Monday March 10, 2014 Polder Tour


Our day began by getting ready for the bus that was going to pick us up at 8:20; we were all on time and departed as scheduled. The plan was to visit 3 polders developed in the Netherlands: the Beemster, Nordoostpolder, and Flevopolders, and the system of dikes and canals that made possible their existence. At the same time we were going to see and experience the small towns and cities that had developed on this unique landscape and how they interact with the water.

As we traveled from Utrecht all the way up north to the Beemster polder, it was evident the difference in the landscape as we entered the polder and how the water is managed. Amsterdam and Utrecht both have canals that cross their towns and have shaped the cities around them, especially Amsterdam. However, in the polder, as is mainly dominated by farmland, a water system was created that supports and controls the levels and movement of water inside. Furthermore, even though it looks simple, the canal system is a complex network of ditches and canals of different sizes that move the water to the pumping plants to maintain the habitability of the polder but also works as transportation and recreation space for the community.

As we drive through the polders we stopped several times by the dikes to sketch, to get the feeling of the space and observe the design and the function. With each different stop I was interested by the variety of designs that were developed to accommodate each specific situation. In instances where the polder needs a stronger defense against wind and waves, stones are integrated into the dike’s wall and are also added at the base. On the other hand, some are just vegetated or have stones at the base to protect from weaker winds.  I also found it interesting that depending of the integrity and size of the dike, bikes and cars may drive on the top or they may use adjacent roads along them; as a result different styles of layouts for car and bicycle movement are presented in the dike’s designs.


As Vince, our instructor, said, it’s not a trip to the Netherlands unless you get hit by a bike.  Cycling has become almost as important to Dutch culture as windmills and dairy cows, which quickly became apparent to us on our first day in the city.  As we exited the train station when we first arrived in Utrecht, we confronted a sea of hundreds of bicycles, stacked vertically two or three high, in a labyrinth of bike parking.

Rush hour looked like a well-dressed Tour de France, as a steady current of students and businesspeople flowed down the bike lanes through the city, spilling out into the streets.  In fact, the cyclists pose more of a danger than cars when crossing the streets as a pedestrian, and the pleasant ring of the bell does not match the panic you feel when you realize that you are in one’s path.  The Dutch have an enthusiastic bike culture, to say the least.

Touring the polders around the Markermeer made it clear how the landscape is cyclist’s dream.  Without major hills and valleys to tire one out, it’s easy to see how a bike could keep going forever once it hit the pavement.  Probably even more flat that the prairies of the Midwest, you can travel for kilometers without gaining more than one meter in elevation.  One of the road signs we passed along a trail warned bikers of a mere 5% slope. It’s that flat.

The bikes and flat land were a similar flavor to what we have at home in Minneapolis, but what made it interesting, and very Dutch, was how the bike infrastructure intersected with the water infrastructure.  With dikes and canals crisscrossing the polders, it seems as if this would render a lot of surface area unusable.  Much of the water system, however, has been seamlessly incorporated into the transportation.  When a road encountered a dike along a canal or larger body of water, the bike trail peeled off from the road and ran along the top of the dike.  Polder land lay to one side, the car traffic below at the base of the dike, the bikes on top, and the expanse of the Markermeer lay to the other side.  This specific typology causes dikes to be almost integral to the experience of a cyclist, and form a strong relationship between water and recreation


During our trip to the Beemster, we visited a few old villages that were nestled along the water, surrounded by different channels or rivers. For hundreds of years, these people have had a tradition of living close to the water. Nowadays, the advanced sidewalk system beautifully connected the people’s daily life to water, and kept this historic relationship strong. These new ground surfaces provided a series of water experiences. We were surprised how people in Urk, a small town located on west side of IJsselmeer, enjoyed using the sidewalk along the waterfront, whether through jogging on curvilinear slope to the sea, walking their dog on a fair sand beach, or watching sea gull hunting fish in an artificial bay.

Spontaneous social event

Urban squares provide multifunctional spaces for people based on social needs, which make them an indispensable part of people’s lives in the Netherlands. For example, the square could serve as a place for people to park their cars during the week, then serve as a market place on the weekend where flowers, food, or daily supplies are sold. Because of the high density of people in a small downtown area, it appears that people have to make open space adaptable to daily life.

Home-style street life

In the towns we visited, whether it was a large one like Horn, or small village like Urk, we found that restaurants are a very common part of street life. It is pretty easy for tourists to find a place to sit at the many tables facing to the water or main streets, and enjoy the delicious home-made food. Local restaurants keep their doors open, even when business is slow. They make their window as clean as possible, or routinely prepare fresh food for the potential visitor—no matter if they come or not—because it is a part of their life.