Places that Work: Holland’s Sidewalks

Years ago, a small town in Michigan, best known for its annual tulip festival, diverted waste heat from its power plant into pipes that run under streets and sidewalks in the central business district.  For generations Hollanders have appreciated their forefathers’ prescient decisions, especially in hard, freezing winters with their Lake Effect snow storms.  Thanks to the underground pipes, no matter how cold it gets, the sidewalks stay clear and dry, all because someone was thoughtful enough to use an industrial by-product that other towns blithely discarded. This early decision, which lead to the installation of 120 miles of tubes, have kept downtown Holland alive, even as towns of similar size have been decimated, with shops decamping to nearby malls.

I have often driven through downtown Holland and watched the snow falling on those heated streets and sidewalks, and seen the white stuff transformed into bizarre and beautiful white clouds. As the annual Tulip Time celebration nears this spring, I’ll be there, on the same streets, to watch the old-time Dutch klompen (wooden shoe wearing) dancers. 

Now Holland has added a new amenity to its kind and gentle downtown: A gas-powered hearth rises up from the sidewalk near the corner of 8th Street.  On cold days, people gather around it, just as they do around a fireplace.  These al fresco get-togethers build community spirit – just as the downtown promenades have been doing for years. 

The low walls built up around the fireplace invite people can sit, stay, and chat. I watch as my neighbors relax into the moment, catch each other’s eyes and have real conversations—that much-coveted face-time we all long for today.  For my taste, the stone/brick benches are a little far apart, but no doubt zoning and concern about any possible accidents influenced their location.

Well done, Holland. Your downtown, and community, is a place that works.

Sally Augustin, PhD, is a principal at Design with Science . She is also the editor of Research Design Connections and the author of Place Advantage: Applied Psychology for Interior Architecture (Wiley, 2009). She can be reached at .

Sally Augustin’s previous post in this series was about the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Categories: Design, Uncategorized