Houten was developed from a tiny town of 4000 to a much larger town of 30,000 in the late nineties and then 50,000 by 2015. These two phases involved making a northern ring and later expanding by adding a southern ring. The planners left the old town center mostly intact, but decided to give the new ring a central hub at the railway station. Radiating out from this center are green spaces that run between the neighborhoods. Only bikes and pedestrians are allowed in these green spaces. Cars can access all of the houses, but they have to come from the ring road surrounding the town rather than central roads that radiate out. This inversion of car access means that the central green spaces are quiet, safe, and car free.
The second ring was treated somewhat differently. It has a core and a ring road just like the first expansion, but instead of radiating spokes of green space, there is a pentagon of green corridors about half way between the town center and the outer ring.
I got to explore the northern portion of the town by bicycle and I think the inner spokes of green space are a successful piece of design. It provides a safe place for children to play and go to school. It also encourages people to run errands and visit friends by bike. The concept of making city centers free of cars is a good one, but I think that there are major city planning problems that Houten’s planners did not address at all.
More than 60 percent of Houten’s population commutes out of the town to work everyday. Houten is unique in it’s layout, but in many way it is not different than an American suburb. I am much more impressed with plans that minimize traffic in large city centers because it encourages people to live inside the city and commute to work by bike. Houten does nothing to promote sustainable commuting because there are few jobs in town that match the incomes and skill sets of the residents. I don’t have statistics to back this up, but I suspect that houses in Houten are expensive, and that most people who live there have high paying jobs in Utrecht. The residents move out of Houten to work, and people who can’t afford to live in Houten come there to work the jobs in town.
If there had been more effort to get companies to build offices in Houten’s town centers or close around it’s ring, I think the problem of long commutes would be less. The admirable experiment of a town with green cores and few cars doesn’t make up for the fact that Houten is a suburb 30 minutes from Utrecht, not a self–sufficient town in itself.