Amsterdam brings the inner city to the outskirts
A studio in Amsterdam's Slotervaart neighbourhood
Green space is out, high-rises are in as ‘garden' community razed to
Amsterdam — From Wednesday's Globe and Mail, Wednesday, Jun. 24, 2009
From the sky, Amsterdam's Slotervaart neighbourhood looks like a
verdant paradise, its low-rise apartment buildings separated by wide
green spaces, its meandering streets sandwiched between a canal and a
On the ground, these are the very features that have made this western
Amsterdam neighbourhood one of Europe's most notorious slums, known
for gang crime, Islamic extremism, fiery riots, muggings and angry
young men who are sometimes driven to political murder.
For the 45,000 people who live here, the features that made
Slotervaart a workers' paradise in the years after the Second World
War have turned it, for the poor Moroccans and Turks who are now
almost the only people willing to live here, into something of a
prison: A lonely expanse of bleak concrete buildings separated by big,
frightening, empty spaces, and no connection to the wider world.
So the government of Amsterdam is taking a typically blunt approach
this year, knocking down the scores of apartment buildings, getting
rid of the grassy gardens and courts between them, and building tight,
square blocks of high-rise buildings with no space in between.
The resulting neighbourhood, dense and vertical, looks like the ex-
warehouse district of a big-city downtown core from the 1930s. Its
first buildings have just opened, and they look like the sort of art-
deco blocks that Western countries razed by the thousands in the
postwar years to make way for “garden” communities like Slotervaart.
The thinking behind it is equally blunt: If you make Slotervaart look
and act like one of those post-industrial downtown neighbourhoods that
have turned into artistic and entrepreneurial hubs, then there's a
good chance it will start to become one.
In turn, the influx of creative and small-business people will move
its immigrant residents out of the cultural and physical isolation,
which, it's felt, has made them desperate and radical.
“This is an effort to make the neighbourhood more inner-city-like,
higher density, to end the social exclusion that has partly been
produced by isolated housing,” said Lizette Ploeg, the head of the
Slotervaart branch of the New West Project, Amsterdam's effort to
remake its outskirts and integrate the immigrants who populate them.
The big patches of grassy space, she noted, are themselves serving as
barriers to integration and stages for casual crime and destitution.
“It looks very green here, but there is no sense of ownership of
public spaces. That makes it a bit of an anonymous zone – it becomes
empty and people get scared when they walk there alone. Gangs prey on
people in the empty spaces.”
In one sense, this is the latest trend in a growing realization among
urban planners that poverty and cultural segregation are created by
unduly low-density neighbourhoods. The most successful urban
neighbourhoods are often those, like Kensington and Chelsea in London
or the Upper West Side in New York, with the highest densities of
Indeed, Amsterdam's flourishing centre has an extremely high
But the Dutch are going a step further in Slotervaart, and actually
trying to replicate the living conditions, economic activities and
social and ethnic mixes that typically take place in a successful
They're doing this not only by creating downtown-looking buildings,
but by luring herds of small-business people, artists and creative
entrepreneurs with offers of cut-price, and often free, office space,
along with government subsidized services such as receptionists,
photocopying and computer networks.
In exchange, these entrepreneurs, who are mainly young, ethnically
Dutch people moving out from the expensive environs of Amsterdam's
downtown, are obligated to spend a few hours a week on projects meant
to engage the local immigrant population, and ideally to help them
start their own small businesses.
Members of the neighbourhood's Moroccan-born majority are welcoming
the initiative, though they are reserving their judgment on the full
set of plans.
“What new immigrants like to do is start small businesses – shops
and things – so they can get some savings and make a better life, but
this kind of neighbourhood, with everything so far apart, makes it
impossible to do that,” said Mohammed Mallaouch, a teacher and
community leader who came here 24 years ago from rural Morocco.
“It's a very bad situation – our children have no way of seeing or
experiencing Dutch life, so they become trapped between two cultures,
never able to become a full member of either culture, and they don't
learn to read and fall into crime,” he said. The new shape of the
neighbourhood, he said, is a start, but far more radical changes will
There is something disconcerting about the mass migration of young,
fashionable, creative types into the midst of a troubled enclave of
second-generation immigrants. “We are very happy to mix with the
people around us, but we haven't all found the right projects to make
it work yet,” said Dymphie Braun at Beehive, a business-startup
centre at the foot of one of the high-rise housing projects.
She admitted that none of her 30 small businesses are run by
immigrants from the area. Officials said it will take time for
entrepreneurial opportunities to be taken up by the local community.
Aside from moving everyone closer together and bringing in the
bohemians, the Dutch have adopted some other assertive measures to
make Slotervaart's residents start acting like they live in a
There are the “street nuisance patrols,” dozens of plainclothes
police officers on bicycles who sweep the neighbourhood every week.
They search for children and teenagers who aren't in classrooms during
school hours – the result is a forced march to school and a fine for
the parents – and police small, disorderly infractions such as
graffiti and window breaking.
There's a youth program called “pimp my block” – the name is
American slang, perpetually popular among Arabic-Dutch youth – in
which teams of teenagers are awarded €5,000 ($8,000) budgets if they
can come up with plans to improve the appearance or function of their
The results are hard to discern at the moment, since the high-density
blocks are only a couple months old and most of the neighbourhood is
still a sea of construction cranes, demolishing or renovating the old
buildings into big-city structures. In a country whose politics and
society have been deeply polarized by clashes over immigration, it is
an explosive attempt to make a new start.
Montreal QC Canada
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