the 94 tram running on Avenue Louise, Brussels, Belgium, under a canopy of tree leaves and on a bed of grass

Observations from a Minnesota Urbanist in Belgium, the Netherlands and Greece

My wife and I recently returned from a magical two weeks in Belgium, the Netherlands and Greece. In some ways, it’s devastating to return to our car-bound home after two weeks in urban and rural-urban paradise.

I am consistently struck by how gorgeous, livable and intertwined with nature and agriculture both cities and country towns are in the places I visited. From my view of Amsterdam when coming in to land at Schiphol, to riding fast, clean, low-floor trams across Brussels, to the beautiful integration of city, town and forest, agriculture and greenspace, I was surrounded by the kind of land use that Americans tend to think is either impossible or only for the rich. So, I will do my best to share some of what I saw and learned.

Dutch Towns and Countrysides

I spent a few days with my wife’s Oma and Opa in Nieuw-Bergen, where my Dutch in-laws have a modern, well-crafted single-family home. Nieuw-Bergen is a dorpje on the Maas River, a major shipping channel, south of Nijmegen, near the border with Germany, and nestled among rural farms and the Maasduinen National Park. In Nieuw-Bergen and its smaller older sibling, Bergen (built closer to the river, but only a 5-minute bike ride from the Nieuw-Bergen city center), there are a number of single-family homes and a plurality of gorgeous rowhomes, and a few apartments integrated with the modern town square.

Though single-family detached homes (SFH) remain a major part of the housing stock, thanks to the intentional density and limits on sprawl, I can bike to the supermarket, bus to the next town or bike to the next town. The residents regularly walk to the town square to do their shopping. All this is possible while staying in my in-law’s detached SFH. When driving, biking or taking the train in the Netherlands, the beauty, livability and calm are palpable. And yes, even here in these towns with a combined population of roughly 5,000, it’s denser than any given American suburb.

Neiuw-Bergen’s Markt Plein (Market Square) on a busy day. Picture from (Regional Government Website).

The Dutch countryside has excellent regional highways, a network matched by off-road bike trails that crisscross the countryside, sometimes along regional highways and sometimes through rural areas where no roads are to be found. 

And it’s not just the dorpjes (small towns, pronounced DORP-yuh) that let you walk a short way from home to both the countryside and grocery. When taking off from Amsterdam to return, I was astounded that a city of 921,000 amid a metro area of 1.5 million should look less “built up,” with much more green and agricultural space, than even American suburbs from above.

Amsterdam from above. The iconic canal pattern can be seen in the mid-upper left.

You can have high space needs and want a quiet life, and get all of that, while living in a small town in the country with farm fields a 5-minute walk out your door. Or perhaps, by living in a city that is intertwined with rural productive land. From my perspective, this model feels peaceful, sustainable, and wise; cars need to be phased out for us to survive as a species. Electric cars are a stopgap boondoggle that lets people think the individual vehicle might be feasible in a climate catastrophe world. The Dutch seem to have it at least partially figured out; young Dutch people have the freedom to move about the countryside without any need for their own vehicles, and the wind fully powers the train system.

While visiting the dense old city of Leiden, just 30 minutes by train from Amsterdam, we were impressed that the city could invest in floral displays and plantings throughout the city. This was a striking contrast to St. Paul, where roundabouts get plantings only when private entities or neighbors step up to plant and tend gardens.

A bridge over a canal in Leiden’s city center.

The Streetcars of Brussels

From the Netherlands we journey southeast to Brussels, Belgium. We visited for three days to meet with old mentors and enjoy the many sights of one of my favorite cities. Every time I visit Brussels, I am immersed by the feeling that it’s a city I would want to live in. The marvelous trams always take the cake for me. There are old PCC’s, as well as beautiful, comfortable low-floor trams. On top of that, the city has been transformed from one of the most car-centric towns of Europe to a walker’s paradise. Boulevard Anspach, a major street, has been turned permanently into a walking mall, full of planters and street cafés.

Although Brussels did invest heavily in American-style office districts and highways, both under and overground, unlike Minneapolis-St. Paul, the city still has a legacy tram system that has been updated and improved over the years. In terms of ridership, speed and comprehensiveness, it makes even our proposed BRT/light rail combined networks look archaic and stunted by comparison. We need metro lines, and we need rail that feeds the metro lines in all the parts of the city that might allow or move toward density.

Boulevard Anspach in the heart of the Brussels City Center. Photograph from Visit.Brussels, Jean-Paul Remy 2020.

Cities with legacy streetcar networks, like Brussels and Budapest, don’t make the mistake of locking themselves into “light rail” or “modern streetcar” modalities. They build dedicated guideways and, when possible, larger stations and underground lines, also running in the street if necessary. In Minnesota, the focus seems to be on light rail that never shares the street. This format is slow and expensive to build, and we still don’t have much of it. While some versions of the Riverview Corridor do allow some flexibility between modalities, local planners seem to assume that we can’t have worthwhile rail without lots of space for stops.

The following picture shows how in Brussels, a narrow street that allows cars can have a handicap-accessible, low-floor tram that runs fast and gets tons of ridership. We hear all the time, “It can’t be done here.” I think we all need to question, “why not?” and “how can we work with what’s already here?”

A high-frequency, low-floor tram off of Avenue Louise, stopped on a city street.

We can change our definition of light rail to be flexible and encompass a broader range of rail transit planning, maybe even including stretches on the street. (Or maybe we ought to just start asking for trams!) I found that YouTuber RM Transit agrees with me. We could learn a lot from European tram planning.

Urbanism and Transit in Epirus, Greece and the Ionian Island of Corfu

This past month, I also had the great pleasure of visiting the island of Corfu (Kerkyra) and the town of Preveza in Epirus, both in Greece, which are the places my great grandfather Menachem Ackos and my yiayia (grandmother) Esther Winthrop (née Ackos) were born. I explored the history of the Romaniote Greek-Jewish communities I hail from and saw castles, ruins and ancient history with a backdrop of the sparkling turquoise Ionian Sea. Epirus, a historical kingdom, geographic region in northwestern Greece and southwestern Albania, and a modern administrative region in the northwest of Greece, is more car-centric than the other parts of Europe I visited.

The island of Corfu has a densely packed old city core but only 30,000 permanent residents. Locals rely on cars and mopeds, as well as buses and ferries. We rode the bus a number of times in Corfu, and though its ridership was very high (full buses most of the time), frequency was low and buses were inconsistent. The ferries from the island to the mainland, on the other hand, are affordable, regular and heavily used. We intended to take the regional bus from Igoumentisa (a ferry port where the ferries from Corfu go hourly) to Preveza, but we soon found issues with that plan.

The bustling ferry port of Igoumenitsa.

Sadly, on September 1, the day we were going to make this trip, the bus was cut to its less-frequent off-season schedule, with trips only Friday and Sunday, not Saturday when we were hoping to go, or Monday when we intended to return. This meant we had to rent a car and make the mountainous journey through Epirus from the port town and ferry hub of Igoumenitsa to Preveza, roughly 70 minutes to the south.

Thanks to the mountainous terrain and Greece’s low GDP, trains are limited in Greece. We once rode from Athens to Thessaloniki, but there is no train route where we were visiting in northwestern Greece and the Ionian Island of Corfu. Nevertheless, even without trains, my wife and I were excited to visit Preveza — a picturesque port town with ancient roots, and it’s where my beloved yiayia was born.

Though these less-populous parts of Greece were less well served by transit, the strength of historic city planning combined with modern infrastructure and housing were still striking. Preveza, a town of about 30,000 at the mouth of the Ambracian Bay and its strait into the Ionian Sea, has been around for nearly 2,000 years. Its old city and town limits, however, are fairly modern and very dense. We rented an apartment near the beach on the outskirts of town, but could walk to the city center and the old Jewish quarter in about 15 minutes, past three-, four- and sometimes five- and six-story concrete apartment buildings. The buildings had mostly similar-looking designs, but seemed solid, pleasant and livable. Many buildings had wrap-around balconies where residents could enjoy the sea air, and some appeared to be one apartment or home per floor.

Preveza’s small-town urbanism on display in the evening.

What I found most striking about Preveza was that even near the center of the city — and throughout the outskirts — orchards, olive groves and other small food gardens dotted the cityscape. People used cars and mopeds like on Corfu, but also joined us in walking through the town. Since we were on the outskirts, I had to walk about 15 minutes to find a grocery store that was open on a Sunday, but when I arrived there were two tiny grocery stores next to one another.

The olive grove down the road from our apartment rental.

The trip has led me to consider moving to Corfu. Sometimes transforming our country and city and region into a world and society that can let us survive and thrive seems like an impossible task. How do we go from concrete jungles linked by stroads to urban and rural oases, interconnected? I’m certain of this: We can learn so much from all the other thousands of approaches to urbanism besides the 20th-century American debacle.

As we densify our urban core by allowing and encouraging new housing types, we need to serve the urban core with trams and heavy rail. To have high ridership and great transit, I think it makes more sense for us to focus on the urban core and not make every line extend out to the suburbs. To survive the century of climate catastrophe unfolding, we may need to abandon great swaths of unsustainable development and concentrate into walkable towns, cities and country, interconnected by rail as much as roads.

A desirable urban future looks a lot like the small-town urbanism I found in Neiuw-Bergen and Preveza, and like the dense, transit-friendly, green-filled cities of Brussels and Leiden. We can meet everyone’s needs better, and have more access to beautiful green commons and local food sources. But it will take a radically different approach to building and transit planning. It also requires we embrace row homes and missing middle housing, and demand public spaces and commons like town squares.

An Art Nouveau row house in Saint-Gilles, across from the Hotel de Ville.
The Hotel de Ville (city hall) of the Commune (neighborhood/borough) of Saint-Gilles. An open-air market is taking up the square in front of the palace-like borough hall.

My biggest takeaway from the two-week trip is that we need beautiful, high-quality row homes and midrise apartment homes. We need walkable town squares in each town and every part of our cities that are free of cars. We need more agriculture integrated with our cities. We need high-quality, regular transit, like trams and metro, in the Twin Cities, at a high frequency like we once enjoyed. That will be more feasible after we meet missing-middle housing needs with exceptional, high-quality housing that is desirable and accessible for all, like I saw in Belgium, the Netherlands and Greece.

Together, we can rise to the challenges of a livable urban future.

Photos by David Ackos unless otherwise noted

Articles Near This Location