“If Atlantis was the ancient city myth disappeared beneath the waves, Almere is the modern riposte, risen from the sea”, Norman Miller
Almere, the youngest city in the Netherlands
Since the end of the last ice age over 10,000 years ago, the landscape of the Netherlands has undergone radical change. Like the terraforming of a distant planet, the land around Almere has evolved from polar desert to tidal marshland to shallow sea. Around 100 years ago, with the delivery of the largest water engineering project of the twentieth century, the land experienced its latest and perhaps most remarkable transformation, when the submerged land was taken back from the sea.
From humble beginnings in the 1970s and 80s, Almere has grown into the 8th most populated city in the country. The city is a testament to human ingenuity and civil engineering, owing its existence to the sophisticated system of dikes, dams and locks that control the flow of water around the Ijsselmeer. The unique history of Almere has made it a blueprint for innovative city planning and adaptability in the face of climate change, or, as one Dutch city guide puts it, “the drowned land has reappeared, and is now covered in hip urban design”.
Much has been written about the forward-thinking design underpinning Almere. Inspired by the principles of the Garden City movement and brimming with modern architecture, the city has carved itself a name as a frontrunner for sustainable urbanism. The neighbourhoods in Almere each have their own identity, from the flamboyant Regenboogbuurt, overflowing with kaleidoscopic colour, to the diverse Homeruskwartier, packed with more than 1000 self-built homes.
Almere’s approach has been described as a template for city planning that can inspire like-minded urbanism. Its plant-rich projects, like the Green City Arboretum and the Floriade Expo, showcase the benefits of striving towards greener spaces. These descriptions of Almere as a city of the future bring to mind the philosophy of solarpunk, a movement that merges “the practical with the beautiful, the well-designed with the green and wild, the bright and colorful with the earthy and solid.”
But what are the values of solarpunk, and does Almere actually represent those ideals? Could the city become a harbinger for systematic change, or is it an ordinary Dutch town with a few noteworthy innovations? And, in the face of climate-change and rising sea-levels, can the philosophy of solarpunk offer realistic solutions to future living?
More than just an aesthetic?
Solarpunk offers a welcome counterpoint to dystopian visions of the future. Where cyberpunk embodies unfettered capitalism and deep-rooted inequality, solarpunk represents the capacity for genuine, technology-driven change. This optimism is reflected in the vibrant solarpunk aesthetic, with its glittering skyscrapers, verdant cities and human-nature symbiosis.
Yet it is the very appeal of this future aesthetic that has been the focus of criticism of solarpunk. As Pascal Hogue explains, the more solarpunk is epitomised by its aesthetic dimension, the more likely it becomes a visual style entirely lacking in substance or underlying philosophy. Such an aesthetic could be exploited to provide unsustainable building designs with a veneer of environmental credibility.
A new form of greenwashing?
If cities like Almere are charting a route away from ecological collapse, the advertising of energy giants is surely leading in the opposite direction. Greenwashing is a depressing reflection of cynical advertising and the solarpunk aesthetic represents untapped potential for lip-service environmentalism. To glance through adverts produced by these energy giants is to experience dizzying levels of hypocrisy.
In one advert, benevolent Shell executives provide reassuring narratives about green technologies, set to a backdrop of gorgeous drone footage of solar panels, wind turbines and hypnotic city lights; in another advert, BP flicks briefly from dire scenes of eco-catastrophe to calming shots of utopian green valleys. The dark strings that accompany the devastating opening shots quickly turn into a backdrop of chirpy, uplifting violins. The message is clear: with BP around, we have little to fear about the future of the environment.
The utter banality of this kind of music is brilliantly critiqued in Tantacrul’s video, Corporate Music – How to Compose with no soul, which shows just how tedious corporate advertising can be. “When it’s trying to be inspirational, it only really succeeds in making me feel sort of tired and jaded”, says Tantacrul, who creates ingenious parodies of different genres of corporate music.
These include tech product music, full of pizzicato string sections and orchestral backing tracks to give the sense of “profound altruistic endeavour, aimed at the betterment of humanity”; nothing music, empty of emotion and devoid of meaning; and inspirational music, featuring mournful, monorhythmic piano chords to convey deep and heartfelt sympathy. Or, as Tantacrul puts it, “pretending to care about the environment”. This does seem a depressingly accurate characterisation: the problem with this kind of advertising is not necessarily the composition of the adverts themselves, nor the content of the messages, but the complete lack of concrete delivery on climate promises.
Given that Shell and BP were the 6th and 7th biggest polluters of the planet from 1965 to 2018, it’s even harder to take the adverts at face value. In fact, Shell and BP were explicitly named in a 2022 research paper that analysed the discourse, pledges, actions and investments of Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP and Shell. The researchers found a significant increase in discourse related to a low-carbon future, but, unsurprisingly, almost nothing in terms of delivery. They conclude that a genuine transition to a clean-energy business model is simply not taking place. Given such findings, cynical descriptions of these advertising practices as greenwashing seem entirely justified.
And there is certainly nothing solarpunk in these corporate visions of a greener future. Hardly surprising, if solarpunk is about reimagining the status quo, or as, Jennifer Hamilton puts it, “resist[ing] the present by imagining a future that requires radical societal change”. Should we expect anything radical from the adverts of BP and Shell? Despite the slick marketing, few expect these energy giants to be the harbingers of any real change.
In many ways, these adverts embody the antithesis of the tenets of solarpunk, and provide a warning for the shallow, purely aesthetic vision that solarpunk could one day become.
A philosophy of green resistance
What then lies at the core of the solarpunk vision? “Solarpunk is radical in that it imagines a society where people and the planet are prioritised over the individual and profit”, writes Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, emphasising that solarpunk is about challenging the darker sides of capitalism. In a similar vein, Matt Bluemink traces the connections between solarpunk and the ‘Authoritarian and Democratic Technics’ (ADT) of Lewis Mumford, outlining how green infrastructure can become a form of resistance:
“Solarpunk is not just about beautiful green futuristic cityscapes, it is about projecting an image of the future free from authoritarian technics. It’s not about rejecting technology, but embracing the connection between man, technology, and nature to imagine how we might want to live.”
Solarpunk is therefore about striving to build a better world. It is utopian, rather than dystopian; solution-oriented, rather than problem-ridden. Solarpunk is a step toward optimism and a transition away from fossil fuels. And for some, this full-throttle transition to renewable energy is what really defines solarpunk.
The Almere paradox
Such definitions may strip solarpunk of some of its futuristic sci-fi appeal, but they also highlight the real-world applicability of the movement’s ideals. If solarpunk is about building a better future, there are certainly aspects of Almere’s design that work towards that goal: the increase in green spaces and the focus on sustainability; the floating houses and the self-built homes; the ingenious engineering and the creation of artificial land.
But it is more difficult to argue that Almere represents a harbinger for some greater systemic change. Almere doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is compelled by the same economic realities as any other major Dutch city, populated with the same high-street giants and rife with corporate advertising. In some ways, Almere is a city of contradictions. Walking through the main high street, modern architecture abounds, from the oceanic crest of the Wave to the shimmering blocks of La Defense.
Yet there is sometimes a surreal disconnect between attractive design and underlying message. One eye-catching building near the waterfront is bedecked with colourful panels, visible from a mile away. At first glance, the design is radical and inventive, perfectly at home in a solarpunk world. A closer glance reveals giant letters plastered across the building’s facade. Familiar logos become visible: Samsung, Toshiba, Sony. Instead of symbolising a future utopia, the building stands as a kind of bizarre shrine to capitalism, faithfully displaying the names of its loyal disciples.
Of course, Almere was not built as a solarpunk utopia; it was designed to help alleviate the burgeoning population of the Netherlands and to avoid massive demolition of green spaces in the Randstad. And, like many other real-world projects that contain elements of solarpunk, Almere is imperfect. While the creation of artificial land is an undeniable feat, parts of the city are actually sinking. The Regenboogbuurt is particularly suffering: located on the site of an old riverbed, the municipality spends twice as much on repairing roads, sewers and public places.
In other neighbourhoods, like De Fantasie (‘Fantasy’), it feels like the solarpunk future has already arrived. Arising from the 1982 ‘Unusual Living’ competition that called for the design of experimental homes, De Fantasie is now widely regarded as an architectural mecca. Part of the creativity stemmed from the fact that the usually strict building regulations could be overlooked: houses could be built without a foundation and with ad-hoc materials, on the condition that the structures would stand for just 5 years. Fortunately, many of the owners were able to acquire the land and make the homes permanent. Walking through De Fantasie today, with its quiet stream, secluded trees and beautiful housing, is to feel a refreshing sense of optimism.
Still, De Fantasie consists of just 8 homes. Despite the ingenuity of the designs, in a city of almost 200,000, the neighbourhood feels more like an inspired niche than a broadly applicable housing strategy. But just because a single project cannot transform a city, is not to say it cannot start a movement. De Fantasie has inspired like-minded projects across Almere, including De Realiteit (‘Reality’), with inventive solutions for energy saving and recycling, and De Eenvoud (‘Simplicity), whose designs like the basket draw upon structures in nature. As the Architectural Guide to Almere explains, it is through the creation of such places that Almere aims to stimulate self-builds on a much larger scale.
Solarpunk and the collective imagination
Ultimately, solarpunk is an imagined ideal and Almere is a real Dutch city. Almere is imperfect because we live in an imperfect world; solarpunk is unattainable because the future that we dream of never actually arrives. The appeal of solarpunk, then, is the appeal of the human imagination. Literature, art, architecture, philosophy: any human endeavour connected to creativity can draw inspiration from solarpunk, and the inherent optimism of the movement’s vision offers a welcome antidote to futility and despair. Almere may not be the embodiment of solarpunk; such a city only exists in the collective imagination, but Almere does offer genuine innovation and novel ideas for urban planning. Alongside real-world projects like Almere city, which actively work towards a more sustainable future, imagined futures like solarpunk have real potential for meaningful, lasting and systemic change.
Jens Branum is a linguist from the UK. He is co-editor of Blue Labyrinths magazine and is based in The Hague/Amsterdam.
Header image credit: Pavlov Gazkov