Everyone, at one point or another has stumbled into a neighborhood that for reasons beyond their control, immediately intrigued, energized, and compelled them to stay awhile; the best neighborhoods in the world have distinct identity, opportunities to look at or interact with other people, and afford freedom to the people who occupy the space. Often these places that draw us in are easy to understand and difficult to describe because they go beyond successful urban design and convenient location to provoke feeling.
One of those neighborhoods that always calls to me is the Latin Quarter of Amsterdam known as ‘De Pijp.’ Outside of the direct city center that has a distinctly ‘touristy’ atmosphere and is crowded with an excessive amount of souvenir shops, De Pijp has a lively, authentic, and varied feel to it that exemplifies much of what I love about Amsterdam, and cities in general. The features that contribute to the vibrant feeling of this nineteenth-century neighborhood are likely found in the neighborhoods you’ve felt intrigued by in the past as well. Observations made about a particular neighborhood tell those of us who are interested in cities more about people than they do about urban planning, per se, but ultimately are important in creating more human, vibrant, and social places in the future.
One of the first things that provokes curiosity about this part of town is the diversity of the area from a visual and aesthetic point of view. Jan Gehl, a Danish architect and urban planner focused on human-centered design, has found that having a diversity of street features draws people in to enjoy, linger, and interact, whereas more uniform streets with fewer functions and a lack of variety cause people to pass by as quickly as possible. These ‘antisocial’ spaces that people tend to avoid, break down the positive aspects that can be gained from public space such as chance interaction among strangers. They are often empty, dull, and sterile; devoid of interaction among individuals and lacking a relationship between people and the built form.
Wandering through De Pijp you are able to enjoy a myriad of city views at every turn; short blocks with a selection of small and diverse food options, long blocks with cafés and outdoor seating, and a mix of shops to stop in to along the way, enabling people to linger in the area and sustaining interest throughout. The area feels cozy with a multitude of places to sit down or lean, public art, and interesting shop windows. The amenities and creative feel of the area are accentuated through dense housing knit into the landscape. Rather than separating a residential area from the amenities that people want to enjoy, the interweaving of housing, services, and novelties makes for an interesting physical landscape and means people don’t have to travel outside of the neighborhood to find a craft store, groceries, or a park to relax in. It also offers diversity throughout the day, a feature that affects safety through an increase in the number of people naturally watching over a street, famously coined as ‘eyes on the street’ by Jane Jacobs. Diversity throughout the day is important for the livelihood of a neighborhood because it means that an area will be used for primary functions such as work or school during typical working hours, as well as after-work and evening activities that keep people in an area. Financial districts often suffer from a lack of vitality due to the lack of mixed uses of the area scattered throughout the day and areas which become desolate after dark may feel unsafe and unpleasant to walk around in when the usual day-crowd dwindles. Maintaining a variety of services throughout the day preserves the area as mixed-use, ensuring that it’s not taken over by banks, or bars, or souvenir shops, alone, but rather occupied by a mix of unique places that draw in different people at different times.
When thinking of the street, public space, or neighborhood that you have most enjoyed spending time in, likely one of the main aspects you remember about it is the other people who were there. Social contact in public is a long discussed topic regarding cities. Random and spontaneous interactions in public spaces can be brought about through good design and lead to an increase in tolerance and social learning among individuals. Philosopher Walter Benjamin said that “the rigid, isolated object… is of no use whatsoever. It must be inserted into the context of living social relations.” In other words, where there is life, more life will follow. De Pijp fits this structure perfectly: because the area is so vibrant and full of interesting things to see and do, it invites more vibrancy and people to come and enjoy it.
Successful neighborhoods should also allow people different degrees of contact with one another. Open green space such as Sarphatipark in the heart of De Pijp provides space to relax, spend time in nature and makes people visible to one another while not in direct contact. At the same time, it provides a retreat and the benefits of integrating green space into a dense urban environment. On the other end of the social spectrum, close socialization with others can be found at any of the cafés with outdoor seating or the Albert Cuypt Market, the largest and most popular outdoor market in the Netherlands. The market turns an ordinary street into 260 unique stands, six days a week where tourists and locals alike can buy fresh produce, trinkets, handmade ornaments, and international cuisine. The market is a staple of this neighborhood, providing a platform for people to celebrate their communities, as well as interesting views and an abundance of people-watching opportunities.
Lastly, an integral part of an interesting public realm can be found in the flexibility of management and allowing people to interact with and enjoy a space in the way they choose, so long as it doesn’t cause harm to others. In other words, cities should be designed with people as the focal point and should respond to the desires and wishes of those people, rather than restrict them. There are an abundance of strategies that have been embraced by city governments around the world in order to allow people to enjoy space the way they want, such as removing rocks from a waterfront area to allow for safe swimming and legalizing open containers. When summer is in full swing, you can enjoy a beer in Sarphatipark with your friends without concern, a luxury not often afforded to citizens in North American cities. Beyond legality, certain behaviors are made more comfortable and delightful through clever strategies. For example, sunshine in Amsterdam is somewhat of a special occasion, yet outdoor seating at restaurants in De Pijp can be found all year round; the culture nearly requires that restaurants provide blankets and heating lamps to guests in the winter to allow them to enjoy the outdoors comfortably. This brings more people out in public and increases the convivial atmosphere of the neighborhood greatly.
Ultimately, the feeling of a neighborhood is shaped by the community that created it. De Pijp has a distinctly creative and diverse flavor that reflects the community that it is a part of and is one of many vibrant Amsterdam neighborhoods that facilitates interactions among individuals. By allowing flexibility, encouraging variety on the street, and enabling people to have varying degrees of contact with one another, a neighborhood has the ability to feel lively and inclusive, interesting and intriguing.
What do you think are the most important aspects of a vibrant neighborhood? Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments below.
Credits: Images by Holly Hixson. Data linked to sources.