It is interesting how profound moments seem to come when least expected. From the beginning, the intentions of this trip were to gain a better understanding of dense, urban spaces, but my biggest realization so far has been during a night of solitude. At almost exactly 500 miles into my tour, I stopped for the night in a small, free campsite about 30 miles outside of Brussels. For Europe, free camping is hard to come by, in Belgium especially, and is only allowed in special sites called “Bivakzones.” To top it off, it’s the first night I have had without any neighbors, even in other campsites, and the first time I have been able to have a campfire. After taking an ice-cold shower from the pump of an on-site well, it was pretty special to sit by a fire and wait for the sun to set at 11pm. During that evening, I realized how much I have taken for granted the vast open space we have in the American Southwest. It also put into perspective why it’s important to invest in our cities, so we can preserve our wilderness.
To detour a bit, the title of this blog is a nod to the author John Stilgoe, who’s writing was recommended to me before I left. Revealing insight about the history of urban development in the United States, he often writes from the wandering explorer’s perspective. In his book “What is Landscape?,” Stilgoe goes back and looks at the origins of the words we use to describe our environment. So for us in the United States, landscape typically refers to picturesque wilderness, free of human intervention. At its origins though, landscape derives from the Frisian language of the Netherlands, mispronounced by mariners as “landschop,” meaning shoveled land. So, for a word that we typically use to describe natural land, it is actually meant to describe manufactured land for human development. With the majority of my interests being in the cities of the Netherlands, it was only fitting.
Getting back to where I was, up to this point in my tour there I have yet to see truly natural wilderness, so in its true definition, everything has been at some scale a form of an urban landscape. Whether it be a city center, or rural agriculture to sustain urban development. Recently, I have just been teasing myself with The Netherlands, crossing through into Germany, and then dropping back through again to get to Brussels. The Dutch culture is unique though, even with plenty of bike infrastructure in Germany and Flanders, it really doesn’t compare. Villages and city centers alike thrive with bicycles. A long commute for someone consists of riding to the nearest bus stop, locking their bike, and taking the bus into the city. Eindhoven was impressive especially, once an industrial city, and transformed into the Dutch design capital through adaptive reuse. Phillip’s Electronics buildings that were once used for manufacturing are scattered across the city, and are now repurposed as multi-use developments for universities and private investors. Apparently, the city wanted to tear the buildings down after Phillips had abandoned Eindhoven following the war, but the heavy-duty construction of them would have made it nearly impossible. They did survive the war after all. Anyways, it worked out for the better, because the people are much more pleased with their “hip” city, than the major roadways that would have been the alternative.