Sometimes on the road, duty calls. While part of the impetus for 100 days was to take a break from my job, when you have a chance to make an impact half way around the world, some things are worth doing. One of those opportunities was an official visit to Utrecht, a Friendship City to the City of Portland. My time in Utrecht can be best summarized in three words: bikes, business, and beer. It’s a tough job, but someone has to brew it.
Utrecht is the fourth largest city in The Netherlands and holds the impressive distinction as the third best bicycling city in the world, behind Copenhagen and Amsterdam. It’s a mere 30 minute train ride from Amsterdam Schiphol airport, with frequent train connections running to other nearby cities like Rotterdam and The Hague. For a city of about 330,000 residents, Utrecht boxes well above its weight class with a highly functional active transportation system. The only thing that’s really difficult to do in Utrecht is drive. With little street parking and few through streets, the city has intentionally made driving painful enough that most residents don’t bother.
This medieval city is famous for bringing peace to Europe in 1713 with the Treaty of Utrecht, which was actually a series of treaties that mollified the most powerful countries of Europe (except the French and the Holy Roman Empire who were still at each others’ throats). When Charles II of Spain didn’t have a son to ascend to the throne, all hell broke loose and thus began the 14 year War of the Spanish Succession. Among other things, the treaty doled out a number of contested islands and is widely credited with preserving a delicate balance of power in Europe.
Perhaps Utrecht could host some meetings between Great Britain and the European Union over the next couple of years?
Let’s Be Friends
My day in Utrecht began at the newly completed municipal offices at the City of Utrecht, a massive complex with room for 3,000 city workers, a multitude of sustainable features including large solar arrays, and public spaces that all visitors can enjoy. The building is adjacent to the Central Train Station, making it easy to hop on the next train to Brussels for meetings at the EU.
My counterparts at the City of Utrecht, Hans and Marthe, were very welcoming and toured me around the shared spaces of this impressive public complex. What became clear in just a short time is how much in common our cities share and the potential to learn more from each other.
For example, I learned that parking is one of the city’s biggest growth challenges, though in their case the demand is for bike parking rather than spaces for cars. Their answer to this challenge? Utrecht is currently constructing the largest bike parking structure in the world, adjacent to the Central Station and the municipal building. When it’s completed in 2018, the multi-story structure will have space for 12,500 bicycles – an astounding achievement for any size city. In fact, that’s just one of the major construction projects around the station, meaning in just a few years the area will be completely transformed with state-of-the-art facilities.
Another shared priority between our cities is the desire for green, healthy and smart urban development. Many cities in the world are currently experiencing a rapid influx of people into their urban centers and most can’t keep up with the pressures of the growth on aging infrastructure, the balance between environmental and economic considerations, and the implications for their most vulnerable residents. But in addition to sustainable transportation, Utrecht is exploring topics like urban food policy, to ensure everyone who calls their city home has access to healthy, affordable food choices. It’s a tall order, but one our cities share.
At the end of our visit, I presented Marthe and Hans with a special gift from Portland, a bike bell designed by Portland-based company Nutcase featuring our city’s flag. It was a perfect gift for a friend like Utrecht.
Damn Good Business
My next visits of the day were with Ryan Flynn and his colleagues with BLI partners, a company working to strengthen business connections between Utrecht and Portland. Their company works with entrepreneurs to bring their goods into new markets. Given the similarities between Portland and Utrecht, they see opportunities for business exchanges and market potential across the Atlantic. After spending an afternoon with some small business owners, I can see why.
On a nondescript side street in Utrecht, we walked through the front door of a shop that is the manufacturing and worldwide headquarters of a one-man operation called Damn Good Soap Company. Billed as a company “for Beards and Men”, I thought for a moment I’d fallen into a Portlandia episode, but in little time was revived by this impressive brand that was brought to life by one very savvy and talented entrepreneur, Jasper van Impelen.
The Damn Good Soap Company makes a range of products by hand in the shop including a charcoal based black soap, beard balm (in three different scents) and moustache wax. I can see these products getting popular around Movember and with the girlfriends or boyfriends of lumbersexuals (e.g. well groomed men with mountain-man like facial hair and plaid shirts) who appreciate the value of more kissable beards.
Damn Good Soap sure seems like a product that would play well in Portland. It certainly was a privilege to meet the founder and creative genius behind the business.
Our next stop was another Utrecht based company called Mini Brew, the inventors the beer brewing version of the Nespresso machine. This product is the answer to home brew lovers who have neither the time, skill, or space to make their own beer.
Mini brew describes this machine as “a fully automatic craft beer brewing appliance that allows anyone to brew professional quality craft beer.”
Even better, it runs completely from an app! You can choose the type of beer you like by rotating wheels like “color” “alcohol content” and “flavor” and the app suggests beers that fit your profile. You order the kit you like and then three easy steps later, you press “brew” on your app. It takes 3-4 hours for the actual brewing and then about 2 weeks to ferment. Finally, your app tells you when your beer is ready. Mini brew had just completed an Indigogo campaign and is beginning production. Once this product reaches the U.S. (they are now launching in Europe), I’m predicting big sales. After only 90 minutes, I wanted four machines: one for me and Alisa, one for my dad and one for each of my brothers. I could win Christmas.
Oh, and did I mention it comes with a shiny, portable keg?
Our final stop of the evening was a roundtable with several other entrepreneurs who have a strong interest in Portland. Utrecht Made highlights local makers and has a retail store that curates a creative variety of goods. Pop Up Utrecht also enables small-scale artists and makers to temporarily set up shop in vacant retail spaces. Pop ups are a win-win: low overhead for very small businesses and a cool and active use of vacant space for the city.
The evening ended with a conversation with the founder and head brewer of Oproer, a craft brewery and vegan restaurant with a radical ethos that would be right at home in Portland or Eugene, Oregon. The founder of Oproer was one of 13 brewers who came to Portland from Utrecht in 2014 for the Oregon Brewers’ Festival to learn more about the booming craft brewing industry. A number of them are coming back next month for the festival, so we can raise a glass to our Dutch brewer friends in Portland!
My take away from the visits is that small business and entrepreneurship runs deep in this city of makers and creatives. Even our Air BnB hosts Phil and Silja were about to launch a new bicycling app in the next month, called Vigyo. Moving efficiently and more intelligently from place to place is yet another thing that is on both Portland and Utrecht’s minds. Utrecht is a city in which a dream and some drive is damn good for business.
On a more personal note, my arrival in Utrecht occurred only 48 hours after the horrific shooting at Pulse in Orlando. Many people all over the world were in complete shock when they first heard the news, myself included. I thought the mass media was particularly impotent at their loss of how to describe the devastating impact of the shooting, particularly in GLBTI communities. Hours after I heard about the shooting, having searched fruitlessly for words that weren’t merely recycled from past tragedies, I posted the following message on social media:
It turns out that many friends and acquaintances from all kinds of backgrounds and belief systems felt the same way. The most powerful response to hate is love. The only way to heal from something of that magnitude is to embrace people who are different from you.
So on our last night in Utrecht, we walked by this cafe with the most powerful sentiment I’d read in a very long time:
Go where you’re celebrated, not where you’re tolerated.
There’s a big difference between the two, and as gay travelers we’ve come to understand and appreciate the distinction. The cafe’s owner was lovely and shared his heartfelt condolences about the Orlando tragedy. And it turns out that Utrecht and Portland prides are the same weekend in June.
Utrecht is a city in which Alisa and I both felt comfortable, safe and celebrated. The openness of the city is a testament to the people who live here. It’s easy to see why we cherish their friendship and can look with optimism toward the future.