A lot of apartments have gone up in the Twin Cities since the Great Recession, and yet, despite all of that construction, there remains relatively little diversity among them.

Most of the new buildings aim for a fairly affluent market, with far too few affordable units in the mix. And most have a rather repetitive layout — with combined living and dining areas, a kitchen open to both, and one or two bedrooms with a bathroom and laundry space.

But as our region becomes more diverse, there’s a growing mismatch between what many people want and can afford and what the market seems able to provide. Other cities have done a much better job of meeting the housing needs of their population. We have a lot to learn from them.

Take, for instance, the Dutch.

An exhibit now on display at the Goldstein Museum of Design at the University of Minnesota shows how Dutch cities comparable in size and in wealth to our own, such as Amsterdam and The Hague, have developed policies and plans that provide housing for people of all incomes, with diverse needs.

Like Americans, the Dutch depend on the marketplace to deliver most of its housing. But unlike us, governments in the Netherlands ensure that private developers provide units affordable by all, and accessible to all, through housing corporations. These corporations oversee rental properties, while owners’ associations oversee owner-occupied units.

To get government support, these entities have to follow public guidelines that go far beyond the typical zoning requirements in the United States.

Developers must:

• Create units for diverse incomes and lifestyles.

• Build at a density that encourages walkable communities.

• Take an ecological approach to issues like water and energy.

• Possibly be required to provide space for day-care centers, schools and grocery stores.

The government also encourages lenders and regulators to support the best design and development talent. In contrast to conservative lending practices and predictable housing designs here, the Dutch have created a system that has resulted in some of the more innovative and visually interesting housing being built anywhere. It also lures the most talented people from around the world, who can live and work almost anywhere.

We can’t — and shouldn’t — build exactly the way the Dutch do. Cultural differences matter, as is evident in the apartment units themselves.

While Americans tend to favor units with open living-dining-kitchen spaces, the typical Dutch apartment has an entry corridor with discrete rooms off of it. It’s a strategy that allows for more flexibility in how rooms get used. But it also makes their units (which have 20 percent less space than the average U.S. housing unit) seem even smaller.

Likewise, the Dutch tend to separate the “clean” activities of bathing and laundering from the water closet, containing the toilet and a sink. While the U.S.-style combination of sink, toilet and shower or bathtub in a single room saves space and can save cost, the Dutch model reflects the more common way of dealing with washing and waste around the world.

Much of the population growth in the Twin Cities will continue to come from abroad. Recognizing that difference — and reflecting it in how we design our housing — would make a statement about our openness to people with diverse cultural backgrounds.

This summer, I spent a week in Holland touring new housing. Even in one of Amsterdam’s early 20th century housing developments, where I was staying, I was struck by their egalitarian approach to housing.

Amsterdam has relatively few single-family houses on their own plot of land. Most city dwellers live in low-rise housing blocks, close to parks, adjacent to playgrounds and within an easy walk or short bike ride to transit.

From the outside, I couldn’t tell whether the occupants of a housing block were owner or renter, rich or poor, since all the occupants used the same entrances and lived under the same roof.

We like to think of America as the land of opportunity, but our policies make it very difficult for anyone not born into money to make it up the economic ladder. Through their housing, the Dutch signal something very different, treating everyone equally and giving everyone a chance to go through the same door and to climb the same steps.

If the Twin Cities hopes to compete globally for talent, we aren’t going to succeed based on the housing we are now building. We simply cannot convince a workforce from around the world that we are innovative and progressive when what we have to offer them as places to live says just the opposite. The Dutch have learned that lesson, and with exhibits like this as a guide, we can, too.


Thomas Fisher is a professor in the School of Architecture and director of the Minnesota Design Center at the University of Minnesota.