About sustainable city development and what Amsterdam has to offer.
If our European cities today looked like the ones envisioned by the comic artists of the 1960s, Amsterdam’s Cityscape would include a lot more glass spheres, robots and people sporting fish bowls as headpieces and aluminum foil as a denim replacement. We would get to uni with our jetpacks and complain about tourists, who would stop their flight randomly mid-air to marvel at the complex road system criss-crossing over Amsterdam which allows the hovering cars to noiselessly swoosh from Centraal Station to the Rijksmuseum in no time. What might seem a bit overambitious nowadays was very much in line with the sentiments of the day. The (western) economy was booming, consumerism was on the rise and people were happy to replace World War II memories with TV sets and vacuum cleaners. As Cornelia Dinca, founder of Sustainable Amsterdam and graduate of the UvAs Urban Planning Program, has pointed out: In the 1960s urban planning was really more about cars than it was about people. We all know that this power dynamic is not entirely applicable to Amsterdam, as it is really more about bikes than people, or cars in the first place – but it has not always been that way. When looking at pictures of the Haarlemmerdijk in the 1980s, for instance, one can clearly see the prominent role of cars compared to the dominance of bikes today. Even the Green Space in front of the Rijksmuseum was once a busy highway with cars passing right through the big opening gate.
It is funny how things change. Our general set of values has shifted and visions of the future have taken on a more dystopian undertone along the lines of The Hunger Games or World War Z. Urban planning of the day focusses on far less exciting topics such as air pollution, the avoidance of congestion and making cities more “livable”. We want “green”, “people-friendly” and “smart” cities now because we have become aware of the link between the environment and our overall well-being. A video titled ‘Why Beautiful Things Make us Happy’ by the Munich-based design studio Kurzgesagt mentions skin sensor studies that demonstrate how humans physically react to their environment. Looking at plain dull facades, for instance, made the individuals feel bored and even uncomfortable which could be measured in raised heart rates and stress levels. Surroundings that are aesthetically pleasing, on the other hand, have been linked to more positive emotions and even increased cognitive function.
The importance of carefully designing an urban landscape that is as efficient and sustainable as it is livable is emphasized by the ongoing process of European Urbanization. The European Commission estimates that by 2020 80% of EU citizens will be living in cities. I was unfortunately unable to find exact figures (though I tried) but the implications are clear: City-life is going to get a lot more cozy than it already is in the upcoming deca- de. With that in mind the European Commis- sion’s website informs us of the following: A new environmental programme was launched in 2013 called the 7th Environment Action Programme (EAP), which ‘sets out a strategic agenda for environmental policy-making with 9 priority objectives to be achieved by 2020. It helps to establish a common understanding of the main environmental challenges Europe faces and what needs to be done to tackle them effectively. This programme underpins the European Green Capital Award in relation to policies for sustainable urban planning and design.’ One of the two major objectives highlighted by the programme are for one, to make the Union’s cities more sustainable and secondly to address environmental and climate issues more effectively. The European Green Capital Award (EGCA) is one of those measures. Each year one European city is selected based on its efforts to set an example for environmentally friendly and sustainable urban living. On the website you can view short videos of some of the winners’ achievements whereby the ones of Bristol (2015) and Nantes (2013) are on the more entertaining side of the spectrum.
Even though 70% of trips within Amsterdam are made on foot or by bike, it has yet to join the ranks of Europe’s most sustainable cities. Accordingly, efforts are being made. In 2015 the Amsterdam City Council released the rather clumsily titled ‘Structural Vision Amsterdam 2040 City Master Plan’ which proposes 75 different smart city projects. Amongst them are efforts to revive industrial riverfronts, enlarge the public transport system and establish a set of wind parks to meet local energy demands. There are even proposals being made for enabling the hosting of the 2028 Olympic Games. On a more immediate level the city aims to increase the amount of trees (of which there are currently over 1 million scattered all over Amsterdam), sidewalk gardens, green roofs and vegetable gardens. If you are cycling past Waterlooplein on your way to uni you might have noticed a couple of Green Walls close to the Municipality Office of Amsterdam, which aim to purify the airways alongside one of its busier motorways. These so called City- Trees are moss-covered walls with a built in irrigation system which absorb environmental toxins from the surrounding air. Apart from the top-down efforts of Amsterdam’s administrative sphere, there has been a rise of several innovative projects all over the city which each one of us can get involved in!
Take the café and business initiative De Ceuvel for example. Situated in Noord (North Amsterdam) it is a prime example of what the 2040 Amsterdam City Master Plan would title the ‘revival of industrial riverfronts’. Ten years ago the area was an industrial waste- land, a shipyard, that has been completely transformed by a team of skilled architects and volunteers. The ships are still there. They have been restored and are now being used as offices. A wooden high-rise walk enables visitors to peak into every single one of them whilst being offered interesting facts written on signs along the way about topics such as water management or sustainable energy sources. Teaching you, for instance, that the plants underneath the planks you are walking on have been carefully selected to clean the soil from years of heavy industry pollution. Plants such as these are called hyper-accumulators and amongst them are clovers, foxgloves and willows. The initiative describes itself as a ‘creative, circular and urban community’ and it is an excellent example of this. 150 Photovoltaic panels cover most of its annual energy needs, 60% of warm air is being recirculated to reduce energy expenditure and due to the purification of waste water the office boats consume 75% less water than conventional offices.
Entering De Ceuvel is a little bit like entering the toolbox of an artist, who takes an ex- tended interest in gardening. It is green and colorful – a mish-mash of different materials, all of which up-cycled or hand-me-downs. Somewhere integrated within the main building is a lifeguard beach pavilion from Scheveningen and on a sunny day one can enjoy a locally produced elderflower soda sitting in a rusty shipwreck overlooking the water. When it comes to the average city-dwellers’ contribution towards a healthy urban community, the support of such businesses is really the way to go. Amsterdam especially has a lot to offer. There is the Taste Before You Waste initiative which hosts weekly three-course dinners cooked solely with produce which would have otherwise been thrown away by supermarkets, despite being perfectly edible. Interesting to note for us poor students: Payment is on a voluntary tip-bases and excess foods are usually handed out for free – my roommates brought home a bunch of avocados, tortillas and apples the other week. De KasKantine is an ‘urban farm café’
in the South of Amsterdam which aims to be completely self-sustained in terms of energy, water and food supply. Six Shipping containers and two greenhouses serve as the basis for this independent community – yet another example of a smart urban initiative. The word ‘city’ is derived from the Latin civis for citizen because a city is a community in the end.
A city can only be as smart as its citizens, only as green or livable as we want it to be. So let’s look ahead, keep learning from one another, put some bee-friendly plants on our windowsill, keep riding our bikes to uni and welcome change – even if it is that ugly City- Tree in front of Amsterdam’s city hall. Some- times it does not take much more than that.