For four weeks last summer, I was given the opportunity, in part by the Martijn Zwart Scholarship, to study in the northern Dutch city of Groningen. While at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, I participated in a program called “Society, Environment, Transportation, and Space: The Dutch Experience.” The program largely concerned itself with how Dutch cities manage their space through urban development, infrastructure, and water management systems. A large emphasis was placed on the compact city policy which aims to limit urban sprawl and promote dense cities as a way to contribute to the sustainability of the city and promote community building. As part of the program, we took many guided excursions in and around Groningen and through the rest of the country. Some highlights were driving over the Afsluitdijk, visiting the port of Rotterdam, and taking a trip to Blauwestad, a “floating city” in the province of Groningen.
Because I was already familiar with Dutch culture through the Dutch program, my travels could best be described as a search for “authentic Dutch culture.” A few weeks in, I had a realization that the overlooked and mundane aspects of society were exactly what I was searching for. It wasn’t the landmarks and landscapes but the modesty that I encountered every day that allowed me to analyze the more intricate meanings of culture. I tuned into the terse way individuals interacted at the supermarket and the way bikers or pedestrians would brush by others without apologies. These small overlooked behaviors revealed a lot about how Dutch culture treats the concept of space. Consciousness of closely shared spaces seemed to influence people to behave in a more modest, but less apologetic fashion.
My experience in Groningen and elsewhere in the Netherlands left me with a new perspective and a way to contemplate the concept of space and how people collectively take responsibility to exist within it. This is not so unrealistic a goal for American society to aspire to. If we took a cue from the Dutch on these matters, we could begin to solve some of our societal problems stemming from greed and our fixation on private property. Space exists all around us; how we choose exist within it is of huge importance. For me, it took leaving my space to begin to tackle these issues.