Amsterdam is called by some the “Venice of the North”. Its 62 miles of concentric canals mean that more than 400 bridges are needed to connect its radial streets. The city’s distinct character comes from a history of deliberate city planning, the inherent difficulty of developing land below sea level, and successful resistance to large scale redevelopment such as the construction of boulevards in 19th century Paris. The city has gone through a unique and unusually distinct series of expansions as its merchant economy boomed requiring more ship berths and warehouses and its population increased -demanding more space for housing.
The first half of the 17th century was a period of relatively slow population growth in Amsterdam – with an increase from roughly 200,000 in 1800 to 224,000 in 1849 – and there was little building activity. In the middle of the century the structure of the town was still much as it had been at the end of the 17th century. The sanitary problems were appalling, not least because refuse was tipped into the canals; alarming reports were as frequent here as in other cities. In 1848 the town’s defensive function was abolished.
A remarkable initiative, without immediate parallel in other capital cities, was made by Samuel Sarphati, a doctor who hoped – with a mixture of commercialism and social commintment that was typical of the times – to create a kind of model district. In 1862 he produced a plan; its principal focus was to be a Paleis voor Volksvlijt surrounded by green areas. Land was also reserved for commercial operations and residential facilities. The well – to – do were to live on their own in the series of short blocks while others would be housed in the row of long blocks.
The Pleis voor Volksvlijt was built between 1857 and 1864 as an exhibition hall in iron and glass, inspired by the Cyristal Palace in London. But apart from this Sarphati’s project was dogged by difficulties, not the least of them financial. The privately owned land quickly rose in value and no resources were available to acquire it.
Sarphati had imagined a large axially designed park area on both sides of the Amstel; this was reduced to park occupying the equivalent of two blocks in a somewhat more westerly site, the present Sarphatipark.
In the middle of the 1860s, J.G. van Niftrik, the city engineer, undertook to produce a plan by government. This was ready in 1866 and was printed the following year. In the plan the old polygonal town is surrounded by a belt of built-up areas. To the west of the Jordaan – the old workers’ district – an area of workers’ housing was envisaged, and next to it an extensive are reserved for factories. A broad belt of parkland was to seperatethe workers’ district from the next residential area, intended for the middle classes.
Van Niftrik’s project was a little old fashioned for its time. He was more interested in architectural effects than in the urban function. A tree-planted ring road runs through the new districts but is too narrow to function efficiently as a traffic artery. The planned segregation and poor are to some extent reminiscent of Castro’s proposal for Madrid, although the latter appears more carefully worked out.
Another major objection concerned the location of the railway station, which it was felt would impoverish the old central area around and north of the Dam Square. Another advantage of this location was that the station would be close to the harbour, where a boom in traffic was expected the follow the completion of the North Sea Channel.
Thus van niftrik’s plan was rejected, but rapid expansion of the town during the 1870s – the population increased from approximately 224,000 to 511,000 during the second half of the 19th century – made some sort of plan necessary, and this time the task went to J. Kalff.
In dividing the planned area into streets and blocks, the greatest possible attention has been paid to existing ownership boundaries and ditches. The green areas have practically disappeared, and no attempt has been made to locate different functions in seperate parts of the urban area.
Kalff’s plan seems more concerned to synthesize developments that were already under way. Most of the buildings are blocks of flats of a fairly simple standard, built by speculators.
Last quarter of the 19th century a number of street improvements were carried out in the medieval centre of Amsterdam, with a view to preserving the attraction of the area for commercial activities. Amsterdam possed a unique advantage in being able to creat new and surprisingly broad streets without extensive demolition, simply by filling in the canals.
Compared with the 17th century urban development project, the 19th century planning appears half-hearted and marginal, paricularly the plans of expansion. Compared with most other capital cities, too.