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.
After the 2014 local elections, the city districts will disappear. The national government has decided to do away with this neighbourhood form of politics. Although Amsterdam will not fully comply with the ban – by insisting on maintaining a ‘light’ version of city districts – the city district councils will be history.
The question that looms is: will Amsterdam miss them? Debates in Amsterdam about the councils touch on many subjects. Some reason that they introduce an unnecessary extra layer of bureaucracy. Other say they are a means to bring politics to the people. Still others claim that they are just providing jobs to members of the Labour Party. The arguments go on. But I’d like to raise one issue that has not been discussed so far: that city district councils are a successful instrument for empower immigrants in our city. Though that was not a reason 30 years ago to establish them, this effect could well prove valuable in hindsight.
The political incorporation of immigrants is an important issue. Cities in Europe and North America are becoming increasingly diverse, with higher percentages of inhabitants of immigrant background. Amsterdam is no exception to this trend; for a few years now, the majority of its population has comprised people of immigrant background. We know from existing research that incorporating these groups in the local political system is no easy task.
Just take a look at the city councils of a number of major European and North American cities. You’ll be surprised, if not shocked, by the extremely low numbers of representatives of immigrant background. There are many reasons for this, though an important one being that existing local political systems and parties are often inaccessible to immigrant groups. For the long run, this poses all kinds of serious problems for these cities; the emergence of second- and third-generation immigrants does not seem to guarantee any automatic change to the status quo. Political systems are inert and evolve slowly.
I believe it is no coincidence that the number of local politicians of immigrant background in Amsterdam has been the highest in Europe and even higher than some traditionally immigrant cities in the US or Canada. The Amsterdam political context, in which the city district councils have played a crucial role, has been favourable for incorporating minorities and newcomers. The thresholds here were low, as politics was organized to a great extent at the district level and numerous entry points were available. For this reason alone the city district councils will be missed, though perhaps even more than we can presently imagine.
Floris Vermeulen is associate professor at the department of political science at the University of Amsterdam, and co-programme group leader of the Challenges to Democratic Representation research group.