the city attained its projected size. And not only that, a centre hemmed in by suburbs cannot grow in step with the city. For the sake of future expansion it is necessary to set aside land right in the centre, but this means condemning the first residents to years of crossing a stretch of wasteland on their way to the shopping centre, hardly an **inviting prospect. By opting for a multi-core structure, the idea of one city with one centre could simply be dropped and the vicious circle broken. For Lelystad this solution came too late, but the RIJP could still apply it in Almere.
The polynuclear concept offered yet another advantage. In the Second Report on Spatial Planning (1966) the eventual size of Almere had been put at between 125,000 and 250,000. A margin of this order called for an extremely flexible masterplan. The polynuclear layout allows the individual cores to be developed in phases and, depending on demand, with shorter or longer intervals between phases. From this point of view it therefore made good sense to postpone the masterplan for Almere for as long as possible: initially even the location of the main infrastructure and the cores existed in numerous variants.
In line with the latest planning theories, Almere was presented in Observations and later policy documents not by means of spatial plans, but as a process requiring spatial structuring.3 This process was driven by long-term objectives (the main one being that Almere was building houses for the Randstad) that were continually monitored as to their validity and method of implementation. The spatial design was left until last so that it could incorporate the latest research data.
The classic training in town planning did not equip graduates with sufficient expertise for this new approach. Urban design was now teamwork, and the city a co-production, as the RIJP put it in an advertisement aimed at recruiting 31 staff members for Projectbureau Almere, the body it had set up to coordinate planning. In 1971 this team of architects, sociologists, planners, traffic engineers and so on, set to work. The long-term objectives, as articulated in Observations, were set out in more detail in a new policy document.4 At the same time work began on the first concrete expression of those objectives: the spatial masterplan for Almere-Haven.

The urban district

While the RIJP had embraced the idea of the polynuclear city chiefly as a pragmatic solution to logistical problems relating to construction and demographic uncertainty, the concept also figured largely in the theoretical debate about urban design in the 1960s. Even before the planning of Almere, spatial planners had observed that a similar pattern of urbanization was already in progress on the ‘old land’ as a direct result of Dutch house-moving behaviour. In a migration made possible by increased prosperity and an explosive growth in car ownership, more and more people were moving out of inner urban areas into outlying suburbs and commuter towns. Research indicated that the majority of Dutch citizens were fed up with the ubiquitous multi-storey apartment block and inner-city blight. Their most cherished dream was a low-rise house with garden set in green and peaceful surroundings – but not too far from first-class amenities. Variation in housing types was appreciated, for no one wanted a dull or monotonous environment, so long as it was achieved not by partial high-rise but by variation in low-rise housing types.5
The significance of the new urban landscape was extensively debated by social geographers and planning professionals.6 As early as 1957 G.J. van den Berg (later to become professor of spatial planning at Groningen University) had argued that instead of viewing the exodus from the city as a drift away from the city as such, we needed to adjust our definitions of the city and city life. Van den Berg had noted that the inhabitants of suburbia led an urban way of life, characterized by individualization and consumerism – leading to the formation of more and more sub-groups with their own lifestyle – and a ‘highly developed capacity for selecting impressions, contacts and relations with great mental and physical mobility’.7 The city had lost its monopoly on urban life. Indeed, for the modern mobile urbanite, full-fledged urban life was no longer to be had at the level of the city, but only at the macro level of the urban district, a conglomeration of large and small cores. Ignoring municipal boundaries, people had come to see the urban district as a single housing market, employment zone and recreation area.
The speed with which suburbanization was taking place made the government fear that before very long the whole country would be a uniform sea of houses with here and there a sliver of green. Variation and differentiation were suddenly the order of the day. As a compromise between protecting the landscape on the one hand and satisfying the suburban ambitions of a large part of the population on the other, the Second Report introduced the policy of ‘clustered dispersal’. The whole country was divided up into urban districts made up of four types of spatial entity (A-D), differing in number of inhabitants, level of services and housing density. Green buffer zones would prevent the urban areas and the cores they contained from growing together.
Observations effortlessly adopted the terminology of the Second Report in describing the polynuclear structure of Almere: ‘Although its initial dependency in respect of employment, facilities, and so on, means that Almere will for a long time lie within the sphere of influence of the Amsterdam urban district on the one hand and the Gooi urban district on the other, its planning should nonetheless take account of the eventual development of a new complex, made up of a variety of A, B, and C cores and the not too distant D cores of Amsterdam and Utrecht. The various spatial entities provide the necessary diversity in residential environments and housing types because the urban district comprises both the large core, with a reasonably high level of services, and an array of smaller cores differing in size and character.’8 This was a cryptic way of saying that it would be a long time before the ‘diversity in residential environments and housing types’ coincided with demographic diversity. For the time being diversity was above all a design issue and the polynuclear structure was ideally suited to accommodating the desire for single-family dwellings in a small-scale and green environment, with diversity in style and ambience.
Each core was to have a distinct identity, the guidelines for which were set out in the draft structure plan of 1976: Almere-Haven, the first core to be built, would be ‘a summer centre on the water’ perfect for hotels, catering and leisure facilities because of its attractive lakeside location, and Almere-Stad, the second core, was to become an economic, administrative and cultural centre. The green space between the cores was in the form of a park landscape containing a wide variety of leisure activities and penetrating deep into the cores.
The demand for differentiation was so great that the subdivision into different residential milieus continued even within the cores. In addition, the design tasks were split up: ‘A spatial layout devised pretty well by one person is the beginning of uniformity,’ declared THE minutes from a meeting on Almere-Haven issued by the Projectbureau. Consequently, three architects were engaged for the first phase of Haven, each one charged with producing a ‘total environment’ for some five hundred dwellings: the local green space, the street layout, houses, community centre, up to and including garden gates, sheds and paving.9

Amsterdam versus Almere

When it became obvious, in the light of Observations and then the plan for Almere-Haven, that Almere was to be ‘a village-like settlement’ rather than a ‘massive city of a quarter of a million inhabitants’,10 a debate erupted in the popular and professional press that was to continue for many years. The RIJP was constantly accused of anti-urban sentiments because of the strong emphasis laid on ‘living in the country’. It was feared that the one-family home surrounded by greenery would turn Almere into a Dutch Los Angeles.11
The fact that feelings ran so high was in first instance due to the plight of the old inner city areas. With a housing stock of some 400,000 slum dwellings compared with 2000 new dwellings in existing urban areas, it was small wonder that people were deserting the big cities in droves.12 According to Almere’s critics, all that money and energy could far better be invested in urban renewal instead of being used to stimulated suburbanization.13 It was this ‘instead of’ that turned the vote for or against the construction of Almere into a battle for or against the compact city.
It was a battle just waiting to take place. Whereas in the Second Report the government had resolved the classic city–country antithesis in spatial planning policy by creating the ‘urban district’, this planning level had been conspicuously absent from the Spatial Planning Act that had come into force a bare twelve months earlier. Indeed, the act had bolstered municipal autonomy by means of structure and zoning plans, making municipalities less amenable to provincial and national government pressure. It was thus relatively easy for small municipalities to expand at will, leaving big cities to watch helplessly as their wealthy citizens disappeared and with them the financial base for the municipal budget and services. Van den Berg had pointed out back in the late 1950s that individualism and sub-group formation led to a demand for socially homogeneous neighbourhoods. ‘The pressure is so real that it requires more attention in urban design than hitherto.’ At the same time he warned against granting such homogeneous entities administrative independence because to do so would be detrimental to the public interest.14
Nonetheless, with the exception of one or two social geographers and planners, there was remarkably little discussion about the lack of adequate policy instruments.15 The fact was that the choice for or against the compact city was regarded primarily as an ethical issue. Richard Sennett articulated the case for the compact city in extreme terms in The Uses of Disorder (1970) in which he denounced the inhabitants of suburbia, the ‘puritanical’ middle class family. Prosperity had enabled them to leave the city and to shut themselves off, or to associate exclusively with their peers. They had deliberately chosen to escape the chaos of the city where it was impossible to avoid people who thought differently, where argument and confrontation, but also understanding and tolerance, were an integral part of daily life. The result was a suburbanized society in which the harmonious middle-class family life had become the norm.16 A suffocating norm that led to ever more conformity and uniformity. To free themselves from their ‘guilt over conflict’, Americans needed to return to the city, preferably a high density one. ‘This would be a society involving many dissatisfactions and even much loneliness, but it would be real to the extent that men would live honestly, without myths of painless harmony.’17
How this compact city was to come by its inhabitants, Sennett did not know. After all, as he himself had observed, ‘guilt over conflict’ was not an effect of suburbanization but its cause. Sennett espied a flicker of hope in the fact that some suburban children were actively seeking out the city again, preferring to exchange the affluent dream for real life.20 And so it was that the acquired wealth of the middle classes was played off against the emotional sincerity of the old urban quarters, the one-family home against the apartment, the fragmented city against the compact city, the car against public transport and homogeneity against diversity. While only a few decades earlier sociologists had been commending the impersonal relationships in urban working class neighbourhoods (friendliness at a distance, their research had shown, was a necessary precondition for harmony where people lived in close proximity), in the 1970s the idea of the closely-knit neighbourhood community, made up of a cross-section of the population, was enthusiastically revived in a bid to save the nineteenth-century neighbourhoods from the wrecker’s hammer.18
As such, the struggle for urban renewal turned into an ideological battle against the middle-class way of life, in which the architectural critics readily took the side of moral correctness. The Forum generation had just rediscovered the historic city – the agora as meeting place – and was not about to surrender it again. Thus it was that architectural critics too discovered the urbanized society, up to which point they were in agreement with Van den Berg and other planners. But whereas Van den Berg saw ‘urbanity’ moving to the urban regions and suburbs along with the erstwhile city-dwellers, the architectural critics reserved urbanity exclusively for the compact city and accused the deserters of a back-to-nature nostalgia and false romanticism. Nostalgia because although they lived in green surroundings they were not about to forego their car. False romanticism because they demanded small-scale development and architectural variation while concealed behind all those different facades were precisely the same ambitions and lifestyles.19
The ideological rejection of the middle class way of life and tastes has made it impossible for people to see anything positive in the architecture and urban design of suburbia. The facades and streets are assigned precisely the same characteristics as their inhabitants: they are nostalgic, cosy, romantic. A world of facades. From the very beginning the construction of Almere has been described in these terms and helping to build Almere has been equated with the ‘passive’ acceptance of anti-urban trends, in other words, the embourgeoisement of the affluent society. It was ‘not done’ to find Almere attractive because it accepted the status quo and expressed it as best it could.

Recent plans

Twenty-five years after the first sod was turned, 130,000 inhabitants and three core districts (Almere-Haven, -Stad and -Buiten) further on, Almere feels the need to reflect once more on the future structure of the city and its position in the region. At present Almere is building 3,000 homes a year in the context of the government’s most recent housing policy statement (VINEX). By the time that task is completed in 2005, Almere will have 170,000 inhabitants. With this deadline in prospect the city council commissioned Riek Bakker to produce a development strategy for Almere (ROSA) for the year 2015.20 Like the 1971 Observations, ROSA queried whether Almere is producing new, large-scale ‘suburbs’ for the Amsterdam urban district or whether it is becoming a urban district in its own right. The problems noted in ROSA indicate that as Observations predicted, the first is still the case: there is a lack of employment and services and it is demographically skewed. The abundance of public green space is a drain on the budget and the stream of commuters creates daily traffic jams. In order to make the leap to full-fledged urban environment and to invest in employment and full-scale urban facilities requires huge injections of money, but the market and government would soon lose their readiness to invest in the city were Almere to signal a brake on growth after 2005. As such Almere is a prisoner of its own ‘well-oiled production machine’, but the risks, according to ROSA are too great to allow them to dispense with that machine. It is crucially important that the level of services and amenities be upgraded. In addition, the demand for residential and work locations will probably remain at the same high level in the future, especially if connections with the areas to the east of Almere (Utrecht, Amersfoort, Lelystad and Zwolle) are improved.21
Up to this point the development of Almere is proceeding in accordance with the predictions laid down in the first plans. Less certain is what the present generation of urban designers thinks about Almere’s polynuclear structure now that the urban district has become a familiar and popular planning level for designers and architectural critics alike – albeit packaged in new terms such as ‘middle landscape’ and ‘diffuse city’.
The series of recent plans for Almere betrays a highly ambivalent attitude, on the part of both local authorities and designers. On the one hand the idea of Almere as an urban district made up of different cores is being interpreted more radically than previously, in that ROSA sees the cores primarily as an instrument for creating diversity and identity. Instead of mixed-use cores equipped with a package of facilities attuned to the scale of development, ROSA thinks in terms of identity first and proximity of facilities second. Although the city council has rejected most of the recommendations, it has agreed to the Overgooi scheme, a small, mono-functional core for fewer than 1000 homes in the top market segment. And in the next two big cores, Almere-Hout and Almere-Poort, the accent is entirely on differentiation of milieu and diversity. In Poort, which is to become a centre of ‘sport and leisure … close to a large body of water and the Randstad’, no fewer than twelve ‘residential identities’ are distinguished, ranging from home/office to home/beach. It is interesting to see that the larger Almere becomes, the readier the planners are to supplement the differentiation in form and ambience with greater variation in housing typology and price. In Poort twenty-five per cent of the housing stock is to be multi-storey, a record for Almere.
On the other hand there is also a strong demand, probably as a counterweight to so much variation and dispersal, for coherence. The polynuclear, low-rise town is still accused of lacking both form and identity. In ROSA it is proposed that the various environments should be brought together in a new relationship and ‘welded together into a single city’ by means of consolidation in the existing cores, a limited amount of development in the ‘inter-nuclear green space’ and transformation of the A6 highway, which runs through Almere, into an urban corridor lined by high-rise. Comparable terms crop up in the masterplan for the expansion and upgrading of Almere-Stad which OMA has been working on since 1994. This design provides for an office zone around the railway station, a partial restructuring of the existing shopping precinct and a lakeside cultural centre comprising theatre, exhibition space and cafés. And while the historic cities on the old land tie themselves in knots on the subject of parking policy, Almere is to get 4300 new parking slots right in the middle of the city. 1755 of these will be accommodated below a five-metre-high folded ground plane located between the current shopping precinct and the lake on a desolate-looking site that was specifically set aside for future expansion in the original town plan of 1976. Acting on the premise that a car-oriented centre deserves something better than tucked-away, concrete car parks, OMA has come up with a parking cathedral replete with voids, stairs, a strip of lawn and shops. In this way the special character of Almere’s urban structure is emphasized by using the city’s car-friendliness as a trump card.
ON YHE OTHER HAND, THERE IS A clear departure from Almere’s tradition of flexibility IN OMA’s approach to the layout of the town centre. ‘Against the disadvantage of a certain inflexibility (in the ground plane, pb) is one huge advantage, in that if it is well executed it will give Almere ‘in one fell swoop’ an attractive and unique inner-urban environment ….’22 It is this ambition to provide Almere ‘in one fell swoop’ with a full-blown and unique centre that is so suspect and that sounds like an echo of the optimism with which megastructures were erected in the old city centres in the late sixties, early seventies – however strenuously OMA may claim to have learned from those mistakes. Equally disquieting is the decision to break altogether with the flexible grid structure of the present centre of Stad. The irregularity of the plots will tax the ingenuity of architects and shopkeepers, as will the fanciful shapes of the public space its designers and managers. If the execution of the ground plane is as cheap and shoddy as that of the first phase of the centre project, the recent restructuring of the Grote Markt, I fear the worst for the ambience of the ‘unique inner-urban environment’.
It may seem incongruous that this attempt to meet the demand for coherence and collective identity should coincide with a greater than ever differentiation and variation in the individual cores and residential environments, but in reality it is proof of the strength of Almere’s polynuclear concept. It literally and metaphorically gives the city space in which to expand, to change, to consolidate. There are two aspects here that are going to require continuous care and vigilance. The more the city grows and consolidates, the more important it will become to retain and maintain the inter-nuclear green space. Furthermore, it is only a question of time before Almere finds itself faced with a gigantic management issue. The well-oiled housing production machine is going to have to turn into an equally smoothly running management and revitalization machine. The first development scenario for the revitalization of Almere-Haven has already been written. Those for Stad and Buiten will no doubt follow shortly.
*******+ NED A low-rise city made up of a constellation of villages and small towns in a sea of green: that was the original vision of Almere. A Gooi for the ordinary man and woman. ‘The disadvantage of this national wonder is that it is dressed in commonplaces,’ wrote the publicist H.J.A. Hofland.23 Almere is the anti-Utopia. Its designers were not concerned to change the status quo. Quite the reverse in fact. Almere’s radicality lies in its meticulous, unerring extrapolation of the status quo. One finds no longing for a new beginning here, only a refined enlargement of everyday reality, or at least, of one aspect of it: the dream of suburban living cherished by a large section of the population in today’s affluent society. Whether we find that reality attractive is a completely different question from whether we find the forms in which it is expressed beautiful or ugly. Given that reality, Almere got the right design, by the right people, at the right time, in the right place. A national wonder indeed.

9. In Ontwerp Almere-Haven, Flevobericht 92, Lelystad 1974, the Projectbureau presented Haven as a cross-section of the Randstad population. A mix of uses was to raise the plan above the level of the countless expansion areas in standard low-rise. This ambition not only deviated from the line taken in Observations but was also, given Almere’s position and role in the region, incapable of fulfilment. For this reason it is not pursued in the context of this article.

21. This prognosis is supported by recent research. For Almere’s position see:

Almere / My kind of town?