polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Amsterdam Is Nice. Is It Just?

by Alex Schafran

I have always loved Amsterdam, and not solely because I am from California. I credit a common (for foreigners) near-death experience there a decade ago — almost getting run over by a stream of bikes in dedicated lanes — with my transformation from old-school housing guy to full-fledged urbanist. Amsterdam can be an epiphany: a subtle, beautiful, and oh-so-pleasant example of what could happen if older cities fought for a different way of life, with a more humane urban design standard than what has become the norm in the United States.

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My trip to Amsterdam in 2002 was partly inspired by the city's legendary affordable housing policies. A regime of state and social ownership meshed with one of the most vibrant squatting movements in urban history to create a lived city, where the most inherently monopolistic resource — land — was largely free from speculation. It was a city where public housing was not a four-letter word.

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Experiences like these are part of what drives so many noted American urbanists to live in, love, and write about Amsterdam, not just as a nice city but as a just city. Ed Soja's LA/Amsterdam mash-up is one of my favorite pieces of his — Soja writing as only he can and the rest of us should. Susan Fainstein has written about Amsterdam for years, most recently in The Just City, where a major redevelopment project in Amsterdam becomes "the most just" of three urban projects (the new Yankee stadium in New York, the city's biggest urban shame since Moses, is the evil opposite).


Fainstein's linking of Amsterdam and justice was an explicit and open-ended question at the recent RC21 conference, urban sociology's annual meeting of the minds. More than any conference I have ever been to, the host city's supposedly glittering reputation for doing good things was under attack — by the Dutch themselves. In a wickedly smart opening presentation, Holland's latest urbanist wunderkind Justus Uitermark managed to capture the hand-wringing angst of many progressive Dutch urbanists when he asked whether Amsterdam had lost the right to claim the moral high ground, becoming not an exemplary just city but "just a nice city."


It is hard to avoid the stunning pace of change in Amsterdam, captured in built form in some of my photographs. There is a wall of boxy glass and steel on either side of the IJ near the centrum, an architectural dike for the neoliberal era. Rather than holding back the North Sea, Amsterdam's new facade is designed to hold in capital and that precious resource Amsterdam has pursued with policy and fervor: the "creative class."


The impact of Richard Florida's "creative class" ideology is featured in a new documentary by the Netherlands-based German urbanist Tino Buchholz. Featuring numerous Dutch activists and intellectuals and geographer Jamie Peck, whose essay "Struggling with the Creative Class" remains my favorite piece of contemporary urban intellectual critique, the film situates the creative class debate in the broader context of capital-led redevelopment and questions of affordability and belonging in cities of the Global North.

In coming weeks, we will feature a review of Buchholz's movie and an interview with Uitermark and his mentor, Jan Willem Duyvendak. Amsterdam may no longer be what it was, but the changes wrought in the name of creativity continue to make Amsterdam a critical source of urban questions, for better or for worse.

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Credits: Photos by Alex Schafran. 

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