The Dutch simply, and by necessity, think differently about the relationship of land and water than the rest of us do. By "the rest of us" I mean people, who, you know, build cities above sea level. About a third of the Netherlands lies below it. For centuries, they′ve been clearing wetlands and lakes and keeping the water at arm′s length with dikes, dams, and floodgates. Amazingly, it′s worked. The problem is that all of those clever structures act as a barrier not just to flooding but to growth as well. Amsterdam can′t simply expand as its population increases. Well, it can′t expand on land.
The rest of us would think, "Man, it′s a shame we can′t build east of Amsterdam, since we′d be building on water. Ha-ha." The Dutch think, "Okay, when do we start?" They have built an entirely new residential neighborhood on a lake. Or maybe "in" is a better word. Using great quantities of dredged sand, developers have built eight artificial islands for a new residential district named IJburg on IJmeer, a lake east of Amsterdam. When it′s finished, IJburg will accommodate 18,000 residential units housing 45,0000 people.
But this isn′t just a suburban dead zone with identical housing units as a far as the eye can see, emptying out every day when commuters head for their jobs. IJburg was imagined as part of Amsterdam; the layout of each of the larger islands is modeled on the patterns, dimensions, and character of Amsterdam neighborhoods. There are Dutch-style rowhouses—those tight, skinny, three-story homes that face canals—as well as more modern-looking high-rises. Skinny alleys and wide boulevards. Housing for all income levels. There are schools, restaurants, bars, churches, 12,000 work places (eventually), plus a tram that brings residents to the center of Amsterdam in 15 minutes. It feels like an old, settled community, even though the whole thing, beginning with the land beneath it, was built in Justin Bieber′s lifetime.
That′s not even the coolest part. The coolest part is the floating homes. When you picture Amsterdam, you probably picture those little houseboats on the canals, right? Well, they have some of those in IJburg too. Only they aren′t so little. They are true houses—three bedrooms, two baths, 1,800 square feet. So far in IJburg, there are 158 of these, the first and largest floating home community in the world. And they may well be the wave of the future. They are energy-efficient: the bedrooms are set into the concrete hulls that rest in the lake, which means the water acts as air conditioning in the summer and insulation in the winter. They are portable: while they are plugged into the main supplies of water, heat, and electricity by means of floating jetties but can always be detached, moved, plugged in somewhere else. Also: they float. Water level rising? Falling? No idea? No problem.
After centuries of concerted effort to create and maintain a division between land and water, the Dutch have started to look at water as land, as the thing you build on. New York, Hong Kong, and all you other major urban centers on the sea, start thinking about floating suburbs. We may all be changing our conception of the relationship of land and water in the coming years. And we′ll be following in the damp and determined footsteps of the Dutch.