The Trouble with Houten

The city of Houten, on the outskirts of Utrecht, is famed for its dedication to cycling. Not only does the city have an extensive, dedicated, cycling network, but the streets that cars can use are often restricted and inconvenient. During my trip to Utrecht, I spend one day in Houten. Here are my reflections.

Entrance to the Organism

I reach Houten via a long winding farm road leading 3 kilometers outside Utrecht. The path meanders, but is otherwise decently paved and well marked. The entrance to Houten is not some grandiose archway or city wall, but a rather forlorn looking underpass accompanied by a map. From above, the city looks like a cellular organism, or a Spanish Guitar with a railroad spur for a head.

If not for its model bicycle network, Houten would not get many visitors. And even though the interested are few and far between, now and then, a curious urbanist passes through the town’s underpass and into Houten’s drum.

Inside, the streets of Houten unwind into a series of opaque super-districts from the 1960s and 1970s. The housing is decently constructed and dense, but the roads curve and interlock in no meaningful way. As I bicycle south, I find myself increasingly lost. The suburbs become newer and newer, until Houten is only a rendering with an inspirational photograph of Venice. Here I have reached the future downtown called Castellum, an office and retail park that reminds me of a rendering of Diocletian’s Palace. Beyond the construction of Castellum, new Houten is a land of young trees. A beach and a lake stand before two modern pedestrian bridges and a string of houses designed to look like a Norwegian portside. One massive apartment building, sunk into a low marshland, resembles a modernized miniature of Breugel’s tower of Babel.

The Cyclist King

In Houten, the cyclist is king. At most times of day, the streets are designated “car as guest,” meaning that cars must defer to bicyclists in all situations. In Houten, the fastest way to get from point A to point B is always by bicycle, and the suburb has an abundance of dedicated cycle paths to move around from one place to another. Cars, meanwhile, must use a ring road that causes them to make frustrating, roundabout journeys, further encouraging bicycle usage.

For suburbs in the United States, Houten has a lot of lessons to offer. The network of cycling paths is safe, efficient, and well-designed. The grounds are lush and well-cared for, while the city’s retail nodes are attractively designed and well patronized.

The trouble with Houten, and many of the Netherlands’ newest suburbs (or Vinex suburbs, dedicated for population growth), however, is that they are incredibly mono-functional. Despite their relative density, well-proffered public and open spaces, and incredible bicycle paths, they have not heeded the doctrine of mixed-use. In Houten, there are no corner stores, no shopping streets with doner kebab, no laundromats nor tailors. In fact, if Houten had no bicycle paths at all, I expect it would still be a safe place to bike, because there is hardly any destination that might attract more than a passing car.

Lessons from Houten

As we reconsider the American suburb and attempt to correct the mistakes of our fore-planners, I would heed the Houten model with care. For though these types of suburbs are denser, greener, and better designed than our own, they are still suburbs, and for the most part, they are not so interesting to spend time in. For a bicycle system (and a city) to function at its highest potential, there need to be real and attractive destinations,  places to rest and have a cup of coffee or tea, or even do laundry with friends. Without them, the bike lanes are mere showpieces of a sustainable future.

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