The Onion and the Ringweg
For what at times feels like a remarkably ancient place, Amsterdam (originally Aemstelledamme, for the damming of the Amstel), is an unlikely capital. At the time of its founding in the 13th century, other Dutch cities, such as Utrecht or Nijmegen, were not only older, but had prospered greatly through trade coming from France and Germany to the south. The cities of Flanders—Bruges, Ghent, Ypres, and Antwerp, meanwhile, led the early Northern European Renaissance until their persecution under the Spanish Crown. Nevertheless, despite its ancillary beginnings, Amsterdam is today the hub of one of the world’s most populous and prosperous metropolitan areas.
Amsterdam unfolds like an onion. At its core, is the Singel, a canal street which wraps around the city’s sometimes seedy medieval core where it first grew around a slight bend in the River Amstel. The Grachtengordel, a series of three UNESCO Renaissance era canals that together epitomize postcard Amsterdam, enclose the Singel like a moth caught in a spider’s web. The impression of Amsterdam’s former fortifications rounds out the inner center. Beyond the central area, Amsterdam grows as a series of “lobes”– different, relatively distinct neighborhoods defined by their architecture and the canals that separate them. These include De Pijp, Oud Zuid, Oud West, and several other districts, as well as the very recent port redevelopments jutting into the Ij. The neighborhoods of this ring are effectively encircled by Amsterdam’s Ringweg (Ring Road), the impressive peripheral traffic artery which circles the inner web as well as Amsterdam Noord across the Ij (which connects Amsterdam to the North Sea). Green “wedges” of parkland and open space poke into the areas just outside and inside the Ringweg, allowing access from the city center to Amsterdam’s beautiful nearby hinterland.
As simple as it may be see the logic of Amsterdam’s growth rings from an aerial perspective, the situation becomes far more muddled at ground level. The city’s low skyline and lack of topographical variation make landmarks hard to come by, while the characteristic Amsterdam brick townhouse can make the areas beyond the center almost undecipherable. Though the wide Amstel makes for a relieving and captivating moment in the city’s fabric, it divides the city at an unusual angle, so that rather than seeing the river as an axis of symmetry, it becomes one of imbalance. The canals do define the city’s structure, but not enough to create true legibility, at least outside of the Grachtengordel. Some canals follow the ring, but others follow lines of development emanating at irregular angles to the edge of the city. New developments in the Ij provide a striking contrast to the rest of the city (as well as some of the finest large scale contemporary architecture I have ever seen), but are really appendages to the city core.
As much as Amsterdam may be confusing for a few days, most bicycle trips throughout the city realistically take only ten to fifteen minutes by bike, so locals don’t find it all too hard to get around. For the directionally challenged, the city has even provided some very useful signage pointing to various local and regional landmarks or districts. Green signs mark extensive recreational paths, while red signs point the way to neighborhoods and neighboring cities or metro areas, such as nearby Amstelveen and “distant” Utrecht. (Both green and red signs actually exist all throughout Holland.)
Though Amsterdam’s bicycling infrastructure and facilities are stellar, to say the least, there are few things that I can imagine might help emphasize the structure of their system.
Amsterdam is full them. From the famous maroon phallus of the center city to the less conspicuous granite or striped variants just outside it, these subtle pieces of street furniture play a major role in defining the place of pedestrians, cars and bicycles on streets that are often the width of a Hummer.
Perhaps, using this ubiquitous element of street architecture, Amsterdam could better define where its various paths are headed, or at least what district or ring one is bicycling through. Bollards could be painted to indicate location or directionality, or perhaps even be numbered to indicate whether one is within the first, second, third, or fourth ring. This would create a more legible system for use by bicyclists as well as people still getting to know the city by bike.
2. Lane painting
Amsterdam (and many other Dutch cities) has done a great job distinguishing its bike lanes with red paint. Painting main routes a different color or even partially painting symbols or words on the red could help further define that system.
3. A (where not-to-bike) Map
Since so much of Amsterdam is accessible by bicycle, maybe it is actually worth printing a map of places not accessible by bike. Such a map might also include some distinction between local, regional, and interregional bicycle routes, as well as neighborhood blocks or areas that are collectively hospitable to biking. A more abstract or diagrammatic map might also make sense, given, the relative clarity of the city’s structure, at least from above.
For Amsterdam, these kinds of suggestions reveal an outsider’s eye and perspective. In cities in the US, where routes to and between centers are fewer and harder to locate, these tactics would be much more helpful. In the Netherlands, such enhancement could improve and celebrate the permanence of an already excellent and highly navigable infrastructure.
Before leaving Amsterdam, I left Amsterdam three times. First, I followed a tree-lined avenue to neighboring Amstelveen, then turned back into the city along the Amstel. A second time, I took the ferry to Amsterdam-Noord (it runs back and forth across the Ij so often that people do not even dismount their bikes), and then biked to the other side of the Ringweg to glimpse an endless pastureland dotted with cows leading north. The third time, I crossed the striking Nesciobridge to Ijburg, a hyper-modern development jutting into the Ij, and then followed a road outside the municipal borders along my return.
I set off from Amsterdam for Haarlem along a route recommended on a regional map I had purchased several days earlier. I quickly lost the route, but the bicycle paths never stopped. The red paint, the signs, the signal systems, the curbs and the bollards just kept going, leading me effortlessly westward until the spires of Haarlem curled around the Spaarne and signaled the next chapter of my journey.