Utrecht: my favorite city

Cycling towards the Dom Tower.

I have the peculiar habit of taking the fewest pictures of the places I enjoy most. Of Rotterdam, I have at least 200 hundred photographs. Of Utrecht, I can count only thirty, and of those, most are of bicycle paths.

The city of Utrecht, about 50 kilometers to the southeast of Amsterdam, is a rich and enticing place from many perspectives. For the cyclist, this student city provides the critical mass to give bicyclists a premiere presence on the road. As a tourist, Utrecht has a compact, lively center that boasts the spirit of Amsterdam without the drifters and the chaos.

It is from the perspective of the urbanist, however, that I most enjoy Utrecht. In the mind’s eye, the city is a fascinating collection of  diverse and distinguished monuments. Together, these impart to the city a fascinating and legible expression, and one which helps to define how pedestrians and bicyclists move through and define its urban realm. Below, I discuss those urban gestures that define Utrecht and how these intersect with its excellent bicycling system.

1. Hoog Catherine

For anyone who only glimpses Utrecht from the train platform, the city is perhaps the ugliest in the Netherlands. Stocky, worn down modern buildings create a uninspiring panorama that leaves you wondering if the entire city had been bombed and then hastily reconstructed. In the 1960s, to put the city of Utrecht “on the map,” city officials constructed a massive shopping and rail complex known as the Hoog Catherine. As part of the effort, the city, drove an underground highway through a space that had been a lovely perimeter canal (a move they are in the process of reversing), and forced people to walk through an elevated shopping complex that feels seedy and desolate after dark.

From a preservationist’s perspective, the Hoog (as I have come to refer to it) is a travesty. And it is. the shopping plaza is redundant and unpleasant and outdated and makes the rail station feel more cramped and hurried than it needs to be. Being forced to walk through an elevated mall to reach ground level is an unnecessary bother. The Hoog Catherine acts like a massive wall to the old city of Utrecht, which is precisely why I love it.

When cities were surrounded by massive bastions, they were governed by an implicit structure and hierarchy. When those bastions were dismantled, and oftentimes engulfed by subsequent sprawl, cities began to lose some of their recognizable borders. The Hoog Catherine, in spite of its paucity of architectural grace, recreates the anticipation of entrance. Once finally set down in lovely old center of Utrecht, the feeling of having been successfully processed comes over you, like finally getting through the security gates at an airport terminal.

As a bicyclist, the massive barrier presented by the Hoog and the railroad tracks has engendered the construction of an interesting series of underpasses. Anyhow living between the old city and the Amsterdam-Rijn Canal must pass through one of these to get to the station. The result is once again, an exaggerated and satisfying quality of entrance and exit. Entering the city by bicycle feels like going through the doors to a train station. The threshold, though seemingly unspectacular, heightens the definitions between Utrecht’s districts and neighborhoods.

2. Oudegracht

Compared from above with Amsterdam, Delft, or Haarlem, Utrecht appears to have scant few canals for such a sizable Dutch city. Utrecht’s Oudegracht (meaning old canal), makes up for it. Bisecting the city in a northwesterly direction, the Oudegracht is famous for having two levels. At street level, crowds of shoppers and students mingle to make the streets a busy and frenzied affair, while down below, people dine under beautiful tree canopies canalside and dip their feet in the water. The lower level was originally intended for cargo to be more easily dropped off and stored, an innovation that is strangely not mimicked elsewhere in the Netherlands.

The Oudegracht  defines Utrecht by anchoring its center. To pass from east to west through the city center, you need to cross the Oudegracht. To move north south, the Oudegracht is an essential point of reference, if only as a path for cyclists to avoid.

To the east of the Oudegracht, the city’s old ring of fortifications (now a park) provides a second recognizable barrier of entry and exit. Beyond it, stretches the city’s wealthier neighborhoods and student quarters. To the north and south, the Vlecht, Utrecht’s main river, stretches into the hinterlands, connecting the city with small neighboring towns and villages.

3. The Dom Tower

Utrecht’s most recognizable landmark, and the one that may be seen from farthest afield, is its Dom (or Cathedral) Tower, a 368 foot Gothic masterpiece built during the 16th century. The Dom, however, is no ordinary church tower. In the 17th century, before the church nave was complete, it collapsed. They never rebuilt it.

As a result, the Dom acts kind of like a giant obelisk that indicates the central point of Utrecht. The tower, moreover, today has a gateway arch at its base that leads into what was once the nave. Where the pulpit may once have stood stands a voluptuous sculpture of a women holding a flame. She looks like a humbler Dutch version of Mother Russia.

Between the Dom, the Hoog, and the Oudegracht, Utrecht’s center possesses a well-defined and exquisite urban vocabulary. Though the city’s suburbs are characterized by a generous degree of sprawl (for the Netherlands), they form mostly separate entities centered on perimeter train stations.

The urban elements that make Utrecht a more easily navigable or legible city at points, also strengthen its potency as a city of bicyclists. Bicyclists need and respond to cues, landmarks, and barriers just as pedestrians and automobiles do. The more easily these are iterated, discovered, and then mentally processed, the better people can read and move through the infrastructural network that has been provided for them. For a city like Utrecht, this might not be a problem, but as other cities define their cycling systems, making sure that such urban elements, hierarchies, and destinations are communicable to the bicyclist represents an essential and necessary piece of that system’s success.

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