Amsterdam, painted by Jan Micker in 1652, 350 years before Google Earth.
Lately I have been provoked to reflect on the shapes and forms of urbanism past and future, about the nature of compact and dense urban places, and about what makes the next city, or any city, literally sustainable. Let me explain.
This last weekend we had a chance to make a last-minute visit to the National Gallery here, to see a sensational exhibition entitled “Pride of Place: Dutch Cityscapes of the Golden Age.” Featured were dozens of wonderful paintings, maps, and drawings of 17th century Dutch cities. Unfortunately for my readers, the show closed May 3rd. There is, however, a terrific catalog if you’re inclined.
This was a time of a powerful and compelling urbanism in the Dutch low country: Amsterdam, Delft, Haarlem, The Hague and other cities were burgeoning with wealth, commerce, and an explosion of what Daniel Burnham would much later call civic loyalty.
Jacob van Ruisdael, Haarlem, 1672.
17th century Dutch cities all shared a few common characteristics. They were watery – canals and barges are everywhere in the paintings. They were very dense and very compact. They had extraordinary public spaces, ranging from plazas in front of the City Hall or Church, to marketplaces, to tree lined quays along the banks of the canals (my favorite: the bier kade or beer quay, depicted by Jan van der Heyden in 1670 Amsterdam).
Jan van der Heyden, Amsterdam, 1670. The Bier Kade is at the left.
And interestingly, they were walled. They had very distinct edges. They were separated from the surrounding landscape for reasons of security, certainly. And to contain the water, perhaps. But I think something more may have been involved in maintaining this kind of very sudden and distinct threshold between the urban and the rural. Sustenance. Sustainability.
Cities have always been predicated on surplus. And Dutch cities enjoyed a surplus of foodstuff from the immediate and adjacent fields, as well as the bounties of their commerce and trade with distant markets.
In 1670 Amsterdam was a city of 200,000. This meant nearly a million pounds of food a day, every day, to keep everyone whole. And no Safeway, Costco, or Lean Cuisine in the freeze.
So agricultural land was a critical factor in making this urbanism possible. The dense and compact city could work because there was plenty of tillable land immediately adjacent to the community. Many of these paintings depict a completely rural setting with grazing beeves and rows of potatoes within a few feet of the city walls. Food was very close at hand.
And today, in our cities? Today, less than 2% of Americans are farmers. A typical supermarket stocks over 45,000 items, from all over the world. We have endless choice, all year round: asparagus in February, cherries in December. Food remains close at hand, thanks to an industrialized agriculture that reaches to every corner of the globe to put food on our tables.
This is a system that is, of course, completely untenable (read unsustainable), from any number of perspectives: pollution, security (when we can no longer sustainably feed ourselves and must rely on others, we can no longer rely on access to necessary quantity and quality), water scarcity, health. While it is true that grain production has increased three-fold since 1950, the real cost of this productivity is becoming clear as water disappears and aquifers dry out, streams and rivers are polluted, the air is filled with livestock methane and CO2, and increased demand drives prices up, both here and abroad. It now takes 10 calories of fuel to produce one calorie of food on Giant’s shelves. That’s five times more than 50 years ago.
So what about the next city? Maybe the Old Masters have something to teach us after all. Take a look at this:
10,000 feet above Fairfax, Virginia.
Here we are, 15 miles from the Washington Monument, in suburban Virginia. Cul-de-sacs and cars, strip centers, and folks spread out all over the place. You could pick most any American city and find the same patterns of settlement.
Now I am not advocating building walls around our cities. And I am going to continue to stay out of the “what-to-do-with-the-suburbs” debate. But I am struck by those 17th century paintings, that agriculture so close to the dense city. If we actually were to make the next city much more dense, as I think we eventually must, perhaps we too could sustain ourselves from nearby fields.
What, exactly, is a sustainable city? If a sustainable city is one that can support itself, and meet its needs, without doing so at the expense of others present or future, near or far, then perhaps the Dutch cities of the 17th century were indeed a Golden Age. Een taal is nooit genoeg.
Jacob von Ruisdael, view of Amsterdam, 1680.