On Friday morning I landed at Schiphol International Airport in the Netherlands to begin my ten week stay in Europe studying the ecology and culture of landscapes that shape- and are shaped by- water. The Netherlands that we see today is an entirely manufactured landscape. As they say, “God created the world, but the Dutch created Holland.” Beyond the obvious human constructions such as medieval architecture, cobblestone streets, and romantic canals– all fascinating in their own right– the actual land that supports this ephemera is also an embellishment. Given that more than one fourth of the countryside lies below sea-level and that much of the country is habitable due only to reclamation through a series of polders and dikes, Holland is an excellent place to observe such a designed landscape.
The Netherlands is said to have more than 3000 polders, or low-lying areas purposely drained by pumping (the Dutch windmills) water out of floodplains or marshes and then enclosing the area with extensive dikes. Utrecht, the city where I will live for the next month, is built upon such a polder. Where once a river flowed, there is now a network of canals; where once a swamp existed, now we have the 2000 year old city of Utrecht.
Utrecht was founded by the Romans in the year 50CE as a place to ford the Kromme Rijn, or Crooked Rhine. Although it was an important Roman fortress, continuous invading by Germanic tribes caused the city to be abandoned 200 years later. Following the passage of some 500 years, Catholic bishops from England began to use Utrecht as a base from which to Christianize northern Europe. This era continued in various forms with manifold implications until the 16th Century when political and economic forces began to replace religious rule in Utrecht.
Given the city’s proximity to the Rhine, its importance in shipping continued to reign. The canalization of the Kromme Rijn began in earnest in the 1100s and shaped the identity of the city as one oriented around an inner city harbor. Wharfs were constructed along the canal followed by the building of werfkelders, or storage facilities. These cellars were eventually topped by streets and houses so that the commercial, residential, and transportation systems were all tied to the canal. This has created the multi-tiered geometry that we note on Utrecht’s urban fabric: The canal is the lowest point with a pedestrian thoroughfare adjacent at water’s level. These are currently used, in addition to private canal access, by restaurants and shops. Periodically, steps bring the pedestrian away from the water level up to the streets where commercial and residential establishments line the canal edge. The buildings along the canal are often five or six stories tall which creates an exciting vertical relief in this otherwise very horizontal landscape.