I began writing this piece at Schiphol airport in The Netherlands, having spent a week in the city of Groningen and its surroundings. I’ve only visited the country once before (summer 2019) and after two trips I’ve arrived at the conclusion that there’s something the Dutch do very well – free public spaces. This is on top of sustainable transport, an integrated canal network and a mastery of languages. In The Netherlands, it seems they’re quite content for you to loiter, with no intent.

During this week-long trip with the family, there were plenty of beautiful places where we rocked up and felt no pressure to buy anything. Just enjoy the physical space at our leisure. On one cycling trip, we arrived at a campsite, with a picnic in our backpacks. The people running the campsite seemed very happy to direct us to a picnic area, overlooking the lake. There was no issue using the toilets in the bar, even though we didn’t purchase a thing.

The city centre of Groningen is full of free public spaces. The main town square (Grote Markt) is a large civic amenity that seemed to be used by a variety of groups (including students) during our visit. However, it’s The Forum cultural centre that really stands out! The Forum in Groningen is an amazing and unusual building in itself – lots of angles and lines. I know almost nothing about architecture, but it’s pretty cool to look at and I’m sure architecture-enthusiasts could tell me why.

Spread over ten floors, it houses a library, museum, cinema and exhibition space, as well as cafés, restaurant and a few shops. I first visited it one day that my wife and elder daughters were wandering round the boutiques of Groningen. Browsing around clothes stores is one of my least favourite activities. Our youngest also hates this, with the honest passion only an 8 year old can articulate. To let the girls off, Stella (8) and I walked over to the Forum and hung around for TWO hours without spending a penny. She tried out their stop-motion animation station, while I plonked myself on one of their many comfortable seats and read my book.

Stella at The Forum. Shot with Dutch angle

Two days later, something similar happened, but I had two children with me. This time, we rode the escalator to the fifth (or sixth?) floor. The girls sat at another animation station and watched some classic shorts, while again I appreciated reading my book. There are things to buy and exhibitions you can purchase a ticket for in the Forum – but there’s plenty that carry no charge. After a while, I bought a coffee (a very nice one for €3) though I felt no pressure to do so. I just fancied a coffee. What an amazing amenity to enjoy without having to spend money. To cap it all off (literally), the top floor of the Forum contains a rooftop terrace where anyone can experience a spectacular view of the whole city. For free.

In case you’re thinking that this chap is a miser – I’m quite happy to spend money! We visited The Forum again as a whole family and paid for the “Disney – Telling Timeless Stories” and “Storyworld: comics, animation and games” exhibitions. I’m lucky enough that we can afford luxuries like this. However, I’m mindful that’s not the situation for all people and everyone should be able to appreciate nice spaces, regardless of how much someone earns.

Two-Face model from Batman The Animated Series (on display at The Forum)

There were plenty of other “free” Dutch spaces, but The Forum is the best example we encountered on this trip. Of course, we have places like this in Ireland. Many of the national museums are free to visit, but it’s the public libraries that really come to mind. Libraries in the 2020s are vastly different places from the ones I remember from 1980s Ireland. They’re welcoming, inclusive spaces, filled with a wide selection of reading materials: books, newspapers, graphics novels, magazines, audiobooks and more. The excellent library service in Waterford also has other facilities, such as a podcast studio, 3D printer and of course, a study area. In my experience, the libraries are one of the few places in city centres that have toilet facilities. I found this to be particularly valuable when my children were small. Libraries in Ireland are also free! They also have electronic services such as eBooks and audiobook downloads via the BorrowBox app. If you’re not a member, you’re missing out.

Hanging around shouldn’t always be a commercial activity. It turns basic existence into a transactional prospect. I’m not suggesting that every pub, café, etc should open their facilities for all-and-sundry to use without buying anything. They’re private businesses and I understand that they have to make money. I’m writing about “public” spaces that are open for everyone. These are often funded via the central government. I am 100% in favour of this. Spend collective money on places that all can enjoy. Everyone’s a winner.

I’m finishing up this piece while tapping on my iPad in John Robert’s Square, in the heart of City Centre Waterford. I’m surrounded by shoppers, delivery drivers, street vendors, buskers, beggars and there’s even a few god-botherers. Mostly, it’s people walking from one place to another. As I sit on a black marble bench, I have a clear view of a handsome old tree, with cartoon eyes placed within its branches. It’s almost as if it’s looking back at me. There’s a coffee kiosk about 100m away. I might buy a cup and sit another while; but I don’t have to – that’s the beauty.