Urban markets are hot. From Seattle to Sydney and from Turin to Toronto, marketplaces are popping up in cities to meet the interests of city dwellers in sustainable and healthy food and lively places to meet one another. This development has not gone unnoticed by planners and politicians. Increasingly, they appreciate the value of urban marketplaces.
Twenty or so years ago I stood on a cold and windswept spot in Almere New Town being a young lecturer at Cardiff University assisting on our Diploma in Town Planning field trip to the Netherlands. What better way to escape the crowds of gawping, zoned-out, tourists in central Amsterdam on the Easter Good Friday the day after my Centre for Urban Studies talk than to take a sentimental journey out of town to a suburb of sorts?
I spent my sabbatical in Hong Kong. With both extreme human densities and breathtaking natural landscapes, Hong Kong is an overwhelming city. This much I knew, and this alone would have made the stay a unique experience. Nothing however, had prepared me for the massive social movement and occupation of public spaces that was born, grew beyond all expectations, and reached a provisional end while I was there: Occupy Central, aka #UmbrellaMovement. Several times I visited the occupied sites, as well as following the developments daily in the media, and discussing them with locals of diverging views and backgrounds. The site visits especially made a profound impression on me, and fuelled thoughts that stretched beyond the event.
Inspired by Jenny Robinson’s invocation to look for ‘new ways of bringing cities together’ in urban studies, one is struck by a strong feeling of connectedness between the cities of Amsterdam and Cape Town. Since 1652 these cities have ‘inhabited each other’ and have been ‘drawn together’ more closely at various times in history and ‘kept apart’ at others. Viewing the roots of the Amsterdam-Cape Town connectedness merely as a binary of metropole and colony, does little justice to the rich and nuanced relationship in time and space of these two cities. The concept of ‘entanglement’ defined as “a condition of being twisted together or entwined, involved with; it speaks of an intimacy gained, even if it was resisted, ignored and uninvited”. To this day this ‘intimacy’ exists although it was variously ‘resisted’ and ‘ignored’ by Amsterdam and the Dutch anti-apartheid movement from the sixties.
The city of Amsterdam has long occupied a strategic position in the history of global interdependent development. Visiting the city of Amsterdam for the first time I was deeply impressed. As an urban geographer, I was fascinated by the landscape of the city, its glorious history and fabulous cultural heritage, and the way in which (post)modern urbanism has lived out with such a great livability and sustainability: the canal system, the juxtaposition of heritage buildings of different styles and times, the openness of the people linguistically and culturally, the wonderful interplay of state and market, and, of course, the amazing spatial mobility of people riding on the bicycle that I have loved and missed for so long! This is the most liberal and livable city of the world. Just as the forces of globalization are so strongly felt today, the leading role that could be played by this global city in the world of interdependent development has become more prominent than ever before. Obviously, the world we now face is one full of new challenges and opportunities that need to be taken with great vision and courage.
Recently, it has been argued that 'Smart Cities' are capable of addressing the urban challenges and problems of our time, orchestrating urban life in more efficient ways and making cities more engaging and livable. As an ideal of future urban life, the Smart City is shaped by ubiquitous sensing and tracking information technologies, which constantly monitor and orchestrate urban processes at multiple levels. Critics of the Smart City point out that this intensifies many of the Orwellian aspects already present in today’s society. NSA spying, Google censorship, Facebook nudging and the profiling and commodification of people’s actions, writings and thoughts are practices that seem to be given free rein in future Smart Cities.
It is a hard job to stimulate the debate about cycling in the Netherlands. Literally everybody is a frequent user and most therefore also consider themselves to be an expert: 16 million professors on urban cycling. We could not be happier than living and working in such an advanced mobility context. This is something that we should acknowledge and export more. But at the same time we run the risk of what is called a ‘handicap of a head start’; a too comfortable situation in which there is a lack of stimuli to strive for further progress or –more cynically- to avoid a reversal of the accomplished success.
In Amsterdam one is struck immediately by the weight of the past. But I found the common tropes available to be inadequate in framing the story of the city for the visitor. I visited both the City and the Canal Museums, which have elaborate, high-tech summaries of the city's Golden Age that produced the historic canals and houses for which Amsterdam is world famous. Unfortunately, these potted histories leave much to be desired, and not just because they are popular displays.
Recently, I spent the evening at a restaurant located in the middle of Amsterdam’s red light district, where we had window seats with a beautiful view of the Old Church lying on the opposite of the canal. Surrounded by coffeeshops and red lights that signal the presence of window prostitution, the church has always seemed out of place in its surroundings. As a child I sometimes passed through this part of town on the back of parents’ bicycle on our way to one of the Chinese restaurants and I remember the lingering smell of marihuana, the junkies shuffling around and the male visitors who furtively walked by, looking away in order not to be recognized. Growing up in the canal belt in the early eighties, which was then quite run down, the sight of window prostitution was not unfamiliar to me, but the red light district was far more shady and clearly represented the shadowside of the city.
Until early 2008, my housing career probably could be seen as a hybrid product of ‘how Amsterdam social housing works’ and the usual ‘early gentrifier’ frame as we know it from urban geography and urban sociology research. Born and raised in Alkmaar, about 40 km north of Amsterdam, I moved to a tiny student flat in Diemen shortly after the start of my study. Not really Amsterdam yet, but at least very close to it, and this was simply the first place where I managed to get off the waiting list for student housing. OK, I could have chosen squatting or anti-squatting or the semi-legal or illegal subletting route as well, like several of my fellow students did; in that sense maybe I did not start out as a typical early gentrifier. Moving up the accommodation ladder, I went from this tiny one-room flat to a slightly less tiny 2-room flat on the edge of the city centre , and then on to a 3-room apartment in Bos en Lommer.
In Amsterdam we speak many languages, as in any city across the world. Somewhat specific however is the high prevalence of English, next to Dutch, the national language of the country, and the wide range of languages represented. Moreover, the city has a long history of multilingualism. Its nickname is Mokum – a reminder of the Yiddish custom to call cities after their initial and the times when Amsterdam was Mokum Aleph. This testifies of the importance of Yiddish in its cultural heritage and the local slang. In the Dutch Golden Age, Amsterdam was both a global trade centre and a cultural centre. It was a free place where authors from the rest of Europe convened to get their work printed in many languages, including Hebrew, and more in general a safe haven for people fleeing religious persecution elsewhere: Portuguese Jews and German Jews, as Sephardim and Ashkenazim are known in Amsterdam, Huguenots, etc.
In a recent CUS blog, Erik Swyngedouw laments Amsterdam’s current lack of insurgent citizens. Unlike other cities “where the multitude takes to the streets and squares and stages performatively new egalitarian modes of being-in-common”, Amsterdam and its inhabitants appear to have succumbed to the neoliberal fantasy.
In their quest to understand the city, urban researchers can choose to emerge into sociological theories or mingle into the everyday struggle of the street and learn from what they see. Let me tell you a ‘small story that rethinks a large issue’: The battle of the orphan-bike.
There are many Amsterdams. The city has a different meaning for each inhabitant and every visitor. The city’s slogan I Amsterdam seems to acknowledge this individualized experience (it is not ‘We Amsterdam’). In his blog, Erik Swyngedouw invites us to share his particular view on Amsterdam, when he asks: “I wonder where my Amsterdam is?”, followed by a deeply nostalgic view on his Amsterdam that has disappeared: “Thirty odd years later, and after many returns to my beloved Amsterdam, I feel increasingly alienated by the city, a whiff of nostalgia to a lost dream and a melancholic dread permeates my body and mind when drifting along Amsterdam’s streets and canals. Sure, it still is a great city, a global cosmopolitan urbanity that feels like a village. The quirky sites and unexpected corners are still there, but the city’s soul, its mojo seems to have decamped.”
Thirty years ago Amsterdam installed its first city districts. At the highpoint of this era, in 2002, there were 14 city districts (stadsdelen). Each had its own council (stadsdeelraad). And each thus provided a place where Amsterdam politics, with all its ups and downs, became truly local. It might seem strange to an outsider or, for that matter, to an insider to have so many small ‘parliaments’ in a city with less than 800,000 inhabitants. But this won’t be an issue next year.
Amsterdam takes a very special and privileged position in my intellectual trajectory. As a young and radical planning student in Belgium in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the stale, dogmatic, antiquated and plainly stifling intellectual and cultural environment that characterized much of academic and urban life in my native Belgium at the time contrasted sharply with the exuberantly liberating, exhilarating and radical thought and associated urban practices that came in as a whirlwind from the Netherlands and, in particular, from Amsterdam.
It was in the mid 1990s. On our way to a family holiday in the Alps we made a stopover in Salzburg. Salzburg, the city of Mozart, of the fortress and, of course, The Sound of Music. Parking signs guided us to a parking house, which happened to be built in a massive rock, right near the city centre. We entered with the car on one side and left as pedestrians on the other. At once the whole environment had changed. It was like a jump in time. The old Burgerstadt of Salzburg was stripped of all modern artifacts. In its place caleches, young men with wigs and in livery, violin music. In fact the city was readied for touristic consumption to the max, and the flocks of visitors clearly liked it. It made me exclaim: Salzburg is Europe’s answer to Disneyland.
The façade of the houses along the Amsterdam canals seems to have changed little in four centuries. Behind the doors, however, things are quite different. It is not just that the interiors are very different, but, even more important, significant shifts in the economic activities have taken place.
Amsterdam has significantly increased in popularity during the last decade: most of the inner city neighbourhoods are experiencing gentrification and the population has grown steadily – in 2012 the milestone of 800,000 inhabitants was passed. This success relates to the city’s function as an ‘escalator’: many young people move to the city to study or find work. At a later point in time, they might move out. Partly because housing construction has not kept up with population growth and growing housing market pressures this function is threatened.