Gritty, vibrant and thoroughly modern Rotterdam is somewhat of an anomaly when it comes to Dutch cities.
All but decimated by German bombing during World War II, Rotterdam, with its sleek skyscrapers and sprawling city plan, is more akin to Los Angeles than it is to Amsterdam. In fact, it’s one of the more American-esque cities in all of Europe given that it was rebuilt in the 1950s with automobiles, not bicycles and pedestrians, in mind. Home to Europe’s largest port, Rotterdam was once a typical Dutch city: laced with canals and narrow, labyrinthine streets, cyclists and pedestrians far outnumbered motorists. But the war changed all of this.
Rotterdam has spent much of the 21st century remedying its mid-20th century civic missteps in a process that involves preserving and promoting the city’s distinct modernity but also reaching back into the past to revive its pre-war bike friendliness. It’s a weird thing, this sort of backwards-glancing futurism. And Rotterdam, a hybrid city that manages to be quintessentially Dutch while also marching to the beat of its own drummer, has more than excelled at it as pedestrian and cycling infrastructure improves by leaps and bounds.
Aided by a sizable community of artists, innovators and envelope-pushing architects, the push to reverse auto-Rotterdam’s mid-20th century auto-centricity has produced some stunning results, including the recent transformation of two once-unexceptional crosswalks into a single eye-catching artwork that both celebrates and protects the humble pedestrian, as you can explore in the video above.
Dubbed Creative Crosswalk, this intersection-spanning work of “tactical street art” is the brainchild of creative studio Opperclaes and Street Makers, a Rotterdam-based urbanism collective dedicated to “changing the world, one street at a time.” Commissioned by the Municipality of Rotterdam, the artwork itself spans Westblaak, a traffic-choked, neighborhood-severing street in Rotterdam’s city center.
At first, the twin crosswalks appear to be standard issue, adorned with the chunky, zebra-style white stripes synonymous with pedestrian crossings. And then things take a turn for the funky as the humdrum stripes give way to an assortment of playful squiggles, bold shapes and a jumble of letters that spell out “Stand Straight” and “Walk Proud.”
Street Makers provides additional historical context in a press release:
Rotterdam’s historic city center was destroyed during WW2 and was rebuilt in the 1950’s to accommodate car traffic. The result was a Dutch city that resembles North American urbanism: wide streets, heavy vehicle traffic, and noise and air pollution. Today Rotterdam drastically limits motor traffic and encourages walking and cycling. The city strongly invested in their 'city lounge', creating places for people. Walking is good for the Rotterdammer, as it improves both physical and mental fitness. The creative crosswalk not only is a tool for wayfinding, but also focuses on creating happy streets.
“It’s amazing to see how people interact with our art, making a difference at something so normal like crossing a street,” says Linda van Vleuten of Opperclaes. “People smiling, taking pictures. Children playing, jumping from letter to letter.”
To be clear, although the twin crosswalks have been jazzed-up a bit within the intersection itself, the smiling, playing and picture-taking part of the artwork can be found within a protected, park-like median that separates the roadway.
As mentioned, the aim of Creative Crosswalk is twofold: to welcome and delight folks hoofing it across Westblaak and to alert distracted drivers who may be apt to just careen through the intersection without thought to the heavy foot traffic along the road.
“We wanted to do something different, bigger, and bolder,” Lior Steinberg of Street Makers explains to CityLab. “The intervention is not there just to make the space more beautiful, or merely send a message, but to really dignify all pedestrians.”
This all said, Rotterdam is certainly not alone when it comes to creative pedestrian crossings. Over the coming months, city officials will measure, from both a quantitative and qualitative approach, the impact that transforming a pair of ordinary, high-traffic crosswalks into interactive art installations has on overall walkability in the city center.
If the results are agreeable, the former car paradise of Rotterdam may see more festive crosswalks in the near future.