Almere Buiten is one of the largest districts in Almere, a Dutch new town built in the seventies now approaching 215.000 inhabitants. The area is characterised by an abundance of space and greenery, reflected in its name ('buiten' is Dutch for 'outside'). In the coming years, it will be developed as attractive local centre that excels in the ordinary: a place no longer dominated by commerce, but driven by quality of life and a sense of community and belonging. To steadily build towards a centre that is pleasant, inviting, complete, and recognisable, future developments will focus on a compactisation and intensification by downscaling the area for commerce; transformation to new public programmes and a wide range of retailers for daily necessities; and adding attractive public (meeting) spaces and new housing. In early November 2020 this future vision, for which we developed a programmatic and spatial framework for development, was approved by the Almere Council, marking the go-ahead for further elaboration and realisation in the coming time.
Almere Buiten is located in between Almere city centre and the wetlands of national nature reserve Oostvaardersplassen. Originally, the centre of Almere Buiten was imagined to be largely autonomous, offering a wide array of amenities. The reality of a changed perspective on both the city of Almere and the functioning of society as a whole, however, called for a redefinition of Almere Buiten Centrum on all fronts. In particular, the district centre's role and a reality check on the corresponding level of amenities (including its effects on spatial structures), are crucial elements for a future vision. In spite of the wide array of retail options, a sense of familiarity in the centre, and the potential of the Intercity train station and the surrounding nature, both residents and visitors experienced the centre to be too big, too empty and too gritty, lacking a sense of attractivity and invitation to stay and linger. People desire a centre that is greener and cosier, with nice places to meet each other: low-key bars and restaurant with terraces, accessible cultural programme (shows, film, art, workshops), and favouring local independent retailers over chain stores. The need for these kinds of destinations has become even more apparent due to COVID-19.
Together with BRAND The Urban Agency, we were commissioned by the municipality of Almere and the Almere Buiten Round Table – a collective of local entrepreneurs, institutes and property owners – to develop a future vision for the centre: Almere Buiten Centrum excels in the small things. In close collaboration with the municipality and Round Table, we outlined the image for future Almere Buiten Centrum: how do residents, entrepreneurs and other users want to experience the centre in 2030/2035? What will be the role and identity of the area as a local centre? What does that mean in terms of atmosphere, functions and spatial structure? And what is needed to realise all this?
Studio for New Realities has been responsible for the programmatic and spatial vision and strategy, outlining a framework for future development and functioning of the social, economic and spatial forces in Almere Buiten Centrum – for which existing characteristics and (im)possibilities formed a solid basis. Based on a detailed analysis, in which the current programmatic and spatial functioning, problems and potentials, and the wider influence area and demarcation of the centre were studied, four main goals were formulated: an adjustment and quality improvements in programme/functions, a more pleasant and recognisable centre, stronger links with the surrounding neighbourhoods and nature, and realisation of this vision by way of an intensive collaboration of local partners. In this way, the functioning and experiential quality of the centre can be substantially strengthened.
Starting point is the development of strong subareas with a logical programmatic division: what can you do where in the centre, and how do these functions work together in a coherent centre? Here, existing qualities and potentials act as the foundations of further development. Almere Buiten Centrum will become a place for the optimal everyday. Compactisation of the centre and strengthening of the retail clusters, adding a substantial number of new homes, and an expansion of the centre’s role and programme by bringing in more culture, education, healthcare and other public functions represent key interventions. In the next phase, an assessment framework will be developed for every transformation: new housing should always be tied to quality improvements in the direct vicinity of the development, for example public space or the level of amenities. In this way, the municipality will be able to give direction when it comes to both social and economic added value of real estate developments.
Furthermore, the sense of enjoyment of the centre will be tackled. Taking the programmatic zoning as a starting point, a logical routing was specified, linking pleasant places and plazas at strategic locations throughout the centre as anchor points. A strong encouragement of open and active frontages and directed micro-programming of public space, with a green design and fitting street furniture result in an attractive and activating public usage space. Buiten Centrum will also be embedded in the local networks of nature and local/regional mobility, with special attention for continuous (recreational) walking and cycling routes.
The real future of Almere Buiten Centrum, however, is in the hands of the engagement of local stakeholders. The cooperative ‘Ons Buiten Centrum’ unites different types of stakeholders and will translate this future vision into an action plan for the years to come: from real estate to public space and programming. Parallel to this, the ‘Buitenhuis’ is developed as a community hub organising a variety of activities and inviting local residents to become involved. In the coming time, several initiatives for placemaking and activation of the community will start off.
Elaboration of the future vision
On November 5th, the local council of Gemeente Almere unanimously approved the vision ‘Almere Buiten Centrum blinkt uit in de kleine dingen’. With this milestone, further elaboration and realisation can be prepared in the coming time. Next to the ‘Buitenhuis’, several other important steps have been made. Crucially, plot 5 – currently functioning as a parking lot for the adjacent home interior mall Doemere – will be developed as a demarcation of public space and important connector within the centre, and the event space at the centre edge will be sustained over the option of bringing it into the centre. More specific vision development is in place for retail area Buitenmere-Zuid, Doemere, the station area, and the area surrounding the small harbour. Finally, development proposals have been submitted for a ‘culture house’, offering an accessible and attractive programme for the neighbourhood.
In the next phase, the future vision will be translated and elaborated in a framework for development.
In the coming year a playscape will be installed on Baltimoreplein, a square close to the Almere Buiten train station. Arttenders was asked by the Municipality of Almere to develop a strategy to have local citizens involved in the design. With a playful online campaign, all residents of the district were invited to provide their input for the design of the square. Especially the many children of Almere Buiten are challenged to think as creative designers themselves: a fun assignment while at home due to the covid-19 measures. The results were used as input for concepts by four different artists. After a sketch competition in which the concepts were anonymously presented to the public, the design titled Baltimore Bend by Studio Spass won the voting.