Written by Cynthia Ryan
The Dutch are planners.
In spring 2015, my colleague Diane Tucker and I accompanied 17 University of Alabama at Birmingham students who are invested in working toward a more sustainable Birmingham to the Netherlands, a country consistently ranked as one of the most innovative and forward-thinking green places in the world. We wondered what this nation of more than 16 million might teach us about creating a brighter future for our city and state.
Our group decided to focus attention on some of the solutions the Dutch have devised for addressing issues related to water use, building design, and food availability, thinking that perhaps we could reimagine sustainability efforts in our city in these particular areas through the lens of another culture. We had the added benefit of traveling with the best and brightest from Alabama: students trained in a variety of disciplines—civil engineering, neuroscience, English, anthropology, biomedical engineering, accounting, public health—and passionate about creating a better, more sustainable environment in and around Birmingham.
Worlds Apart? Maybe not.
It goes without saying that Holland’s terrain is vastly different than the geography of Alabama. While the Dutch have spent much of their centuries-old history figuring out how to prevent the country, much of which lies below sea level, from falling into the ocean and how to engineer water resources to build a thriving trade industry, we often associate water with pastimes like swimming, boating, and fishing.
Despite these differences, cities like Amsterdam and Birmingham share some commonalities. They are places rooted in distinctive histories. Trade ports in Amsterdam and nearby Rotterdam allowed for an influx of cultural influences from around the globe as early as the 1400s, and the country continues to be a major trade center. Birmingham’s rich past can be traced to the coal, iron, and steel industries. From that beginning, we have evolved into other areas, like medicine and education, and have grown into a diverse city consisting of people from many parts of the world.
Leaders and community groups from Amsterdam and Birmingham are also increasingly engaged in conversations about changing environmental needs in the 21st century and beyond. Global warming is affecting water levels and quality around the world. We’re aware of the need to better conceive how we use public and private spaces and how to make these spaces greener and more self-sustainable. And our citizens are being challenged to adopt more healthful lifestyles, rethinking the food they consume and the means by which food travels to their tables—or by which they, themselves, travel to the food.
The water runs through it.
“In the Netherlands, water is an abundant resource much like in Alabama, but in Holland, the water lies in canals instead of rivers. Since canals are located in the middle of some very busy cities, poor water quality due to vehicles and litter results. In cities like Amsterdam, there’s been some success in addressing these problems through programs that are both educational and entertaining. By engaging the Birmingham community in similar ways, we can improve pride in local water sources and create a more lasting change.”
–Sarah Heerten, civil engineering, and Whitney Wang, accounting
Water is vital to just about everything in the Netherlands. Since the 1300s, the Dutch have proven themselves to be masters of the windmill—a technological invention for pumping water out of sodden fields and into canals, grinding grain, and generating energy for a variety of life-sustaining purposes.
During our visit, we learned just how complex Dutch systems are for controlling and harnessing all that water, whether through the construction of field drains and ditches; the building of dams and sluices, which control how much water is kept out and let into an area; or the creation of polders—land that has been reclaimed from water through the use of dikes and windmills. Such innovation has allowed the Dutch to use the waterways to their benefit and to become a major center of trade in commodities as varied as spices, textiles, even tulips!
Our group wondered how we might harness the waters that flow through our state more effectively. Perhaps we could do a better job of capturing rainwater, which would increase supply and reduce pollution in water that’s left standing. Maybe we could expand programs to recycle and reuse water and invest in engaging curriculum that will get our youngest citizens thinking as early as possible about the need to protect water resources in Alabama and to conserve the water that flows into their kitchens and bathrooms. In short, we could learn from the Dutch how to appreciate the water we’ve been given.
Communities are built one space at a time.
“A lot of Holland’s charm stems from its structures, including some of the most beautiful canal houses in the world. The natives’ sustainability mindset has led them to preserve these original structures for centuries. Unlike in the United States, where we knock down older buildings to make way for newer construction, in the Netherlands, structures are repurposed to fit growing needs of the country. This kind of problem-solving is something that we might apply here at home.”
—Rebecca Parker, civil engineering
“Birmingham and the surrounding areas have a plethora of vacant warehouses and could look to the Netherlands for revamping and upcycling these unused spaces. Many examples in Amsterdam and Rotterdam reveal how vacant warehouses can be transformed into havens for the community. Local entrepreneurs set up shops, bakeries, markets, art studios, cafés, and butcheries inside once-abandoned structures. Imagine a weekly Wednesday market with fresh local produce closer to downtown Birmingham, North Birmingham, Avondale, or any of the diverse communities in and around our city. A large warehouse could be revamped to draw in people with mixed incomes and offer a place for local entrepreneurs to encourage community-minded participation.”
—Veronica Tamburello, English
In the Netherlands, a lot of thought goes into the development of public spaces, those areas where people come together and join in the lives of their communities. Birmingham’s Railroad Park might be considered an “anchor” project in a place like Amsterdam, a site that draws people into an area that has been stigmatized or neglected. Other projects, like Regions Field, keep the momentum going. One difference between the United States and the Netherlands in the construction of anchor projects is that multiple modes of transportation have to be in place before a building locale is considered.
An investment in shared spaces that work, environmentally and logistically, comes out of necessity. With limited square footage to accommodate the population of Holland, houses are smaller. People are accustomed to spending time outside the home, conversing with friends at local pubs, biking through the countryside, and visiting museums.
The Dutch have also become quite clever in how they use—and reuse—buildings. In a community called Norde (North) in Amsterdam, we saw student housing that redefined what constitutes a suitable collegiate living space. Stacked one on top of the other, shipping containers have been painted in bright colors and refurbished with electricity, running water, and space for a bed and study desk. In the same community, artists have taken over abandoned warehouses and manufacturing buildings to construct homes for the creation and display of innovative art works. A once dying area is now becoming an attractive environment in which to set up shop.
Those spaces that would be familiar destinations for us Alabamians are also examples of innovative design and the prioritization of sustainable approaches. We visited Sportplaza Mercator, a fitness center that attracts 129 different nationalities and was built in a community that was previously associated with crime and poverty. In addition to offering members of this area a place to commune with their neighbors, the building itself is unique from an American standpoint for its “living walls” which support vegetation and cool the space by counteracting the heat island effect driven by climate change.
Our group imagined what our city might look like if we brought green public spaces to neighborhoods whose potential for beauty and growth are dismissed. What if we took another look at an area considered undesirable and left it up to the people who live there to determine how to use and promote the space? Might communities that we consider to be oppositional be brought together for a common purpose in a space if given the authority and freedom to define it like the artists who have transformed Norde?
Food nourishes and grows a city.
“In America, healthy food is viewed as a privilege, whereas in the Netherlands it is viewed as more of a right. The Netherlands taught us a lot about not only the physical aspects of making food more sustainable and more available, but the social aspects as well. The community must be engaged and have a sense of ownership in a project in order for it to be successful. Consumers must be educated about where their food is coming from and what is being done to it in order to make wise dietary decisions. At every level of the food system—from production to consumption—the ‘three p’s’ of sustainability must be considered: people, profit, and planet.”
—Emilee Anders, neuroscience; Sarah Buckelew, sociology and English; Alexis Helton, biomedical engineering; Sean McMahon, public health; Millena Oliveira, public health
Birmingham has built a reputation for good food. We boast some of the best chefs in the country. Top restaurants. Farmers’ markets on Saturday afternoons. Some of the tastiest BBQ in the South. In Holland, we discovered some approaches to growing, distributing, and consuming food that stretches the way we think about food even further. We ate at InStock in a refabricated warehouse district called Westergasfabriek, a trendy restaurant where daily menu items are devised from whatever food is picked up earlier in the day. What sets apart this “fresh food” eatery is that the ingredients consist of produce, meat, and grains that would normally be discarded from local grocery stores. Brown spots on vegetables are sliced off and bread that might be a day past expiration is toasted and freshened up with some olive oil. The meal was delicious.
Our group also visited De Hallen, located near the Kate Market in a neighborhood occupied primarily by Turkish and Moroccan communities. De Hallen is an example of retrofitting a former tram depot into a multipurpose space that includes a library, a movie theater, a bike shop, a beauty school and salon, artist studios, and lots of food vendors. While the space might sound a lot like a great big mall with a customary food court, that’s not the idea at all. The vendors in De Hallen occupy the space temporarily, or sometimes long term, and they provide whatever delicacies happen to be available during a particular season. Also, hungry customers are apt to visit a number of stalls to make up an entire meal, purchasing a roll from the bakery, a slice of Gouda from the cheese shop, and a coffee or beer from the center bar.
We noticed a tendency toward selecting what is available versus what is convenient as we ate our way through the Netherlands. The food we ate was fresher, tastier, and in some ways, more creatively plated because availability determined what we’d have for lunch or dinner. Unsurprisingly, the Dutch don’t shy away from getting their hands dirty either. Small gardens appear just about everywhere: in the green areas shared by apartment dwellers, on rooftops, alongside balconies, and inside small window boxes. We talked about how many more people living in Birmingham could be fed, and participate in the growing of their own fresh food, if community gardens became the norm in our city.
It takes all of us to make a difference.
Cornelia Dinca, founder of Sustainable Amsterdam (sustainableamsterdam.com) and our personal guide through the city, shared a phrase that has become synonymous with Dutch industry: “God made the world, but the Dutch made Holland.”
Dinca explained that the struggle to survive, despite being surrounded by—and at times, immersed in—water, taught the Dutch that they must join efforts. The tolerance for individual differences for which the Dutch are well known is a philosophy born out of necessity. When all hands need to be on deck, literally, to prevent homes and people from sinking into the sea, the beliefs and behaviors of a particular person are perhaps of less concern.
Our group returned home equipped with ideas for involving the community in changing how we think about and address water, building, and food problems in Birmingham. But we brought back something else quite important: the belief that by working together, we can make our great city a better one that will be sustainable for centuries to come.