For Cultural Understanding: A Different Concept of Space

By Christine Karren

Leiden minihouse

When we first became homeowners in the Netherlands, we lived in a three-story duplex not far from Amsterdam.  The house was fairly large-sized for the Netherlands, but noticeably smaller than the American houses where we grew up.  The living/dining/kitchen combination was on the ground floor, three small bedrooms were on the first floor up, and an attic where our washer and dryer were located was on top.  


The house had one bathroom and one ‘water-closet,’ with a toilet and a mini-sink with one cold-water knob.  Each of the two spiral-staircases connecting floors was in a closet of its own.  Multiple falls down the dangerously small stairs showed our difficulty in adapting.  When my American grandmother came to visit and cook, she said she felt like she was cooking in a dollhouse.  This was a full-sized Dutch family home.  A suburban American would have considered our home modest in size, but from a Dutch perspective, we were living high on the hog! 

Dutch Spaces 101

I grew up in the United States, one of the largest countries in the world.  It’s known worldwide for its large cars, large refillable drinks, and large open spaces.  The Netherlands, where we live now, is a tiny country in comparison, located roughly between the UK and Germany.  It’s around the same size as Maryland, and just under twice the size of New Jersey, to put it into an American perspective of area.  You can easily drive across it in a day.  But the Netherlands is home to some seventeen million people, and is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe.  Roughly four hundred people live in every square kilometer, around a thousand per square mile.  To add to that, Dutch people are statistically the tallest in the world, so the result is a lot of big people living very closely together.  With all these people living in such a small area, you might expect it to be an over-crowded, congested, and uncomfortable place.  It isn’t.  Actually, it is by far the most clean and orderly place I’ve ever lived.  But the limited space has a great bearing on the country’s culture.

Having lived in the Netherlands for over twenty years now, I still remind myself regularly that those who grew up here have a ‘different concept of space’ than I do having grown up American.  They HAVE to.  This is how they manage homes, businesses, cities, and even relationships in a living space that’s probably a third of the size of what I grew up accustomed to.  Most Dutch people are amazing managers of space, and they know how to clean and maintain spaces like no one else.  After all, when space is limited, its value increases, and so does the care and attention one gives it.  My Dutch friends sometimes tell me they are too busy cleaning their houses or yards to make other plans.  It always surprises and encourages me to go give my own home some more care.

Dutch Homes and Gardens
‘Espalier’ (flat trees)  in front of modern Dutch houses

Other than the now-iconic lines of closely packed row houses, the first thing a foreigner might notice about Dutch spaces is the clever, compact design of Dutch gardens.  ‘Espalier,’ which are carefully trained flat trees, are often grown around the edges of these gardens because they offer the two-fold benefit of privacy and beauty.  Many Dutch houses have little or no front garden (ours only has a hedge), but people here love to make beautiful window displays with flowers and plants, lanterns, and holiday decorations.  It’s a pleasure to walk down the nicely-kept neighborhoods enjoying the window views.

We outsiders sometimes refer to the Dutch backyards as ‘postage-stamp’ sized, but what they lack in size, they make up for in landscaping.  Nearly all of these gardens (‘tuinen’) feature a comfortable sitting area surrounded by flowers.  Many include carefully manicured hedges or shrubs, and sometimes a miniature pond.  The damp and fertile climate promotes rapid and abundant plant growth, especially for bulbs.  They are tiny paradises in the tightly packed rows of houses and cars that surround them.  I’ve learned how refreshing it is to step outside and sit in the fresh air for a few minutes, cup of tea or juice in hand, even in a small garden.  And that’s what people here do.

Of course, one neighbor’s yard will be very near another’s.  With the tall (but narrow) houses and tall people, there are not walls high enough to give full privacy or noise insulation.  Every household knows well what’s going on at a neighbor’s house, at least outside.  As a result, and out of courtesy I suppose, people here are able to stay out of each others’ business with an introversion which to outsiders may look like aloofness.  One Kenyan friend I spoke with, a transplant to the Netherlands, had moved into a new house with no fence between her yard and her neighbors’.  It took a long time for her new fence to be installed.  Meanwhile, she was surprised how her neighbors went about their private business in their own yard as if a fence had already been built.  Being anti-social is not their intention, simply privacy and courtesy.  Friendliness and involvement with neighbors is as common a characteristic of Dutch culture as with any other I’ve experienced.

Out and About

On a larger scale, land management is a precise science in the Netherlands.  For hundreds of years their ancestors fought back the sea and storms to carve out an inhabitable haven, through many series of windmills, canals, and dikes.  The Dutch province of Flevoland, where our first house stood, was itself an impressive example of land reclaimed from the sea.  It took nearly a century to remove all the water, using innovative Dutch technology, but they succeeded.  This provided more housing space for workers near Amsterdam.  

Rotterdam Modernism
Modern Dutch houses in Rotterdam

Not a square meter of this scarce, valuable land is ever wasted.  Houses, shops, and cars layer over each other in surprising harmony.  It is common to find cornfields or tiny lakes with swans or ducks in the circles created by the clover-leaf on-ramps and off-ramps of a Dutch freeway.  Parking lots are often stacked and sometimes underground, have very small parking spaces, and usually require a paid ticket for use.  It’s considered normal to park a car on a curb, and large vehicles for private use are rare.  Hence the popularity of bicycles.  I’ve learned to leave my car at home whenever I can.

Leiden bikes

Bicycles are the ideal transportation for getting around in the Netherlands.  The land is flat, shops and houses are close together, and the Dutch have created a brilliant system of bike paths—some even with solar lighting—with their own traffic signals and laws.  As an environmentally responsible nation, bike use is strongly encouraged.  Some families go on bike-vacations, carrying luggage in saddlebags and stopping at local hostels to spend the night.  School classes take field trips on bikes, each student wearing a fluorescent vest for safety in traffic.  Police provide regular bike safety training and bike checks through the schools, from elementary up through middle school.  I love how easy it is to stay in shape with all the biking and easy walking opportunities!

Dutch shops and supermarkets also reflect carefully-designed spaces for maximum efficiency.  Many are stacked high over multiples floors, such as toy superstores.  One old church, no longer used for services, has been re-purposed as a bookstore.  It holds levels of textbooks and novels for the university students and local clientele.  Most supermarkets and specialty shops don’t have much of a warehouse attached—there’s just no room for it.  Seasonal items such as barbecue supplies are available only during peak sales months.  A shopper with a specific item in mind may have difficulty finding that item without visiting several stores. 

The limited assortment is a matter of small inventory space, not poor manufacturing or distribution.  I’ve learned to be more of an impulse shopper to get what I need, and to stock up when I see a rare item.  In the last few years, I’ve seen a big shift in the Netherlands to online shopping, a natural counter to the limits of space and time.  More American-style superstores with large parking lots are also starting to pop up on the outskirts of towns.

Dutch on a World Scale

With small houses and places of business, people in the Netherlands are happy to get out of the house, and they travel more than anyone I’ve ever met.  They visit all the countries of Europe, particularly the sunny ones, as well as Asia and Africa.  They take trips to the US, visiting every major metropolis and landmark, from the Statue of Liberty, to the Grand Canyon, to the Hollywood walk of stars in just two weeks.  I’ve seen tall Dutch men board an airplane and wedge their long legs into the space between seats.  I’ve marveled at their seamless transition from Dutch into English as soon as they board.  Many families rent lightweight camper-trailers, called ‘caravans,’ to attach to their small cars for camping trips within Europe.  Endless lines of caravans can be seen on the highways, exiting the country with every school break.

Sometimes I’ve been put off by what seems like Dutch aloofness, invasion of personal space, and reckless driving.  To be fair, the Dutch have the strictest of training systems for drivers and the lowest rate of auto death in Europe. These habits may seem rude to an American, but on closer examination, they are really a matter of survival.  “It’s just a different concept of space,” I remind myself.  This disarms my defensiveness and helps me feel more connected to the people of my current homeland.  I know that I’ve picked up some of their traits and wonder how I come across to my American family when I visit the US.

Living so closely together presents the necessity of careful coordination.  We’ve all heard the phrase, “When in Rome, do as the Romans,” and that strategy is certainly advisable in Holland.  I’ve learned to recalibrate my concept of space to more closely match the local perspective.  I don’t hesistate to pass simultaneously through the same doorway someone is exiting like I used to, and I’ve become braver at closely passing an oncoming car on a narrow road.  When a local behavior seems odd to me, I ask polite questions about it to better understand the logic behind it, and always find it makes sense.  And I solicit advice, which they happily give!  I’ve learned so many useful things by simply asking.  We’ve lived here long enough now to have children raised Dutch, who help me understand the less-obvious aspects of local culture.  Making these types of adjustments helps me better synchronize with this well-oiled machine called Dutch society.  The Netherlands may be small, but it’s also efficient and beautiful.

One thought on “For Cultural Understanding: A Different Concept of Space

  1. A fascinating article! Only by living long-term in another country could a person come to understand the perspective and choices of its people. Thanks for the insight!

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