Marijn lives in Utrecht, Netherlands with her partner Martijn and two children, five-year-old Juna and three-year-old Novi. They love their small city and are thriving in city life! As it often goes for the Dutch, Marijn’s main form of transportation is by bike. She works as an urban planner for the city of Amsterdam making space for sports and play and promoting healthy city design, so needless to say we were eager for an interview! Read on for her thoughtful insights about making urban life work well for children and families.
I know very little about Utrecht, other than its location in the Netherlands. Tell us about your city!
Utrecht is really great! It’s like Amsterdam’s fun and relaxed little sister. We have beautiful buildings, great parks, and all the facilities we need. And it’s super bike-friendly. In 2019 Utrecht was named the most bike-friendly city in the world!
In terms of size, Utrecht is a small city. It’s one of the largest in our country but only about 350,000 people live here. It’s quite dense and feels very urban. We have public transportation and many cycle paths.
What are the particular strengths of your city? Any challenges?
A strength is (of course) the bike friendly-ness of our city.
I would say the biggest challenge is affordability. Just like in Amsterdam, Utrecht is getting more and more expensive. Housing prices are insane! We had the chance to buy our house in an opportune moment and if we had to buy it again now, we wouldn’t be able to afford it. Many people are struggling with this.
That affordability crisis is happening in so many cities. It’s a sad and complicated situation and families are suffering!
How long have you lived in Utrecht?
I was born and raised in a small city. I loved growing up there but I always knew I wanted to live in a more dynamic and diverse place, somewhere I could find many different people and open mindedness.
I’ve moved many times, and have lived in different cites in the Netherlands and abroad. My partner and I moved from Amsterdam to Utrecht about five years ago. We loved our time in Amsterdam! We were living in a so called anti-squat house (which is actually very similar to a squat house). It had a very cool vibe and was super cheap. It was perfect for the two of us and we also lived there for 8 months with baby Juna. But we had to move out because the whole block was going to be renovated. That’s how we decided to move to Utrecht, which was a great decision!
Editor’s Note: Squatting means occupying an unused or unoccupied building for use as housing without permission of the owner. It has been common in the Netherlands’ recent history—often as a political and social statement—and was outlawed in 2010. Anti-squat houses are basically the legal form of squatting; the temporary, inexpensive dwellings are occupied in part to keep buildings from becoming decrepit. Anti-squat (Antikraak) houses sometimes have shared spaces and common areas similar to co-operative housing in the United States.
What do you love about city life?
I love living in the city because it makes life fun and simple. We have everything we need in walking and biking distance. I love the culture of spontaneity, walking and biking everywhere means we don’t have to plan very often. I love the diversity and the dynamic life, the street art, the parks, the great playgrounds, the funky people, the students and the way we all interact with each other in public space. I also think city life is a great canvas for a creative, adventurous, and fun-filled childhood.
Sounds like you were made for the city! Can you share a particular moment when you feel like you and your family are thriving?
My favourite moments include cruising around on our bikes through the city. I also love a solitary city walk to see what I can see: street art, hidden courtyards, vibrant colors, people. I just take it all in. I work as an urban planner in Amsterdam and these city walks really inspire me.
Another favourite moment is around 5 pm on a sunny day when everybody is coming home from work or school or whatever and we all hang out in front of our houses. We’ll chat with neighbors and have a drink while the kids are playing. Our street is really great, I have to say!
City life is a great canvas for a creative, adventurous, and fun-filled childhood.
Tell us about your work as an urban planner. Do you have a particular field of expertise or project that is meaningful to you?
I am working as an urban planner for the city of Amsterdam. For the last few years I’ve been working in particular on making space for sports and play and promoting healthy city design. I’ve been trained as a teacher as well and I love being around kids and see how they discover the world. Urban play brings together a lot of my interests and expertise.
I like to share about space and play on Instagram. I recently decided to start a neighborhood play challenge because I see neighborhood play slowly disappearing from childhood. Which makes me really sad! Playing out in the neighborhood can bring kids so much fun, adventure, and a sense of freedom. Think about your own favourite childhood memories—they’re probably ones when you felt that freedom.
During lockdown I saw many more kids playing outside in the street! I loved it and I wanted to hold on to these outdoor play vibes. That’s the Neighborhood Play Challenge. With the challenge I share things that parents or caretakers can do themselves to create a culture of neighborhood play.
I’ll speak for myself and say I’ve been so inspired by your posts! I spend a lot of time reading about the role urban planners can have in creating kid-friendly cities and it’s nice to have a way to pitch in.
I think urban planners and designers can and should do better in creating more playful cities. But as parents we don’t just have to sit and wait. The disappearance of neighborhood play isn’t only caused by the city, it’s a social thing as well. If we want to give our children these outdoor play memories, we have to challenge ourselves. I really hope to help with this and inspire people to rethink time and space and make way for free outdoor play!
Have you ever thought of leaving the city?
Well, I do have a childhood dream of owning a campsite. So who knows! I really love going into nature and our kids love being outdoors in nature as well. But I think I would miss the city too much if we would move out.
We’ve found a compromise—we don’t have a car but we do have an Urban Arrow, which is an electric family cargo bike. And we go to lots of great places with the bike. Utrecht is surrounded by a beautiful landscapes and we live within biking distance of woods, lakes, heather, rivers and more! So whenever I feel the need to get out of the hustle and bustle we just get on the bike and off we go! We’ve had the bike for almost a year and a half now and have traveled 5000 km (3,100 miles) with it already! That’s the distance to New York from here!
It is no secret that we love bike life! I’m just jealous of all your cycle paths in the Netherlands.
Have you made any sacrifices for city life?
The only sacrifice I can think of is the size of our house—it’s 80 square metres (260 square feet). But you know, it fits us perfectly. We don’t feel like we need more space. We have what we call a “strict door policy”. We try to keep out the stuff we don’t need. And we are good at using our space optimally. What I do consider a downside is that because most houses in our neighborhood are small, many of families choose to move out at some point. At the moment we have a very cool crowd of kids living on our block, fingers crossed they will all stay for a while!
Crossing my fingers for you! Do you have any advice for new city families? Or any tips to help families stay in the city?
Yes! Whenever possible, walk and cycle as much as you can. It’s a great way to discover and interact with city life and I think the best way to get around. Be open-minded and allow spontaneity. Let the city and its people inspire you.
My top urban family hack is the Urban Arrow! It’s a big investment, but if you can make it happen (maybe swap it for a car?) it’s worth every penny.
And I’ll add one more thing: promote neighborhood play with your children! Invest in a culture of spontaneous neighborhood play. It will be win-win for both parents and kids and I think its the best gift you can give your children.
Find neighborhood play inspiration and sights of Utrecht on Marijn’s Instagram at @urban.planner.play.advocate and read her full article about the Neighborhood Play Challenge and join in!