Universiteit Leiden

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Leiden lifestyle inspiration for Americans

What's so special about life in Leiden? The documentary by American anthropologist Mark Neupert caused quite a stir. 'The film isn't intended for Leideners. The idea was to show my American students that there is a different way of living.'

Your documentary shows the nice things about Leiden – the old city centre, people on their bikes and in their boats, open-air celebrations. Aren't you creating too rosy an image?

‘I don't think so. The film isn't intended for Leideners, although I'm very happy to share it with you. I made the documentary for my American students of Urban Planning at the Oregon Institute of Technology. Since the Second World War, American cities have been designed mainly for cars and we've forgotten how to build a city for people. I live in a small town, Klamath Falls, in Oregon. My office is 20 minutes' walk away, but along the route there is often no sidewalk, let along a cycle path. It's too dangerous to walk, so I go to work by car.

‘There are now movements like new urbanism and walkable cities that are shifting the emphasis to people; global warming, obesity and loneliness are all connected to how a city is designed. My documentary isn't meant for anthropologists, because then I would have left myself and my agenda out of it as a comment. My aim is to show my students that there is another way of living.' 

What do your students think of the film?

They love it. They think it's great that the city is designed for people who don't need a car. The scenes of the giant underground bicycle parks with two levels of bike racks and the channel running alongside the steps to make it easier to get your bike down the steps really gets to them.You find them in other countries, too, but not in the States. And then there's the social aspect. In America we hardly ever use the public space to come together; all contact takes place in the private environment and generally indoors. Here, just sitting at a pavement café is an important part of social life.  That makes a city much more lively. Actually, Klamath Falls does have a pavement café - just one, with two seats.' 

Documentary: 'Cobblestone Stories. A year of Modern Living in Leiden'

Why did you choose to come to Leiden?

‘It could have been any other old Dutch city. But I had already been to Leiden a couple of times, the first time for a conference and later to visit friends. Whenever I'm in Europe, on my way to Denmark or Berlin, I always stop off in Leiden, mainly because it's such a lovely city. I love the place. At the top of my bucket list was spending some time living here because that's when you really get to know a place. On top of that, I had the chance of taking the Visual Ethnography course in the Cultural Anthropology programme. I'd never made a film before.' 

In the documentary you say that the University played an important role in the city's development. But apart from that you don't pay any explicit attention to the University and Leiden as a student city. Why is that?

‘Originally I had made a 12-minute film in which I followed a student on a walk from her student house around the city centre. American urban planners told me: that gives the impression that living in Leiden is only a lifestyle for students. If you want to bring about change in America, you need to show people with money, who choose the Leiden lifestyle.'  

Leiden's city centre with its many pavement cafés. Photo: Mark Neupert

What particularly stands out when you compare Leiden University with the average American university?

‘Leiden students seem to have a real bond with their university and the city. That may be because of how they live - often in fantastic historic buildings in the city centre. Location is so important! My own university, like so many other American educational institutions, is on the outskirts of the city. There's not much to do on campus and so students don't really develop any strong feelings for the university. That's a pity, especially considering how important it is to have engaged alumni.' 

What do you think of the less pleasant aspects of Leiden and the Netherlands?

‘It can be a bit messy, particularly when the seagulls tear open the bags of rubbish. I've got a lot of material on that so I can use it in the film, although I understand that the problem has been resolved by installing underground containers.
By no means all Dutch cities are as beautiful as Leiden; just look at Zoetermeer, for example. I asked James Howard Kunstler, who writes books about urban development, what aspects of the Netherlands I should focus on. His advice was to get across how beautiful the country is. Americans can develop cities based on old principles, but if the cities are ugly, people won't want to live there. That's why I show the attractive aspects of Leiden. And I haven't even used all the material I collected. I've left out photos of children on their sledges in the snow at the Burcht, for instance. That seemed a bit too romanticised.' 

Where can people see the documentary?

Cobblestone Stories was shown in Leiden's National Museum of Ethnography on 8 April. Neupert has donated the images to Erfgoed Leiden en Omstreken, the heritage agency for Leiden and the surrounding area. He also hopes it will attract the attention of the Leiden International Film Festival.    

(LvP)