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Engineering in the Netherlands

July 22, 2015

About Me 

As a rising senior, Matt Duranleau is studying Civil Engineering with a focus in Transportation Engineering. Matt grew up just outside of Portland, Maine, about two hours north of Boston. Matt has completed three co-ops in the greater Boston area, at Parsons Brinckerhoff, McMahon Associates, and HDR. Outside of class, Matt likes to spend time in the outdoors hiking and kayaking. Matt also is involved as an officer of Northeastern’s student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineering. This summer is Matt’s first time leaving North America.

Engineering in the Netherlands  

If someone had told me four years ago that I would be spending a summer studying in the Netherlands, I would have told them that they were crazy. Sure, I had heard good thing about the Netherlands, but I knew very little about the country beyond windmills and wooden shoes. Is that the best place that I could spend my summer? Well it turns out the answer is yes.

In my two weeks here so far, I’ve realized that there is much more to this country than windmills and wooden shoes (I haven’t even seen a single person wearing shoes made out of wood). The Netherlands is the densest countries in the world, and is also located mostly below sea level. Somehow the Dutch have managed to transform this land into the country that we know today. There are many lessons from this that I hopefully will be able to transfer to my everyday life.

The reason I’m here is to study sustainable urban transportation. The class is about studying the way the Dutch design transportation systems and how it differs from the U.S. The class also will talk about planning and land use, and how the Dutch take a very different approach to both. One of the main aspects of the Dutch transportation system is the inclusion of the bicycle. Bikes are a very popular mode of transportation in the Netherlands, and it seems like nearly everyone owns a bicycle. Biking in the Netherlands is much different than biking in Boston. In the Netherlands there are many different facilities built just for bikes. Most roads have dedicated cycle tracks paralleling the roadway separating cars from bikes. It makes biking much easier when you don’t have to deal with crazy traffic. The Netherlands has realized that biking is a sustainable, healthy, and environmentally friendly way to travel around, and they have promoted that mode with road designs that give space to bikes. From this vantage point it seems that the Dutch have really figured it out!

One of my first impression of the Netherlands (besides the large amount of bikes) is that every single square inch of the country seems to be utilized. Housing developments border straight up against farmland, with little buffer in between. The countryside is filled with farm after farm, and I later learned also filled with large greenhouses. The cities and towns I’ve encountered are very dense with nearly all housing being located in large apartment buildings or in townhouses. I’ve seen very few single family homes. I later learned that the landscape is like this due to a strong planning presence in this country which controls where developments can and cannot be located. The Netherlands sets specific development zones, and new buildings can only be built in these zones. So a large development of condos can be located right next to open farmland, and that farmland will never be developed unless the zoning changes. The city of Delft where we are staying is only about 15km from Rotterdam, but there's a large swath of undeveloped farmland separating the two cities that's not allowed to be developed. I find that interesting because it's so different from the U.S.

One stereotype that I have found to be true about the Netherlands is the proliferation of canals everywhere. Both the city and the countryside I’ve seen is filled with canals, both small and large. We learned that there are so many canals to help keep the part of the country that is below sea level nice and dry. The part of the country that is below sea level is pumped dry to prevent flooding, and that water is pumped into a nearby canal. Eventually that canal gets full, and it drains into a bigger canal and that continues until the water reaches the sea. I’m amazed by how much ingenuity the Dutch have. When this country has faced a problem, the people have worked together to find a solution.

This sense of ingenuity is something that I’m sure I will be able to bring back to Boston. When I face a major problem, I can channel the Dutch and think about it from a practical sense of view. If the Dutch can build a thriving society on land reclaimed from the sea while also promoting the use of the bicycle, I’m sure I can solve whatever problem I’m working on. While the Netherlands may have originally been one of the last places I thought I would spend my summer, it looks like it’s going to be more than worth it.