I was a child of primary school age when I first visited Amsterdam in the early 1980s. It was a family day trip from our campsite near Zeebrugge in Belgium, and despite it being formidably unique amongst cities, I genuinely have no recollection of the place from back then. I went again in the early 2000s and did many of the tourist things – the Anne Frank house, canal cruises, the Heineken Experience and the red light district, (watching, not trading). By then, the character of this place had been inevitably learnt simply because of its place in popular culture, built out of the sea on canals and dominated by folk on foot and on bike. I again can’t recall the first impression I had stepping into this city; life these days is too often seen through second hand sources and the experience of being somewhere for the first time can sometimes seem anticlimactic or diminished.
In 2008, I was lucky enough to lead a trip to Amsterdam for 40 or so built environment professionals (planners, architects, urban designers, highway engineers…) on behalf of the now defunct, and much missed, Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment in 2008. It was part of one of the programmes CABE ran. I had much help from Gerard Maccreanor of respected architects Maccreanor Lavington, who have offices both in The Netherlands and in the UK and who have been instrumental in bringing European thinking to British urban planning. The trip also benefitted from the contribution of Ton Schaap, who was then the Head of Planning for the City of Amsterdam. This was genuinely exciting. I remember that.
By then Amsterdam, and The Netherlands in general, had a solid reputation for forward thinking domestic architecture, equitable and efficient transport systems, innovative business environments, contemporary and attractive design and inclusive public realm. Built environment professionals from the UK have looked longingly at this and sought to bring some of that thinking home in an effort to improve planning and architecture here.
It was the perfect place for CABE to visit. We had an overview of Amsterdam’s development and the public sector’s approach to planning (they own most of the land, which helps enormously). We visited new residential developments at GWL-terrain in the west of the city and at the eastern docklands where Borneo Sporenburg and the work of West 8 was a particular highlight; we spent time in Almere, a new settlement to the east of Amsterdam and we also visited Utrecht to see urban extensions there, particularly the approach to integrating cycling and walking into the fabric of an older city.
England is seeing some Dutch influence more and more; already in the architecture – certainly in denser, urban locations and particularly in London – it’s almost endemic. We now have ‘mini-Holland’ in a handful of London boroughs – including Enfield, my own – which aim to elevate cycling as a means of transport whilst easing us away from cars and encouraging local shopping and better public realm.
As a work visit, Amsterdam 2008 was enjoyed by those who attended and it left something of an impression on me. Finding myself back on holiday in The Netherlands with my family in 2016, I was nevertheless ill-prepared for how impressed I’d be with the way in which the Dutch organise their lives and their cities and I began reflecting on the recent – ever more ridiculous – battles had around Enfield’s mini-Holland scheme…
…to be continued