Amsterdam: wannabe world city

Amsterdam was founded in a classical Dutch way: it all started with a dam in the Amstel river. Its exact date of founding is unclear, but it was first mentioned in an official document in 1275. Amsterdam soon became an important trade centre, but in its earliest centuries, it remained in the shadow of older and more successful nearby cities like Utrecht, Haarlem and Leiden. Initially, the Amsterdam economy was mainly based on trade in herring and… beer. Amsterdam managed to acquire the monopoly on beer import from Hamburg which stimulated economic development considerably. Was this the start of Amsterdam as a fun city?

In the late 16th century, Amsterdam became the largest city of Holland, the north-western part of the Netherlands. The first political entity named ‘The Netherlands’, at that time still including the entire current Benelux area with Brussels as its capital, was formed in the mid-16th century. Amsterdam was the most important trading centre of this new ‘country’ (in fact part of the Spanish empire) together with Antwerp. The city developed as a market and storage place of wood, corn, iron ore, fish and salt. AmsterdamThe market function also encouraged commercial services like banking, insurance, cartography and printing. Religious struggles between Catholics and Protestants had an increasing influence on the Netherlands and on Amsterdam. In 1568 the Dutch revolt against the Spanish king started. Amsterdam initially chose the catholic (Spanish) side, but became isolated within the mainly protestant northern Netherlands. In 1578 it switched sides to the protestant resistance movement. One year later the seven northern provinces of the Netherlands separated from the southern provinces to form the Dutch Republic. Soon afterwards Amsterdam profited from this forced choice: when Antwerp was conquered by the Spaniards, its harbour was blocked by the Dutch and many rich merchants moved from Antwerp to Amsterdam. Many of them were of Portuguese-Jewish origin; they feared prosecution by the Spanish catholic rulers, and were welcomed with open arms in protestant Amsterdam. This is probably the origin of Amsterdam’s fame as a tolerant city.


In 1602, the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) was founded. It was probably the world’s first multinational corporation and the first company with shareholders. The VOC was the spin in the web of Dutch colonial expansion in Asia, especially in the area now known as Indonesia. The Dutch Republic rapidly became very rich from colonial trade and Amsterdam as its main trading centre profited most of all. In 1621 a second colonial trade corporation, the West Indies Company (1621), was set up to organise trade with New Amsterdam (later becoming New York), the Caribbean and Brazil. After finally settling peace with Spain in 1648, the Dutch Republic emerged as one of the leading world powers. Amsterdam became a metropolis and enjoyed explosive growth in wealth and population throughout the 17th century. Especially the second half of that century, known as the Golden Age, left its marks on the city. The city was expanded with the famous ring of canals for the rich merchants and gentry, and with the Jordaan district for the working class. Amsterdam became an important arts and cultural centre in those days, too. Many painters that now still have a prominent presence in museums across the world chose Amsterdam as their home base.    


In the 18th century, the Dutch Republic gradually lost status as a world power to England and France. The growth of Amsterdam stagnated as a consequence. It remained a rich and important city, though. In 1795, Amsterdam was the 5th city of Europe with 221,000 inhabitants, after London, Paris, Vienna, and Naples. For 18 years, Amsterdam became the capital and royal residence during the French occupation. When the French left in 1813, the Netherlands became an independent country again. Amsterdam was formally still the capital, but all the actual political capital functions moved back to The Hague. Amsterdam had to settle for economic, financial and cultural capital functions. The city was very densely populated, since population growth until the mid-19th century had to be accommodated within the tight city walls. Amsterdam, like the Netherlands as a whole, entirely missed the Industrial Revolution and became a relatively impoverished and old-fashioned city.

It took until the 1870s before growth returned. Roughly between 1870 and Word War I, Amsterdam enjoyed a ‘second Golden Age’, which again was tightly connected to colonial trade. The opening of the Suez Canal enabled a faster and easier trading route with the East Indies, and German unification gave a significant impulse to the economy of its western neighbour the Netherlands. The Amsterdam harbour was made more accessible by sea when the North Sea Canal was opened. Economic growth (including finally also industrialisation) went along with rapid population growth. Finally the city walls were broken down and city extensions beyond the outermost canal around the inner city were allowed. This resulted in areas like De Pijp and Oud-West, once built for working class and lower middle class people, but nowadays very popular as residential, working and leisure locations for the ‘creative class’. Some decades later, a more luxury southern extension (Oud Zuid) was realised, establishing the high status axis from the inner city canals southwards that still exists today. Starting in the early 20th century, an increasing part of new housing construction was social housing, resulting from the political dominance of the social democrats in the city council throughout most of that century.



Population growth continued until the early 1960s. It was only interrupted by the events of World War II. Virtually the entire Jewish population, and therewith an important part of the city elite, was deported by the Nazis. Only 5,000 of Amsterdam’s 80,000 Jews survived the war, and the Jewish community never recovered. Still, Amsterdam soon managed to return to its growth and modernisation path. The city kept expanding rapidly following the programme of the famous 1934 expansion plan. However, mass sub-urbanisation dramatically changed that picture in the 1960s and 1970s. Inner-city living had a very negative image and especially the densely built extension areas of the late 19th century fell victim to decay. Moreover, modernist city planning almost destroyed vital parts of the historic inner city. There were plans for highways through the inner city, to fill the canals and turn them into roads, and to demolish neighbourhoods like the Jordaan. Citizen protest prevented this and helped to save the unique character of Amsterdam’s inner city. Urban renewal changed from demolition and new construction into renovation and restoration. This change of course eventually also helped to stem the tide of sub-urbanisation and to restore Amsterdam’s attractiveness as a place to live and work. The Amsterdam inner city will very likely soon be added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list.


Amsterdam’s most recent revival started in the late 1980s. Amsterdam was hit quite hard by the burst of the ICT bubble and the effects of ‘9-11’, but the crisis between 2000 and 2005 now seems to have been only a short-term interruption of a long-term economic upsurge. Schiphol airport (one of the leading air hubs of continental Europe), ICT, the financial sector, tourism and the creative industries were the main drivers of recent economic growth. In addition, the knowledge infrastructure of city and region look sound as well, with 2 universities, 2 polytechnics, and several specialised higher education institutes for art, design, and media. Some observers even dare to speak of a ‘third Golden Age’. This might be a bit too optimistic, though. Amsterdam and its region have a very open economy, intensely connected to the ups and downs of the global economy. Sectors like finance and ICT proved to be vulnerable before and can become vulnerable again. The creative industries, though growing fast since the mid-1990s, are still a sector of only modest size.


AmsterdamMeanwhile, Amsterdam has to cope with increasing social tensions too, especially between ethnic groups. The migration of ‘guest workers’ from the Mediterranean in the 1960s, citizens from former colonies (most notably Suriname) in the 1970s, and refugees and asylum seekers in the 1980s and 1990s have transformed Amsterdam into a multicultural and multi-ethnic city. Dutch migration policy has recently jumped from generous to very restricted access, and integration policy went from extremely tolerant to extremely demanding on migrants in only a few years. Trying to find the balance between ‘laissez faire’ and a too forced integration will be one of the main challenges for Dutch and Amsterdam socio-cultural policies in the coming years. Another big challenge for Amsterdam lies in solving its housing market problems. It is very hard to conquer a place on that housing market, especially for the less wealthy and for those not born and raised in the city. It is even harder to make a housing career in the city, with vital links in the housing market chain missing in the middle ranges. Most of Amsterdam’s dwellings are either cheap or very expensive, with not much in-between.   


In 2006 a coalition of social democrats and greens took power in Amsterdam. They launched an ambitious economic programme: ‘Amsterdam Top City’. Its main aim is to let Amsterdam return in the top league of European business locations. A ‘scale jump’ seems to be the spatial agenda connected to that goal. Will Amsterdam grow from a large city into a metropolis with world city status? The potential is there: while Amsterdam only has about 750,000 inhabitants, the functional urban region contains about 2.5 million inhabitants. After decades of struggles between city and region, finally regional co-operation and integration seem to be taken seriously. The plans for a ‘twin city’ Amsterdam-Almere as the core of that metropolis are still mainly based on wishful thinking, but might very well materialise in the next decades.