Cycling into Amsterdam’s red-light district from Dam Square on a summer evening requires advanced maneuvering skills. Throngs of tourists clog the sidewalks. They spill into the road without warning, blocking traffic while they check their phones or take a picture, though it’s not clear what they hope to capture. In just one block I counted four pizzerias, four souvenir shops, five take-out chains, and five Argentine steakhouses.
Walkable, picturesque, and famous for its ample supply of sex and drugs while still feeling relatively safe, Amsterdam is more popular than ever. In 2018, the city expects to host almost 9 million overnight visitors, double the number 10 years ago. And that’s only counting hotel guests; an additional 1.6 million stay on cruise ships or rent through Airbnb or similar services. Together, they bring in billions of dollars, but also put a huge strain on the city’s infrastructure, services, and environment. Meanwhile, the downtown is turning into a northern version of Venice: a congested, soulless theme park that the locals do their best to avoid.
Though much smaller than Paris, London, or New York, Amsterdam has long been a cosmopolitan city. Some 53 percent of its 845,000 inhabitants are first- or second-generation immigrants. After reaching a low point in the 1980s, its population is now growing at its fastest rate ever. But while the city attracts thousands of newcomers, it drives almost as many away. Soaring housing prices, pushed even higher by housing shortages, real-estate speculators, and Airbnb, are expelling middle-income and working-class families from the city proper.
All of this has pushed Amsterdam to a tipping point. The massive global money streams flowing into the Dutch capital threaten to destroy the fabric of what has long been one of Europe’s most livable cities while, at the same time, a sharp rise in inequality at all levels—income, employment, health, and education—is segregating neighborhoods along ethnic and socioeconomic lines. A new generation of organized criminals has taken to liquidating each other in broad daylight with little concern for bystanders. And schools, hospitals, the police, and the fire department are all understaffed because their employees can no longer afford to live near their work. In July, the city announced that 7,000 kids might not have a teacher for this fall.
A few months earlier, in March, the citizens of Amsterdam expressed their alarm by electing their most progressive city council in decades. Since May, the city has been governed by a left coalition of four parties that has promised to rebuild Amsterdam into a diverse community that is “equitable, connected, free, democratic, and sustainable.” To achieve these lofty goals, the coalition plans to curb mass tourism, make the downtown all but car- and emissions-free, and cool the overheated housing market through massive building projects with set minimum quotas for low- and middle-income renters. They also plan to fight poverty and provide support for families struggling with long-term debt. Most interesting, the new city government has promised to democratize the way the city is run by shifting decision-making power—and a larger part of the budget—to citizens organized at the neighborhood level.
In pursuing these plans, Amsterdam’s new leaders have opted to look for guidance outside their country’s own borders. Shortly after they assumed power, Amsterdam joined the Fearless Cities network. Founded two years ago in Barcelona, the network aims to unite cities worldwide into a progressive front to check neoliberalism, stem the rise of radical right-wing movements, feminize politics, and defend human rights.
On the face of it, it’s a fitting club for Amsterdam. Along with its centuries-long dedication to commerce and finance, the city has a proud progressive tradition. Since the 17th century, it’s been home to dissident thinkers; since the 19th, to worker-owned housing cooperatives. In the 1960s, the Provo movement embodied a homegrown anarchism that championed electric cars, free bike sharing, and public nudity. And in the 1970s, Amsterdam spawned a squatter movement that was arguably the most militant and effective of its kind in Europe.
But can a city with so much turnover—and so flush with corporate cash—become a laboratory for a new urban politics? And can a local government, hemmed in and hamstrung by a conservative national leadership, set its own radical course?
As far as the new administration is concerned, there is no other choice. “What we’re after is a recalibration of human dignity. We want to shift the focus from the economy to the creation of community, from City Hall to the commons,” alderman Rutger Groot Wassink told me when I met with him this summer.
Nor is he fazed by the right-wing chokehold on power at the national and European level. “Cities are engines of progress,” he said. “And as the power of the nation-state in the European Union has shrunk, it’s up to us to redefine European cooperation and solidarity.”
Groot Wassink heads up the Amsterdam branch of the Green Left, which was founded in 1990 when a handful of smaller parties, including the Pacifists and the Communists, joined forces. At the last city elections, in March, the Green Left logged the highest percentage of the vote (a bit over 20 percent, good for 10 seats), its largest chunk of the electoral pie yet. Its coalition partners are the left-populist Socialist Party (three seats), the more centrist and free-market liberal D66 (eight seats), and the social-democratic Labor Party (PvdA), long the city’s largest party but now reduced to five seats. Together they hold 26 of the council’s 45 seats.
The fact that it took four parties to build a majority is telling. Over the past 20 years, the usually stable Dutch political landscape has become slippery and fragmented. The Amsterdam council now includes a record 12 parties—including the Party for the Animals, the Party for the Elderly, the fiercely anti-Islam Forum for Democracy (FvD), and Denk (literally, Think), a party founded by and for citizens of Turkish and Moroccan descent, of whom there are almost 120,000 in the city. Denk and FvD, both less than four years old, are at opposite ends of the immigration debate. Both made a strong first showing with three seats each.
Managing this fragmented and polarized council will be a challenge for the city’s first woman mayor, Femke Halsema, also of the Green Left, who was sworn in this past July. And even the Green Left shows fault lines. While Halsema, a criminologist, has distanced herself from her party’s radical roots, Groot Wassink, a political historian, identifies with the militant legacy of the labor movement. In March, he raised some eyebrows when he celebrated his electoral victory with a clenched fist. One of the outgoing aldermen labeled the incoming government “batshit left.”
Groot Wassink chuckles at the moniker. “How batshit left we are depends on your own political position, I guess,” he said. “Past administrations were primarily interested in maximizing revenue. Our priorities are justice and fairness. We face a huge challenge. The levels of ethnic and socioeconomic segregation we’re seeing now are a major threat to Amsterdam’s soul.”
Challenging this threat will not be easy. In its fight to save Amsterdam, the new city leadership will have to defy its own national government, which since 2002 has been led by right-wing prime ministers. In recent years, austerity measures imposed by The Hague have cut the funds available for health care, education, social services, and policing, while corporate-friendly fiscal policies have turned the Netherlands into something of a tax haven.
Yet, along with “fearless” sister cities like Barcelona or Turin, Amsterdam is poised to chart its own progressive path and claim its political agency as a global city. This makes political sense, Groot Wassink told me: “Research has shown that many people in the city identify more with Amsterdam than with the Netherlands. That begs the question whether it isn’t time to redefine citizenship along local rather than national lines.”
This notion is gaining traction as city governments worldwide are demanding more autonomy. In July, a dozen global cities including Amsterdam, Durban, London, and Mexico City issued a declaration to the United Nations in which they laid out their challenges and demanded “more legal and fiscal powers to regulate the real estate market in order to fight against speculation and guarantee the social function of the city.” The “lack of national and state funding,” they wrote, along with “market deregulation, growing power of global corporations, and increasing competition for scarce real estate” make it very hard to maintain “equitable, inclusive, and just cities.”
Several passages in the declaration to the UN echoed the remarkable coalition agreement that Amsterdam’s four governing parties presented this spring. Running 80 pages and written in decidedly unbureaucratic language, it reads like a love letter and alarm cry at once, spelling out an ambitious vision for the city and a set of equally ambitious steps to get there.
While the right has predictably balked, the left has praised the government’s goals while expressing some skepticism about its ability to reach them. The two hardest policy nuts to crack will be housing and democratization—not only because both are politically fraught but also because they present practical challenges that have tripped up the left in the past. Shifting the city’s decision-making structures from top-down to bottom-up makes sense in some areas, for example. But in areas like zoning, tourism, or public order and safety, City Hall is determined to assume more power, set stricter rules, and enforce them much more stringently—even if it means limiting the city’s proverbial permissiveness. At the same time, some fear that the pressure to provide affordable housing in large quantities may lead to bad planning decisions—including a return to the kind of high-rise projects that failed miserably in the 1960s and ’70s.
De Pijp, in Amsterdam’s southern quarter, is a dense, former working-class neighborhood that is best known as home to the Heineken brewery and the country’s largest daily street market. It sprouted up in the 1890s, built cheaply during one of the city’s periods of expansion. By the 1970s, when I spent my childhood there, De Pijp’s leaky and drafty apartments attracted students, writers, and artists, and in the 1980s and ’90s, some of the shabbiest buildings were razed and replaced with modern but modest rent-controlled apartments. But over the past 20 years, as national and local governments embraced market deregulation, thousands of social-rent apartments have been vacated, remodeled, and sold off at a steep markup, fueling a rapid gentrification.
Like most neighborhoods in Amsterdam, De Pijp has seen a steady exodus of low-income and middle-income families. Replacing them are tourists—in hotels or Airbnbs—and the employees of the many international agencies and companies that are drawn to Amsterdam’s charm, advanced infrastructure, and corporate-friendly fiscal climate. (Brexit has prompted an additional expat spike; Amsterdam is an attractive alternative to London.) Now, even the hipsters who populate the café terraces have a hard time holding their own. Earlier this year, a yoga studio near the market had to make room for a glitzy real-estate firm serving expats.
For many years, most Amsterdammers rented their homes, and most did so through one of many nonprofit housing associations that collectively funded much of the city’s development from the 1850s through the postwar years. (While the Netherlands barely knows the kind of government-owned public housing that is common in the United States, the Dutch housing market has long been among the most regulated in Europe, thanks to national laws and these independent associations.) Some of its most distinctive neighborhoods were built as affordable housing for the working and lower-middle classes. In fact, until the 1980s, some 90 percent of the city’s rentals were classified as social rent—kept at an affordable price for people under a particular income level and distributed, by national law, through a meticulous waiting list that any resident over 18 could sign up for.
Since the 1990s, however, national governments have steadily deregulated housing policy, delegating what was long considered the state’s responsibility—to guarantee housing for everyone, not just to those with the lowest incomes—to “market forces.” Even the associations were weaned off state subsidies and encouraged to behave more like businesses to balance their books. As a result, more than a third of the rent-controlled stock has been “liberated” for sale or market-defined rent, and the average wait time for a social-rent apartment has climbed from six years in the 1980s to 14 years today. The market is locked up.
The disparity between supply and demand has driven up prices like never before. During 2017 alone, the average selling price for an apartment in Amsterdam increased by 13.5 percent. Apartments that go on the market will sell within a day, often well over the asking price, with buyers coming from all over the world. In 2017, foreign investors sunk more than a billion dollars into the Dutch rental market; for 2018, this number is expected to grow to 2.9 billion. That same year, some 10,000 people, including many families with young children, left Amsterdam for the surrounding regions. (Attempts to curb the rise of newcomers has tempted the left into a kind of urban nativism. “We want to make sure that Amsterdam’s no longer ruled by expats and big money,” said the leader the Socialist Party, which named its electoral program “Amsterdam for Amsterdammers.”)
The new city government, determined to tackle the problem once and for all, is instituting rules that limit who can buy an apartment and for what purpose, for example by obliging buyers to live in their apartments and instituting a strict licensing system for rentals. These are measures that a large part of the city council supports.
To aggressively expand the housing supply, the city has further promised to partner with associations and private developers to build 7,500 new apartments a year, with one-third reserved for low-income renters, another 22 percent for middle-tier renters, and an added quota for middle-tier homeowners. (Families earning up to $43,000 per year have their rent capped at $838 or below, and those earning less than $35,000 are entitled to an additional subsidy.)
Many doubt whether this will be enough to calm the market. At the same time, they also worry that, given the complicated licensing process and the challenges of relying on private developers to build massive quantities of housing, the city will not be able to deliver. “The city’s short-term building plans may well be too ambitious,” said Floor Milikowski, a journalist and social geographer, told me. “And overpromising off the bat is not a politically smart thing to do.”
Instead, Milikowski, whose book Who Owns the City? came out right before the elections, argues that the city’s new challenges require pragmatic responses that bypass standard political playbooks of both the left and right—and that, if necessary, ignore national and European regulations. “The city’s gutsy in some areas,” she told me. “For example, it defies national policy by providing a 24-hour shelter for undocumented aliens. But Amsterdam could be bolder in other areas as well, even if it means breaking some of the rules set in Brussels or the Hague. Go ahead and experiment!”
As it turns out, the new government doesn’t have to look abroad for ideas.
True to Amsterdam tradition, some citizens have gone ahead and taken things into their own hands, with or without the blessing of City Hall. Many of the most radical initiatives originate in what are called “fringes” or “incubators” which can be found all over town—often former industrial spaces occupied by artists and activists who have transformed them into multifunctional neighborhood centers that organize anything from conferences to gardening classes and Dutch courses for undocumented refugees.
On the north shore of the Amsterdam harbor, for example, a winding wooden causeway connects a dozen stranded houseboats, a café, and a floating hotel. This is De Ceuvel, a self-governed community founded in 2014 by a group of activist entrepreneurs that occupies part of an abandoned shipyard on the harbor waterfront. In 2012, the city granted it a 10-year lease, while the water authorities helped create a sophisticated wastewater-recycling system. Special vegetation cleans the polluted soil, the community’s energy is generated through solar panels, and community members can exchange power with each other through a custom-designed, blockchain-protected digital currency. While previous governments tolerated these countercultural grassroots initiatives, the four-party coalition has pledged to protect and expand the city’s incubator spaces and even to include them into new housing projects.
Grassroots projects are also City Hall’s inspiration as it seeks to fulfill its promise to “innovate, strengthen, and expand participatory and representative democracy” in the city. There are many ways to do this, Groot Wassink, the alderman, told me. Currently, for example, the city provides up to $60,000 each for citizen-initiated projects such as playgrounds or urban gardens. The new government wants to increase this budget substantially. The Green-Left alderman is particularly enthusiastic about the idea of neighborhood-based commons, in which the city and its citizens manage public spaces and resources together. “Some tasks are just much better done, and more cheaply, by citizens at the local level—whether it’s street cleaning or providing affordable, healthy meals to families living in poverty,” he said. “By funding those grassroots projects directly, the city can help steer them and create employment opportunities in the process. In the past couple of years, Amsterdam has seen tons of these kinds of initiatives that are worthy of support.”
Still, some are skeptical. The desire to democratize has been around at least since the 1970s, but the city has struggled in practice with incorporating citizens’ voices into its massive bureaucracy. In the 1980s, the city government was decentralized into 18 boroughs, each with its own elected council. After 30 years, the experiment was declared an expensive failure. “It only added bureaucratic layers. And those elected were often incompetent,” Herman Vuijsje, a writer and sociologist, told me. A recent attempt to replace the boroughs with neighborhood commissions was canned after less than four years. The new government is confident it can strike a better balance between an election-backed central authority and direct, local citizen participation.
This will require a major culture change in the city’s bureaucracy, Tanja Bubic, who was a city official for seven years and now works for a nonprofit that shares knowledge about citizen initiatives, told me. “Curiously, in its most recent iteration, the idea of citizen participation arose from a need to cut costs and reduce the size of government by shifting government tasks on to the people,” she said. “Unexpectedly, citizens took the idea and ran with it.” But too often they run into a wall of red tape, she said.
Vuijsje, the sociologist, warns against too naive an embrace of citizen autonomy. “It’s not only that local self-government is likely to get caught in a not-in-my-backyard dynamic,” he says. “It’s also that the interests citizens are up against are often much too powerful. Without a centralized government to back them, they wouldn’t stand a chance. Where I live, in the red-light district, the real-estate mob wields enormous power. People are scared to stand up to it—they need City Hall to do that.” The new leadership seems to understand this, he said. “The left was long afraid to be perceived as prudish or paternalistic, so they stuck to the idea that anything goes. Fortunately, they’ve come to their senses.”
On his daily bike ride from his apartment to the City Hall, Groot Wassink, the alderman, passes the towering statue of Domela Nieuwenhuis, a founding father of the Dutch labor movement. “Sometimes I glance up at him,” he confessed in an interview right after the elections, “and wonder how he’d think I’m doing.”
“It’s true that the national and global winds are blowing in a different direction than the one we’ve decided to go,” he told me. “But we’re all used to pedaling against the wind. Most of the time, in fact, that’s when I start biking faster.”