Almere Oosterwold, Netherlands - A Dutch Utopia in the Making

Almere Oosterwold, Netherlands - A Dutch Utopia in the Making

Résumé en français

Les politiques sociales-démocrates ontcréé aux Pays-Bas l'un des régimes d'urbanisme les plus sophistiqués au monde,avec une réglementation méticuleuse jusque dans les moindres détails.  Pourtant, si vous voulez changer la couleurde votre porte d'entrée dans une ville néerlandaise, vous devez demander uneautorisation au conseil municipal qui évaluera votre demande en tenant comptede l'apparence et du style du quartier. Cependant, en tant que citoyen, on se trouve dans une positionparadoxale : d'une part, l'aspect général du pays est agréable, propre et sûr,d'autre part, il manque parfois de surprise, de différenciation et de liberté individuelledans l'enchevêtrement des règlements. Cet article traite du projet Almere Oosterwold aux Pays-Bas.  Il est proposé comme une alternative au statuquo et a attiré plusieurs habitants, les résultats étant meilleurs queprévu.  Une évaluation complète du projetne sera peut-être possible qu'après 30 ans. Oosterwold n'est pas une recettepour tout le monde, mais il s'agit certainement d'une expérience valable etimportante qui prend au sérieux les êtres humains et conduit à une abondanced'innovations et de modes de vie durables dans lesquels l'auto-organisationprévaut sur la pensée du marché et dans lesquels les terres agricoles àl'échelle industrielle sont transformées en un paysage de productionalimentaire à petite échelle.  

Social democratic policies have created in the Netherlands, one of the world's most sophisticated urban planning regimes with meticulous regulation up to the tiniest detail. Yet, if you want to change the colour of your front door in a Dutch city, you must apply for permission at the city council, who will evaluate your demand, considered against the greater appearance and style of the neighbourhood. As a citizen, one finds oneself in a paradoxical position. On the one hand, the general appearance of the country is pleasurable, clean and safe; on the other, it sometimes lacks surprise, differentiation, and individual freedom within the gridlock of regulations. This article discusses the Almere Oosterwold project in the Netherlands. It is being proposed as an alternative to the status quo and has attracted several inhabitants, with the results being better than expected. However, a full evaluation of the project is perhaps only possible after 30 years. Oosterwold is not a recipe for everyone, but certainly, it is a valid and important experiment that takes the people seriously and leads to an abundance of innovation and sustainable lifestyle options in which self-organisation prevails over market thinking and in which industrial-scale farmland is turned into a small-scale food-producing landscape.

The landscape is dominated by large monoculture fields, trees are planted in neat rows and the horizon is a distinct sharp line of a dyke against the everchanging coastal sky. Somewhere on the margins of the endlessly surrounding meadows is a collective of irregular and brightly coloured homes, caravans and yurts scattered across the land. In the East of Almere, a new town just outside Amsterdam, Netherlands is becoming a Dutch utopia in the making.

We approach over a wet dirt track that turns the car muddy beige within half a minute, this is uncommon in the Netherlands. Ivonne de Nood, fashionably dressed in a smart grey outfit, awaits us in the garden of a neat modern bungalow clad in steel. Black chickens walk around seemingly unbothered by the approaching car. As Ivonne directs us into a cosy library made of two sea containers, she introduces herself as the “Area director for the development site Oosterwold.” Inside this cosy setup, there is a large table with comfortable chairs and an impressive architecture library. Ivonne represents five Dutch government organisations being the local water authority, the Netherlands Central Government Real Estate Agency, the Province of Flevoland, the Municipality of Zeewolde and the Municipality of Almere, the latter three are located in the same stretch of land reclaimed by the sea in the 1960’s with an average altitude of minus five meters below sea level.  

Wemeet Daan Fröger, the owner of the neat house and garden where this meeting took place, and he is also the founder of the construction library in the sea containers. Daan, a fit-looking man in his early 70s, is introduced as the first of eight inhabitants of this scattered new neighbourhood, Oosterwold, a first for the Netherlands and a revolutionary urban planning experiment.

“I came to Oosterwold because of its innovative character. One has all the freedom to build whatever and there is no aesthetic commission like in other Dutch cities. There is no masterplan, one can decide how large and what shape the land is” explains Daan. But with the freedom comes responsibility: “In order to build here, I had to arrange everything myself, the infrastructure, road and connections to water and electricity.”      

After experiencing devastating famine during the first world war, the Dutch decided to become self-sufficient in food production by reclaiming land for agriculture from the sea. The last addition near Amsterdam was pumped dry in 1968 andproved handy in providing Amsterdam’s growing need for suburban homes.

Since 1976, the new town Almere absorbed the lower middle classes in endless rows of terraced homes, growing up to 150.000 statistically happy inhabitants whilst having a reputation for being bland and ugly.

At that moment, the local government turned to MVRDV [1] with the request to design a strategic vision that would change the demography of Almere, attracting new and keeping existing inhabitants in the fast-growing town. MVRDV co-founder, Winy Maas began to work with the then city councillor, Adri Duijvestein on a plan that would grow Almere further into the 5th city of the Netherlands but with a more balanced demographic profile and more workspaces.

Maas and his team proposed new communities adding diversity to the existing tapestry of the polynuclear city plan: an island and coastal community (Almere Pampus),a literally green extension to the city centre starting its life as a  world horticultural show (Almere Floriade) and Almere Oosterwold, then called Freeland.

Instead of a traditional urban plan, MVRDV envisioned a set of rules that essentially translate to self-sufficiency, respecting one’s neighbour and applying a percentage of use to each plot. 50% of each plot of land is intended for urban farming, and only 12,5% can be built up. There are also needs for public green, roads and energy production, turning the monocultured farmland into a responsible suburb with a large biodiversity.

DeNood:  “To the municipality, the idea that people of Oosterwold can organise their urban environment themselves was compelling, and there was now a choice in Almere between buying a home from a developer and building your own according to a set of rules or having the power to shape your entire neighbourhood.”

The municipality decided in 2013, after 5 years of preparation to sell the first plots and in December 2015, the first homes were completed. The early inhabitants call themselves pioneers as they had to invent their own method. Building on farmland started as a logistical nightmare, and to many, it suddenly became clear that the low price of the land came with it an urgency for self-organisation. Dutch infrastructure providers for water and electricity do not deal with private individuals, meaning that even the archaeology (in the Netherlands always needed for a building permit)[2] had to be organised by these pioneers, including the construction of roads leading to their land. With each realised plot, new problems and new solutions emerged and the speed of the overall project accelerated.

The project is successfully attracting people from outside Almere and – importantly– half of the inhabitants are from the new town, people that might have left without this option.

DeNood: “People come with different ideas in mind, some are attracted by the idea of living off the grid, others want sustainable life, some wish to live with more generations and others come for the green surroundings.” The first phase of the 4,200 hectare site is free to colonise at any given location, but the need to build roads and services makes collaborations feasible. People with similar interests start to meet and realise their dreams together. De Nood explains “there is a street with mostly industrial style homes, around another corner the homes there are created in hay and clay construction, and there is a community interested in timber construction.” The industrial style street with its brightly coloured homes is contrary to expectations populated by more mature residents. A villa with wine farm and bed and breakfast is under construction opposite a home in the shape of a modern warehouse with a huge garage door in the centre. De Nood: “Here a couple has built a house right around their camper van. They only spend the winter here, in summer they track through Europe, in winter they drive the van inside and then live in it, inside the house.”

Besides construction styles, lifestyles are also a connecting factor. A so-called Giraffe[JK6] -[cd7] Village emerged out of a dream of Cathelijne van den Bercken to create a village of non-violent communication.  A series of caravans and yurts marks the village green.

The arches of a plastic greenhouse mark the Live To Be community who wants to offer youngsters sensitive to their surroundings a natural retreat. Across the municipal road, the Diamondiaal initiative started what will realise 20 rental apartments for recognised asylum seekers, a community centre and four private homes for the people that run the initiative.

At Hannah Arend Road, a small community with an anthroposophical regard towards nature, farming and schooling has emerged.

Wemeet Akke Faling inside a Mongolian Yurt tent laid out with sheep fur and wooden toys; the tent serves as the first school of Oosterwold, with nine pupils and one teacher –  the start of ano-doubt fast-growing initiative. Faling is a “future parent” who moved to Oosterwold from Amsterdam and with her partner is in the process of building their own house with their own hands whilst living next door in a charming wooden mobile home. Together with friends who are building a twin house next to them, they will maintain one hectare of land and farm as much as possible by themselves. A graduated farmer, Faling dreams of local collaborations with initiatives in the making, soon a bakery and a catering company are starting up and collaborations are easy if one knows many people in the community. For Faling it is natural that she helps neighbours with the construction of their houses and that others help with settling in. One of the school's neighbours is a so-called Earth-Ship under construction that relies on locals to come and help stamp earth into old car tires that are then used to build the north wall of the eco-home.

“Oosterwold is the Netherland’s most sustainable neighbourhood ever!”

DaanFröger is certain about it and adds up the features almost every home offers.“Heat pump, solar cells, grey water circuits and we have no canalisation, sothe toilets are all biofilters. The toilet business is pumped into a series of tanks and reed beds and at the end it comes out drinkable, at least the salesperson kept drinking it to show us how clean it was. He is still alive.”All over the neighbourhood, according to the size of the homes, these filterbeddings are visible in the gardens, right next to units that look like air-conditioners but are in reality heat pumps.

“It’s like buying food in an organic supermarket, everything sustainable is five times as expensive” sighs Japer Kloos who moved into a stylish black-clad home with his partner, Nadine Elzas nine weeks ago. The couple wanted to extend the usual sustainable features with clean construction materials and a clay oven connected to the underfloor heating but was unwilling to pay the 10,000 Euro this connection cost. “So we just built the clay oven and kept it separate to the heat pump system, one has to make choices,” Elzas explains. The house sits on the northern edge of a large plot of land that will soon feature an orchard operated by a local producer. “I am working and so I cannot maintain the entire garden, I will have a pond and a vegetable garden, but a part will be outsourced.” She came to Oosterwold attracted by the idea of the television series Little House on the Prairie. “Not the religious part but being outside in nature in a nice community and hopefully with lots of horses. Really, to have freedom together with others, that was my dream.”  

Herdream of a community had a rough start, as the developer of the adjacent community failed to mention that the couple intended to build a road between their house, and the neighbours, so relationships went from sour to angry and it took many discussions and meetings to come to find a solution. “This morning,I walked the dog through our muddy road and found one of these people stuck in the mud. I helped her out, got covered in mud myself and we both laughed about it.” It was a bonding moment.

“The thing here is that you have no-one else to blame but yourself and that is a great feeling. The road is muddy and I cannot blame the municipality because I built it myself. In the past I would have moaned, now I look at it with pride.It’s my road, I built it.”  

She realised her construction was faster because she was on top of it, “I can be quite a pitbull and get things organised. If you do not want to live in the mud you need to bark louder than you bite into the matter. Still the permit to build took 32 weeks.” The next generation of builders, however, benefits from the pioneers and have an easier ride.  

DeNood agrees that organisation is a burden for inhabitants but has established the difference in time to be six months, as opposed to a normal DIY plot that already has all the services installed by the municipality. “But there is payback. You get a unique lifestyle and a lot of freedom to create it. There is amazing positive energy amongst residents and also, a fantastic community spirit.”

Amongst all the positive stories, the most critical note to the development is the lack of public transport and amenities in this early stage. The nearest supermarket is 5 kilometres away and nearer to home, very little has been built at present.The inhabitants are currently busy building their homes and have to start up urban farming initiatives. Once this stage has passed and more time is at hand, the current communal activities will certainly expand rapidly. People who complete the construction phase soon become functional for the wider community.

DeNood: “Just the other day, a small group who started to order trees for themselves opened the order to all and now they will order collectively 23,000 trees.”

In the meantime, a farmers' market has appeared nearby and soon after the first harvest, homegrown food will be exchanged, according to Cathelijne van den Bercken's dream that she published on her website to attract like minded residents: “I trade the raw honey from my bees for the tomatoes from your green house and the eggs from my chicken for the wool of your sheep. After I traded part of my produce to you, I will set up a roadside table shop to sell the rest to people passing by.”

The lack of public transport and amenities is partly countered by an abundance of home workers, a relatively normal phenomenon in the Netherlands. “We have an optical fibre network, which is rare in the countryside,” Daan Fröger comments.

A special problem was the roadwork: Who would pay what part of which road was an issue, especially the connecting pieces of the so-called “orphan-roads”, pieces of road not needed by the landowners but essential for others or the community at large. “How do you calculate the payment for the road? By land size or by family size? Or by the number of cars you own? We had to figure it out by ourselves,” Akke Faling says.  

One of the inhabitants started to calculate and made an impressive calculation that created a consensus among the neighbours. De Nood: “After the first discussions they just parked the issue and decided to not discuss it for a while. After the summer they all came to a solution.” De Nood is there whenever needed and estimates that she spends 12 hours a week with mediation and connecting people. “Often, I just have to listen while they talk and you hear how they find the solution all by themselves. For the more complex issues, I often connect people with questions to the ones that have been there before. The will to help each other is immense.”

At present, Oosterwold is now growing into a community of highly self-organised inhabitants that at a certain moment, questioned the municipalities' power to select the street names, traditionally done by a selection committee in the Netherlands. Instead of the envisioned great thinkers’ theme, now there is freedom even on this issue. The inhabitants discuss and come with a proposal to the municipality whose role here is to just evaluate the request. There is an Ubuntu Road leading to the Giraffe-Village, a Free Bird Road and a Bottom of the Sea Colonists Road.

A full evaluation of the project is perhaps only possible after 30 years, but in the meantime, the project has attracted the expected inhabitants and the first results are better than expected. Oosterwold is not a recipe for everyone, but certainly a valid and important experiment that takes the people seriously and leads to an abundance of innovation and sustainable lifestyles in which self-organisation prevails over market thinking and in which industrial scale farmland is turned into a small scale food producing landscape.  

You can build your fantastic dream in Almere ... but you build the road leading to it as well

If you want to change the colour of your own front door in a Dutch city you must apply for permission at the city council who will evaluate your demand, considered against the greater appearance and style of the neighbourhood. Social democratic policies have created in the Netherlands, one of the most sophisticated urban planning regimes in the world with meticulous regulation up to the tiniest detail. City councils from all over the world send their planning bureaus over to check it out and learn from it. As a citizen, however, one finds oneself in a paradox position: On one hand, the general appearance of the country is pleasurable, clean and safe, on the other, it sometimes lacks surprise, differentiation, and individual freedom within the gridlock of regulations.

OK, so living with a dull coloured front door is not the end of the world, but what about transforming one's house with a few windmills and solar cells into a sustainable money saver? Same procedure, the city council will look at the surrounding aesthetics and most likely - unless one lives near an oil rig or a prison - turn down the application.

But there is hope, there is one place in the Netherlands where your front door can be in any colour wished for: The city of Almere, a 1960’s New Town built entirely on reclaimed land saw the overly regulated environment as a great opportunity for its own future. Almere is an unloved suburban town which continuously leads the recurring list of ugliest city of the Netherlands. As Randstad, the metropolitan area of the Netherlands is almost totally built up and Almere has still space to grow the National government made a deal with the city: they will accommodate the needed growth, and use this growth to become more differentiated, attractive and sustainable. Less low middle-class suburban homes and a more diverse population in order to turn Almere slowly into a genuinely interesting and nice place, and at the same time, into the fifth largest city of the Netherlands. But how to attract this diverse population to the “ugly” city?

By offering freedom.

Almere where you can build your own custom made dream house

They started with a neighbourhood where everyone is allowed to build their own dream house in any style, shape or colour. A few years later, the neighbourhood resembles a crazy LEGO town, and inhabitants experience immense happiness in their custom-made homes. This was a prologue for more. MVRDV suggested devoting the new development area east of the city now being used as an agricultural area, into a radical liberated urbanism.  

Like China had Special Economic Zones, Almere in an area called Oosterwold, now has a planning free regulation zone. The area welcomes initiatives that result in a neighbourhood in where everything is possible.  A villa in a lake only to be reached by boat? Sure. A collective for elderly on a golf course? Yes. A fish-farm with a fantastic restaurant? Yes!

Will it turn into anarchy? No! Because with ‘Freedom’, comes responsibility.

Some rules still apply, but they are more comparable to Sim City than to the usual stack of regulations: A percentage of green, public green, road, buildings, agriculture and energy needs to be realised on each plot resulting in a low-density green neighbourhood. If one only wants to build a large house one can buy a plot together with the fish farm for example.Or a collective of like-minded will join forces and realise their dream of living on a racetrack/organic farm/ golf course or why not a combination of them? The city will not interfere if the houses will be painted purple, look like Smurf homes combine Neo-Classicism with Modernism or organize whatever program on their plot. This freedom, however, is echoed by self-sufficiency. Inhabitants are allowed to do whatever they want, but they will have to organize everything themselves as well. The city will not deliver the usual services: no energy, no water, no street access, no bus, no school. You can build your individual crazy dream, but you also build the street leading to it, …and the water pipe …and create an energy supply. The neighbours will have to take initiatives to solve these questions either individually or in collaboration. A new collective of highly engaged inhabitants will appear and develop the area in an evolutionary manner.

Is this the end of urbanism?

No, but it is a great alternative for people who would like to shape their own lives more than is allowed in the over-regulated north of Europe. No-one is forced to move to this area, but you can if it appeals to you. The plan is not only for the rich among us: The city, suddenly released from the duty of building streets, bus stations and streetlights avoid substantial pre-investments that can lower the price of the land accordingly. It is a fascinating spatial, but as well, a social experiment. In 30 years’ time, we will be able to evaluate whether it worked out well. Along the way, it is flexible and open to any initiatives.

So, what about a Chinese neighbourhood with Hutongs and a teahouse in Oosterwold? Just call Almere and make it happen.

End Notes:

[1] Maas, Van Rijs, De Vries (the founders of the practices last names) Winy Maas, Jacob van Rijs and Nathalie de Vries

[2] It’s law in the Netherlands that before you build anything the city does archaeologic research to determine if there are artefacts on the land, here the people must organise this by themselves.


French translation of summary by (version gratuite)


Images by MVRDV