More than 20 years ago, looking for space for new homes, Amsterdam decided to build some islands. It came up with a grand scheme, begun in 1997, to have a 10-island archipelago rise from the waters of IJmeer lake, capable of holding 18,000 homes.
One of those islands—Centrumeiland, or “Center Island”—rose above the waterline in 2015, when it found its first life as a campsite and arts installation. This year, it’s finally ready for building, and the plans for this new land are nearly as striking as the creation of the island itself. Soon to emerge on the new land is something that could stand as a global example: A new community that will be 70 percent self-built, populated mainly with affordable homes that will leave the lightest of possible carbon footprints.
Before we look at the outlines of that community, it’s worth recalling the distinctive history of its unusual site. Lying at the heart of Europe’s most densely populated country, Amsterdam has little room to grow if it isn’t to gobble up the last remaining green space in the polycentric 8.5 million-strong Randstad metropolitan region. What the city does have on its doorstep, however, is water—lots of it. That water comes in the form of the IJmeer lake, created in the 1930s when the mouth of what was formerly a bay was closed off with a huge dyke. After the IJmeer’s creation, the Netherlands expanded phenomenally onto land reclaimed from the lake’s shallow bed. Since 1939 it has created an entire new province on the IJmeer’s polders, now home to over 400,000 people and containing the largest artificial island in the world.
This huge expansion had an interesting effect on Amsterdam. Instead of expanding the city, it exported citizens out of the crowded core to entirely new towns—notably the 200,000-resident city of Almere—that, by Dutch standards, are some distance from the city center. The new island chain that houses Centrumeiland takes a different approach. Called IJburg, it’s altogether more modest, destined to house 45,000 people. But it’s also a natural extension of Amsterdam, whose Central Station is reachable from the IJburg by streetcar in just 15 minutes.
Centrumeiland is the seventh island in the new archipelago, and it should be the greenest yet. For a start, the homes on the new island—there should be 1,200 when complete—will be especially resilient in the face of high water. Each building will be protected from flooding by being elevated onto a low mound slightly above the level of the public spaces. These mounds, called Terpen, have in fact been used in this region since prehistory to make life feasible in areas of unpredictable tides. To make the island even more flood resistant, all green areas will be threaded with small, open storm channels that can feed rainwater into the unsurfaced parts of the island and thus keep drains from overflowing.
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