Going Dutch: Lessons in urban amenity from Amsterdam


The famous canals of Amsterdam, where canal cruises are popular among tourists.

In the summer, the streets are filled with rowdy visitors drawn by the city’s reputation for sex, drugs and rock and roll. But at the same time, Amsterdam is also home to the average Dutch.

It’s a human theatre conducted against the gracious Golden Age backdrop, where over 7,600 buildings in the city centre alone are listed as “monuments”1. It’s a delicate balance, but for decades Amsterdam has somehow juggled the competing needs of tourists and locals alike.

Despite amassing over 11 million bednights in 2013 – a seven per cent increase from 20122 – Amsterdam has continued to rank highly on liveability surveys3. The volume of tourists visiting Amsterdam has the potential to disrupt the city’s housing market and push up real estate prices, but the authorities have actively worked to counter the fallout from tourism on local residents.

One example of this is the city’s approach to managing Airbnb, a website that allows people to rent out their homes to tourists. While the site gives Amsterdammers an opportunity to profit from the city’s tourists, it also creates the potential for sharp rental rises, since tourists are often willing to pay considerably more per night than residents. When Airbnb sublets became a matter of concern for residents – and the local hotel industry – the city placed restrictions on how long owners could sublet properties to tourists and imposed a tourist-tax on profits from these sublets4. Rather than ban the popular website, the city tried to strike a balance between generating profit and cost-of-living concerns. With the goal to “promote responsible home sharing and simplify the payment of tourist tax”, the city was able to nip steep rental increases in the bud, while still allowing for “innovation and the sharing economy”5.

House prices are also kept in check by the city’s extensive social housing, which accounts for some 40% of the city’s housing stock6. The Dutch social housing system, which grew out of the Housing Act of 1901, is remarkably effective, allowing for a level of social diversity not seen in other European capitals. While there has been a shift towards owneroccupied housing in recent years, the social rental sector remains a significant part of the Dutch housing market and helps keep housing pressures down. Together with a significant number of rent-controlled units, the city regulates its housing market to protect locals from speculation – and from tourists.

Of course, tourism has impacts beyond house prices. “More and more, we have the question of who owns the inner city,” says Dr Leon Deben from the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences at the University of Amsterdam7. For Deben, who has spent years researching urbanism in his home city, Amsterdam’s special appeal lies in its mix8. Since the 1980s, younger people have moved back into the city centre, reversing the suburbanising trend of the 1960s and 1970s9. Young families live near cannabis shops and art galleries sit side-by-side with sex workers in their windows. It can be hard to make sense of the city, but that’s all part of the fun.

There are signs that things are changing, however. In an attempt to court highend luxury tourists, officials have been “cleaning up” the city. Two local plans have been particularly controversial. The first of these is dubbed the “Red Carpet” – a luxury shopping street that runs from Central Station along Damrak, through Dam Square, and onward via Rokin into the city’s south. Branded by City Hall as a “facelift”, residents and planners alike have raised concerns that in “rolling out the red carpet” for luxury tourists, the city is killing the vibrant mix of shops – from tacky souvenir emporiums to independent boutiques – that make the inner city so lively10. The second controversial plan being undertaken by the city is Project 1012, which aims to make the city’s famous red light district “safer, more attractive and more liveable” by shutting down cannabis cafes and sex workers’ windows, and encouraging new businesses in their place11. Once again, concerns have been raised that in sanitising the city for tourists and gentrifiers, Amsterdam risks losing its soul.

Amsterdam has a population of 825,080 just within the city proper.

The city is synonymous with its bicycles. Some 38% of trips within the city are made on bike.

Heritage conservation has affected how the inner city is used: old buildings do not make good offices for multinationals, but they can be good places to call home or run a small business. This has resulted in particular forms of gentrification within inner Amsterdam, with the city reinventing itself as a creative hub. Historic cities have their own particular pressures, and heritage conservation imposes certain spatial constraints on how they are to grow. This creates potential for urban conflict: “Tourism is not the only thing that contributes to the feeling of overcrowding; (there is) also the lifestyle of living outside,” says Deben. Outdoor dining puts pressure on public space, as does the competition for space between pedestrians, cyclists and motorists.

For older residents in particular, the experience of drukte – the hustle and bustle of the city – is increasingly a concern. “The experience of nuisance is age-cohort connected,” notes Deben, observing that younger families often appreciate the inner city’s energy, while older residents generally tire of the noise and crowds.

Drukte is also a good word for the city’s transport networks. Visitors exiting Amsterdam Centraal are greeted with scenes of organised chaos: cars make way for pedestrians and cyclists, who weave between the trams and buses that leave in all directions from the central station. Underground, the metro moves people across the city with admirable efficiency. Behind the station, free ferries shuttle people to the neighbourhoods north of the IJ, where art venues and museums have proliferated in the past decade. It’s a well-connected city, and that sense of connection extends well beyond the city limits: from Centraal, you can reach most of the country’s major cities in under an hour, and board trains to Paris, Brussels and Berlin. A train also gets you to Schiphol airport in about 30 minutes.

There are many ways to get around within Amsterdam, but bikes are king. Decades of citizen activism and bicycleoriented policies have made Amsterdam the cycling capital of the world12. Today, some 38% of trips within the city are made on bike, and there are an estimated two bikes for every person in the city; for most of the city’s residents, everything is under a half-hour away on bike.

Amsterdam’s striking ability to balance the needs of various parties – of locals and tourists, or of cyclists, motorists and pedestrians – within its compact city centre offers lessons that are pertinent for other cities. While most cities do not have the resources for Dutch style social housing, Amsterdam’s commitment to cycling infrastructure is a goal to which many other cities can aspire. The city’s policies regarding the management of tourism are also of interest, particularly as pressures from tourism are debated in cities around the world. Perhaps the most important lesson Amsterdam has to offer, however, is that there can be room for all – in the city and on the streets.

1 Terhorst, Pieter, Jacques van de Ven and Leon Deben, “Amsterdam: It’s All in a Mix”, In Cities and Visitors: Regulating People, Markets, and City Space, Eds. Susan Fainstein, Lily Hoffman and Dennis Judd, New York: Blackwell Publishing, 2008, p. 80; Edward W. Soja, “On Spuistraat: The Contested Streetscape in Amsterdam”, In The Uknown City: Contesting Archtiecture and Social Space, Ed. Iain Borden, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002, p. 282.

2 Gemeente Amsterdam, Bureau Onderzoek en Statistiek, “Tourism sector in Amsterdam continues to grow”, February 2014 (URL: www. ois.amsterdam.nl/nieuws/download/1264/2014_ factsheet_tourism.pdf).

3 Audrey Yoo, “And the Best City in the World Is…”, Time, July 9, 2012 (URL: http://newsfeed. time.com/2012/07/09/and-the-best-city-in-theworld- is/).

4 Will Coldwell, “Airbnb's legal troubles: what are the issues?” The Guardian, July 8, 2014 (URL: www. theguardian.com/travel/2014/jul/08/airbnb-legal-troubles-what-are-the-issues).

5 Gemeente Amsterdam, “Amsterdam and Airbnb sign agreement on home sharing and tourist tax”, I amsterdam Media Centre, December 18, 2014 (URL: www.iamsterdam.com/en/media-centre/city-hall/ press-releases/2014-press-room/amsterdam-airbnb-agreement).

6 Wouter van Gent, “Neoliberalization, Housing Institutions and Variegated Gentriļ¬cation: How the ‘Third Wave’ Broke in Amsterdam”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 37.2 (2013): p. 513.

7 Interview with Dr Leon Deben, Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, University of Amsterdam. Amsterdam, July 22, 2015.

8 Terhorst, van de Ven and Deben, “Amsterdam: It’s All in a Mix”.

9 Eric Hoppenbrouwer and Erik Louw, “Mixed-use Development: Theory and Practice in Amsterdam’s Eastern Docklands”, European Planning Studies, 13.7 (2005): p. 977.

10 Mark Minkjan, "Hausmann and the Sanitisation of Amsterdam", Failed Architecture, May 27, 2015 (URL: www.failedarchitecture.com/haussmann-and-the-sanitisation-of-amsterdam/).

11 Gemeente Amsterdam, "Dossier: Red Light District – General Information" (URL: www.iamsterdam. com/en/media-centre/city-hall/dossier-red-light-district/general-information).

12 Renate van der Zee, “How Amsterdam became the bicycle capital of the world”, The Guardian, May 5, 2015 (URL: www.theguardian.com/ cities/2015/may/05/amsterdam-bicycle-capitalworld- transport-cycling-kindermoord).


KL-born and Melbourne-educated, Soon-Tzu Speechley is a freelance writer, editor and historian. His work has appeared in a number of magazines in Australia and Malaysia. He spent the summer researching the impact of tourism on housing markets in heritage cities as part of an urban studies programme at the University of Amsterdam. He tweets @speechleyish.

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