Amsterdam's Modular Suburb - A Walking Tour of Ijburg

Amsterdam has a reputation as an innovative city in a challenging physical location.  As the city has pushed growth to the water’s edge it has slowly embraced new concepts such as modular building and floating communities.  One result of this thinking is a neighborhood called Ijburg.  Approved in 1997, Ijburg is built on a string of artificial islands connected by bridges and integrated into the city’s rail, auto, and bicycle transport networks.  This is a neighborhood built on water and designed to deliver housing for 45,000 residents, employment for 12,000, and full services including schools, shops, restaurants, a beach, and a cemetery.

It’s not clear whether modular development was considered in the planning phase but it has clearly been key to the buildout.  I had an intuition that it would be worth spending the better part of a day in this new enclave to tour the architecture and get a feel for the community.

Amsterdam was a stopover option when flying from Seattle to Stockholm.  Tyler Crowley had invited me to speak at this year’s STHLM tech conference in Stockholm.  My presentation was part of the ‘Sustainable Cities - Solutions’ track where tech companies were demonstrating their products and solutions to address global sustainability challenges such as food, water, energy, transportation, and cities.  Modular building is an increasingly attractive option for developers to quickly build energy efficient and connected communities in urban areas.   This method of development can also significantly reduce the material waste that is produced in the traditional construction process.

There are no direct flights from Seattle to Stockholm so I decided to stopover in Amsterdam to visit a neighborhood named Ijburg that I had read about and was eager to visit.  As I hopped into a Tesla Model S taxi from Schipol Airport it was clear that I changed continents.  I told the driver that I wanted to go to Ijburg and after giving me a slightly confused look he turned on the meter and we were off.  I really had no idea what to expect and had not spent time looking at maps of the area or prioritizing my time.  My goal was to walk the neighborhood and simply follow my intuition.  I exited the taxi into a seemingly typical European suburb: Working families, ethnically diverse, narrow roads, wider sidewalks, lanes and signals for bicycles and pedestrians, apartment blocks with courtyards, and multi-generations shopping for groceries and attending to daily life.

Walking through the low rise apartment blocks I emerged to the waterfront and saw new construction.  The new units in various stages of completion were modular structures with different forms and designs but all integrated into the neighborhood.  These were single family homes with water views using different materials and colors and wide open interior spaces.  I was starting to see that there were many different flavors of modular development in Ijburg which was exciting and not something I had seen in the US.  While the center of Ijburg was more concrete and higher density apartment blocks, the edges were more steel-framed modular, a wider variety of styles, and lower density.

As I continued to walk I saw more and more modular development.  There were big variations in style, materials, function, and density but these were all two or three story structures.  There were also modular bicycle storage structures, accessory dwelling units, and restaurants and small shops.  Was this the ‘missing middle’ that folks have been writing about in the US?  Was this a viable model for how we might develop infill areas in US cities?  If so then we should be excited to build the next generation of communities in the US.

Across the road and on the water I could see the floating home community that I had read about on my plane ride from Seattle.  As we are working with a developer in Portland to build a new floating home community using Bloks I was very curious to see this project.  As I approached on the sidewalk I could start to see the scale of the community and the layout which provides a connection to the land where residents park cars and unload groceries and bags.  The walkways are narrow but comfortable for two people to pass each other and with built in connections for storage of bicycles and kayaks.  This was a community that was fabricated more than it was constructed.  Rails, decks, foundations, sliding doors, and walkways all worked together to form a system of paths and connections that move people and things throughout this floating community.

Being next to the water in Amsterdam is convenient as was evidenced by the number of people I saw out on the water and the variety of activities.  I saw a group of people repeatedly blasting off and crashing back into the water wearing small jet packs on their backs.  There were boaters and windsurfers out on the water and a swim race along the main Ijburg canal.  There’s something wonderful about seeing people in wetsuits, swim caps, and flip flops walking around the neighborhood and having their post race meals at canal side cafes.

Ijburg is definitely a suburb but it’s a very European suburb in that cars are not first class citizens and the community is integrated with the water and with the city.  It’s a new suburb positioned at the fringe of what could be considered build-able space which is a fringe that exists in US cities like Portland, Seattle, Oakland, and many smaller cities and towns in between.  Perhaps I’m predisposed to like multi-cultural, multi-generational, walkable communities with good food and smiling people.  But I don’t think it’s just me.