On a bike ride last weekend, I accidentally happened upon this elegant community garden in Watergraafsmeer (a section of Amsterdam). I could find no signs with information and no workers in this well-tended site which is dominated by mature perennials now fully in bloom. The choice and placing of the plants creates a delight for the eyes. Soft pastels punctuated by bright yellows and deep reds lures you further along 3 parallel paths. The whole garden is surrounded by a wall of Japanese yews.
Visitor impressions of Amsterdam often betray the small radius of the typical tourist itinerary. The very tightly packed inner core of old Amsterdam, strung around a series of concentric half-circle canals, is one of the most charming city centers in the world. But the Amsterdam of the majority of its inhabitants - the neighborhoods where most people live - is markedly different, yet quintessentially Dutch. The structure of these neighborhoods makes it clear why Amsterdam ranks near the top in quality of life of major cities in the world.
Squeezing a high quality life out one of the most densely populated places on earth, however, requires resourcefulness. The Dutch make the most out of the space they have, and have somehow integrated a high level of greenery and biodiversity (and "coziness") into even the center of Amsterdam. Other densely populated cities don't usually measure up.
The following pictures take you on a walk through a small piece of Amsterdam, starting at my front door, through a bit of the park next door, and then on to a a close-by neighboorhood. Here's the tour map.
The picture above is taken at the front of my house on Vondelstraat, right next to Vondel Park. It's what I wake up to every morning as I get on my bicycle to go to the office - a ten-minute ride away. The picture doesn't show clearly some small details which are indicative of many larger-scale things in Amsterdam: the paving stones which make up the sidewalk; the carefully hand-laid brick street; the well-groomed trees; the lovingly maintained homes each with unique architectural detail; the underground and basically invisible neighborhood garbage dumpsters; and the ubiquitous bicycle racks. Excellent design built with quality materials, intended to last and often improve with age, all integrate beautifully into a carefully planned urban fabric that stretches out in all directions and gives one a feeling of calm and well-being.
A gate into Vondel Park, just across the street from me. The start of my biodiversity tour. Note the lack of asphalt on the path. It's simply compacted stone and sand. Water can percolate right down through it to the roots of trees and plants.
This is a view over one of the many naturally overgrown canals in the park, looking onto an area inaccessible to the public. The meadow is covered with tall plants bursting into yellow bloom. Keep in mind that this is really in the heart of Amsterdam.
When trees have to be cut down, they are left on the ground, creating habitats for wildlife - not to mention a nice place to sit and take a break.
And not all trees are cut down when dead. This tree has many holes in its trunk in which birds nest, including the quickly proliferating, non-native, screeching green parrots well known (and often maligned) in this park.
The brush and twigs from cleanup in the fall and spring are laid out in long ranks, like a fence. This not only eliminates waste but provides habitats for animals and insects.
Above you can see, in the middle right, some sort of waterfowl spreading its wings. It was making a lot of noise.
All along the periphery a thick band of mixed vegetation insulates the park from the surrounding houses. I saw a rabbit just near here.
Crossing the Overtoom, the major street behind my house, we enter a neighborhood in the Oud West section. The scale of this area is very human, with narrow walkways surrounded by lush greenery. I noticed a large number of swallows in the air above indicating a healthy population of airborne insects.
The greenery extends into the canals, linking this houseboat (there are thousands of them in Amsterdam) and its colorful garden to the trees and shrubbery on the bank.
Often, streets are blocked (with greenery) to keep cars out. It's easiest to get around Amsterdam by bicycle and you sense the tide has turned in this city on the encroachment of the automobile. Pedestrians and bicyclists have priority in many areas.
You won't see manicured lawns on a typical Amsterdam street. Rather freely growing flowers, bushes and trees - and the requisite bicycles - are the norm.
This is one in a series of biodiversity walking tours I take through cities around the world. My next major green tour will be through Tel Aviv in just a few weeks. For more information on my new organization, CitiNature, please click on the Home and About Us tabs at the top of this page.
about the author
After nearly two decades of corporate duty, I decided to follow my heart and do what I love: make cities greener and healthier places. Over the coming years I will be traveling to cities all over the world, reporting on what I see and learning about how even resource-poor places can improve urban lives through urban greening and greener lifestyles. I've started the CitiNature project to channel my energies and drive initiatives supporting equal access to green amenities for everyone.