All about cycling in the Netherlands
Every day, many people pass Haarlemmerplein in Amsterdam. Most are on their bicycle nowadays. The square was redesigned fairly recently, but you would never guess that this is a square that was originally designed as a parking lot! In the late 16th century this place was designed as a storing space for horse-drawn carriages. After it was built in the early 17th century, it was used – as the name of the square suggests – by people coming from and going to Haarlem.
In the latest redesign (2013) Haarlemmerplein became a people’s place, more than it had ever been since the car arrived. But the plan for this reconstruction met with criticism when it was made public late 2012. The Vereniging Vrienden van de Amsterdamse Binnenstad (Society of Friends to the Amsterdam City Centre) thought that “the plans do not meet the aesthetic criteria one could demand for a reconstruction of a square in a historic city centre. These plans fail in pretences without a real ambition.”
The society was particularly annoyed about a planned body of water at the location of the former sea dike that used to protect Amsterdam. Water at the location of a dike felt like a historic error. The society would much rather have seen an open square with cobble stones. Also, the sight lines from Haarlemmerdijk to the gate were not emphasised. Instead, a red asphalt strip (of the cycleway) would traverse the square passing the water on the outside with a bend. Despite these comments, the plans seem to have been executed as planned, but the “body of water” was taken out of the design. What remains is a row of fountains that spit out water that says on a paved area. On sunny days children play in the fountains. It would perhaps have been nicer if the cycleway had been projected straight from Haarlemmerdijk in the direction of the gate, but you need to cross the main road elsewhere, so from a traffic perspective that cycleway makes more sense as it is built now.
The new square draws tourists. Also ones that come for the cycling especially. So many tourists discovered the square, that some residents fear their neighbourhood will change too much with the interests of these tourists in mind. They started a petition to fight plans for bars and restaurants in the former city gate.
It is no wonder tourists would visit Haarlemmerplein. It is a square at the edge of the Amsterdam Canal District. The seventeenth-century canals of Amsterdam, the successful outcome of city planning, were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in August 2010.
“The Amsterdam Canal District is the design at the end of the 16th century and the construction in the 17th century of a new and entirely artificial ‘port city.’ It is a masterpiece of hydraulic engineering, town planning, and a rational programme of construction and bourgeois architecture. It is a unique and innovative, large-scale but homogeneous urban ensemble.”
Haarlemmerplein was the place where – as the name suggests – carriages for and from Haarlem would gather and be parked. People arriving to the city at this location would travel further into the city on foot through Haarlemmerdijk and Haarlemmerstraat. The city gate, now present at Haarlemmerplein, dates from 1840. It replaced the original 17th century gate house. Right behind this gate, the first railway line of the Netherlands (also to Haarlem) started. The railway was later relocated farther north and connected to the present central railway station on an artificial island. Between that relocated railway and Haarlemmerdijk and Haarlemmerstraat, there was only a small strip of homes left. They were so neglected and rundown by the late 1950s, that Amsterdam got a splendid idea. With the demolition of those old houses a strip of land would become available for a major 6-lane highway all the way to central station. This would “open up” the city for the dream of the time: space for every working man to own a car that he could park in front of his own home. The highway would connect to the one that would run from the east through Jodenbreestraat, that I wrote about earlier. Also in this case the projected road was never built as intended, due to a lot of social unrest and protests, but the rundown houses were demolished. A much narrower road was built, named after the demolished neighbourhood. The remaining space in Haarlemmerhout tuinen was used for bleak housing estates from the 1980s which replaced the original buildings.
The ‘new’ (1973) Haarlemmerhout tuinen road carries most traffic, making Haarlemmerdijk/Haarlemmerstraat a main route for cycling. In line with the new thinking about city design, prevalent in Amsterdam today. From an outsider’s perspective it is very strange that motor vehicles can still use Haarlemmerdijk/Haarlemmerstraat. I would think it could have been made car free years ago. At least Haarlemmerplein was made mostly car free and you can see lots of people pass on their bikes. This being Amsterdam, the peace and tranquillity is often disturbed by scooters, mopeds and vehicles for the disabled, sometimes used by people who are not disabled at all. Luckily ordinary people cycling are the majority, so it is still a joy to watch them pass. Enjoy!
Cycling on the Amsterdam Haarlemmerplein.