(Sub)/urbia

15 years ago, the city of Amsterdam began to build a new suburb.

The first residents got keys to their places in 2001, but even up until 2009, IJburg felt like an abandoned, post-apocalyptic landscape. There were lots of empty, half-finished buildings, and no one out on the streets. It was difficult to imagine anyone living there, or anyone wanting to live there.

The suburb was called IJburg, and it was meant to provide housing for 45 000 people on 6 man-made islands on the IJsselmeer, about a 10 minute drive or tram ride from the centre of Amsterdam, across the water from a typical centuries-old Dutch village called Durgerdam.

IJburg could not be more different. It’s a deliberate mix of the urban, at the edge of an enormous park...

and suburban...

and I’ve been obsessed with it since I moved here. At first horrified, now fascinated. After all, it’s not often you get to see a whole mini-city being built. It’s rare to see a place sprout up out of nowhere, to follow it from watching the islands being formed with sand sucked from the bottom of the IJsselmeer a la Dubai,

to a place that’s now starting discover its own vibe. I haven’t been there from the very beginning, but I have watched it go from being a place that was once eerily silent to a place that people not only call home, but are beginning to feel comfortable in, to claim as their own.

I go to IJburg about once a month, to track its progress. A couple of years ago it felt like a tumbleweed-a-tumblin’ kind of place, but now there are suddenly people about: 15 000 of them living on 2 completed islands. There’s a harbour, even.

And where once the only sound was the sound of pile drivers and unanswered car alarms, there is now the sound of living. Parents playing with children, residents making plans to get together. Traffic. Commerce.

This weekend, I asked a friend of mine who lives there to take me to her favourite places. We wove in and out of IJburg’s streets, along its canals,

looking at the luxurious homes mixed in with social housing, at buildings that seemed very inhabitable, and some vistas that just seemed strange, in a “What-were-they-thinking?” kind of way.

She took me to a place that hadn’t been finished yet, a large, abandoned sandy field were the local kids had made a playground out of found building materials – a train out of spools for PVC tubing, a pirate ship out of old wooden pallets, a tall crane and the latest new building in the background.

Finally, she took me to Blijburg, a beach at the edge of the suburb that seems about as far removed from IJburg as you can get.

It’s a place that a few years ago seemed to be perpetually full of the young and beautiful – from out of town – who wanted to party. But last Saturday afternoon, the dark bar on the beach –the kind of place you imagine spending a long, drunken evening shouting over a DJ – was filled with parents, kids, friends, grandparents.

It takes a village to raise a child, they say, but it takes people to make a village, and it’s nice to see people making it one. Finally.