Amsterdam: Attack on the free spaces

Things are going well with Amsterdam. The city is extremely popular. More visitors come every year. While there were still plans to demolish the entire ring of canals in the 1950s, the same canal belt is now Unesco’s cultural heritage. Living in the city has become a popular product. In order to meet the demand, according to experts, 350,000 new homes are needed in the city and region. New residential areas for new residents.

‘Build, Build, Build!’, All politicians of the city council said in in unison earlier this year. Sounds good. Amsterdam, the open world city where everyone is welcome. Who can be against this now?

Where does all that new space come from?
Due to that self-imposed construction task, enormous pressure is being created on the existing city. The great densification: allowing more people to live in existing areas. There is also living space. Transform whole parts of the city. Industrial areas become residential areas. The port is moving up. Green spaces and allotment complexes become building plots. This mainly affects soft functions such as free spaces, public space and social real estate. But a city beach must also disappear.

With far-reaching consequences: free space becomes market space. Counterculture and non-market-based ways of living, working and relaxing become virtually impossible. More than enough examples.

The last free places such as the ADM and Ruigoord are under pressure. Collective residential buildings such as Tetterode, the WG site are expected to pay market-based rents. The Bajesdorp, the squatted guards’ housing at the Bijlmerbajes (=> Bijlmer prison), opposes the commercial developer AM. The alternative city beach Blijburg has to give way to expensive apartments after 15 years.

Other alternative forms of housing also pay the toll of marketing. Over the past decade, many buildings owned by corporations with mixed housing have been converted into student houses or apartment-with-friends contracts. This is how an Amsterdam tradition – the living group – dies out.

Why is free-space needed?
Free space is the breathing space of the city. Free space actually questions the applicable principles. It shows unseen possibilities and makes social unusual practices visible. It is about the space in your head, a space without logos, slogans or dull revenue models. An allotment garden is a green making space, organized collectively. A free-space is an active living workplace with an alternative program. An experimental place for new forms of collaboration and personal responsibility. The practice of free-space in the city shows that alternatives are possible. That change is possible.

Sometimes these marginal practices become mainstream, sometimes not. Much of the current cultural infrastructure in the center of the city derives from the squatting’ period, places like Paradiso, the Melkweg or W139. Sometimes marginality is taken over by the commercial market as in the case of coffeeshops or sex palaces.

Free-space: a fight in the margin.
Free zones as part of the city never came naturally. Space for counterculture has always been fought for. Struggle and controversy belong to traditions in which a city develops and progresses. Nevertheless, at the same time there must be a kind of social room for maneuver. The practice of squatting, occupying and tolerating made it possible to create free-space. They formed the necessary conditions with which the social sense of urgency could be made visible.

A city is a result of planned (un)lucky and unintended consequences. This creates something like a ‘genius loci’ or a city culture. Here, liberty and free places are key concepts. Space with human scale in use and experience. Also in terms of financing. The free-spaces form the ecology of alternative Amsterdam.

Why are these places disappearing?
The causes are diverse. It is a combination of changing policy, changing political support and pressure on space. Blijburg has to give way to the final destination of the land, expensive apartments. Ruigoord because of the harbor. Sometimes it is the pressure from the commercial market. The ADM is now claimed by the owner. Yet it remains a political consideration what you do as a city with that space.

In the background, the role that the municipality is taking on the property market plays a major role. As a result of the 2009 real estate crisis, alderman Maarten van Poelgeest (GreenLeft) saved a lot of money. This crisis took a big chunk out of the city’s budget (the equalization fund). To get that back in order, hundreds of millions of municipal real estate came on the market. Social clubs and initiatives ended up on the street.

Housing corporations increasingly behaved like financial institutions. The director of corporation Rochdale had a Maserati with driver. They were owners of social real estate but were also in derivatives. With dramatic losses as a result. As a political counter-reaction, these parties had to return to their core task: Social housing for the target group. Social real estate is not part of this and must therefore be market conform. Residential complexes such as the WG site and Tetterode are therefore under enormous pressure.

Law and rules are helping the commercial market
The nationwide ban on squatting in 2010 makes the fight against vacancy and speculation illegal. A blatant choice for the commercial market and the owners of real estate. The promised accompanying vacancy policy of the city of Amsterdam does not get inplemented. The only result is that offices have been converted to hotel rooms.

Urban densification is a planning task. Certain procedures apply for this. Companies and industries are bought out or tempted to move to more remote areas. They are compensated for their loss. It is different for green areas and allotment complexes. There is no compensation for this urban nature, the function simply disappears. Only if there is enough space can this type of function be near the city. If free zones such as ADM and Ruigoord have to give way to the new city, no alternative will be proposed. They are apparently not a relevant part of the city, so no longer needed ?!

Ground policy and big watches.
The underlying problem is the technocratic mechanisms at the municipality itself. The revenue model of the municipality is the land that it issues in long-term lease. Market principles are central. Neoliberal tendencies are clear. Civil servants are part of an RVE (Result Responsible Unit). The spatial planning department now has its own area development department. As a result, we see an increasing emphasis on the technocratic streamlining of processes. Officials also dress and behave according to real estate and market principles.

Spatial planning therefore takes place without discussion with society. Social interests are not taken into account. Clear political feedback is lacking. The possibilities for compacting were mapped out a few years ago by an official group. Small maps of the city have emerged, with extra numbers on existing neighborhoods and areas. On squares, in public gardens or in the middle of an existing neighborhood. Those numbers are the number of additional houses that are going to be added. A technical finger exercise above a map. While this completely changes the reality on the ground and thus the society.

The emphasis is exclusively on making money so that large investors and developers have free rein. At the expense of balance in the building of functions. Those, although they cost money, ensure social cohesion and experiment space in the city.

The city’s preference for market forces will be seen in the plans for the HavenStad (=> PortCity) district, which entails some 70,000 homes. The urban space produced by the market has a very specific character. The percentage of social rental housing is limited. These are mainly homes for highly educated two-income households. Is that bad? In any case, it means that the city changes with respect to what it is today. HavenStad has everything to become a white enclave. Not nice to hear. Yes, it’s market conform.

The city is not Center Parks.
A healthy city is not an economic enclave for like-minded people. The city where we live together as strangers in difference and forbearance, now becomes a space that one must be able to afford. Inherent to the policy is also that the way of living together is constantly adjusting and improvising. In a hotel lobby, starter home or ‘gated community’ you do not experiment together. You consume there.
The form of governance of ‘the polis’, democracy, is breaking with the tradition that makes wealth or position powerful. Everyone must be able to have a say in the board. Market forces undermine this principle. After all, the selection on income actually means the benefit of wealth and origin.
Free-space creates a better balance between commerce and social and cultural functions, and it also contributes to the concept of what a city is, a ‘polis’.
The city now has almost no free-space left. This seems contradictory to the care and ambitions of the left-wing city government and the left-wing spring, which was presented to us in the spring.
The disappearance of places of arrival where you can stay in the city in alternative ways is worrying for the future of the city. Places where you as a newcomer or visitor can explore the city and get to know and build with it, are necessary to break through that monoculture of fitting in the commercial market model.

It can and must be changed … The good news is that everything is still reversible. All the means of power are in the hands of the city board: through the leasehold system the land under the buildings is owned by the municipality. The price that the municipality requires for its land determines which functions are possible. Politics is primordial: it determines the direction of development.
And: there is still a bit of social real estate left to serve non-commercial purposes, also in the center of the city. If Amsterdam wants to remain an open and social city, it has to put its hand in its own bosom:

The attitude of the officials deserves extra attention. For and with whom do they make the plans? Why is the market-based method so obvious to them? We also need to critically monitor the role and influence of institutional investors and the lobby of large construction companies and property investors. Directors change every 4 years but the 13,800 civil servants in the municipality are a constant factor.

Especially in this era of uncertainty about the future. Building for 50 years? Climate change gives us a great urgency and a need for a different approach. The city needs to build in much more flexibility. Think in this case also about the next economic crisis.

If the current left coalition takes things seriously, it should compensate for this fatal loss of free-space. Better still: Invest in your exceptions now. Make alternative space! Point out where it is possible, yes, must be done. Also and especially right in the center of the city. Question the current automatism that building is a ‘market activity’. We see where that activity leads: high house prices, segregation and more consumption culture. It is time to be careful with the space that is left and to reserve for what is not yet known. Keep the spirits supple in the tradition of Amsterdam. Left-winged leaders, correct the right course. It is now or never!

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