First published in AMS business magazine. Author: Paul Anstiss

Town planners feel a sense of urgency in finding smart solutions if Amsterdam is to retain its charm and attractiveness as a place to live and do business. The answer, according to Lisette Van Doorn, CEO of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) Europe, is to encourage people to look beyond the city centre to the 33 municipalities that form the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area and even beyond to the Holland Metropole region.

Van Doorn believes that Amsterdam can open up and find the space it needs by creating interesting environments within striking distance of the city by car or public transport. ‘The city has transformed itself successfully over the last ten to 20 years, but it has almost become a victim of its own success,’ she says. ‘Where do you put everybody? We know that you can’t build high-rises in Amsterdam’s inner city, and no one wants that anyway. It would destroy the character of Amsterdam. But on its own, the city won’t be big enough to house everyone.’

‘Good density’

Of course, urbanisation is not only a Dutch phenomenon. According to the United Nations Population Division, six out of ten people worldwide will live in a city by 2030. By 2050, the proportion will rise to seven out of ten. How to embrace this growth while avoiding urban sprawl is the question everyone is asking. Van Doorn says the answer lies in going back to the idea of neighbourhoods. ‘Before the car existed we had everything we needed to live, work and play close by. We’ve learned that this model is not so bad, but there needs to be access to other places as well. Connectivity is key, and to achieve that we need critical mass and denser cities. We call that ‘good density’.’

Yet Van Doorn also acknowledges that densification has not always been successful, and that there has often been insufficient mixed use and connectivity to make urban projects nice places to live and work. ‘We must create interesting neighbourhoods and provide amenities, public transport and necessary infrastructure like schools, hospitals and social centres in order to combine work, life and play within a short distance,’ she says.

Golden opportunity

The bureau for the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area was recently established to coordinate development between municipalities and to speed up housing production. As Amsterdam’s population is growing by 15,000 inhabitants each year, immediate decisions are needed. According to the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area’s Director of Marketing Real Estate, Lex Brans, demographic and economic indicators foresee increased growth in both residential and commercial development, as well as accommodation for businesses, start-ups and knowledge institutes. It’s his job to keep things on track.

Brans refers to the fact that 2016 saw Amsterdam double its production of homes from the previous year to reach a total of 6,700. Over the coming fi ve years, 60,000 houses will be developed in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area. This will involve building on new land such as the island of IJburg, as well as transforming vacant offi ces and redeveloping industrial areas to create new mixed-use districts. Brans says the urbanisation of Amsterdam is a golden opportunity, not just for those who want to live here but also for investors. 

‘During the economic crisis, there were only a handful of Dutch companies and housing corporations looking to invest in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area. Now there are more than 240 international investors attracted by returns of 3.7 per cent on housing, retail and offi ces. In fact, there is so much interest that for every square metre of real estate there is 15 times the amount of investment capital available.’

Little pearls

Brans says it makes sense for those seeking cheaper rents, more space and lower prices – whether for business or residence – to look beyond the direct orbit of Amsterdam. ‘Everywhere you go, there are little pearls,’ he says. ‘And you don’t have to go far to find them.’

The rental price of a typical two-bedroom apartment in central Amsterdam can cost upwards of 􀀁1,500 per month. However, a fi ve-minute ferry ride across the IJ river behind Amsterdam’s Central Station will bring you to Overhoeks, a new residential hotspot where purchase and rental prices can be up to 40 per cent cheaper than in the city. Furthermore, the Amsterdam-Noord area has nearly twice as much green space as the city south of the IJ, and its new Shoreline Park has been described as a utopia for skaters, walkers, dreamers and poets. And if it’s culture you’re after, or the buzz of restaurants and nightlife, you need look no further than the Eye Filmmuseum or the nearby A’DAM Tower.

Sustainability and connectivity

Building sustainable local economies with attractive public spaces is at the heart of Amsterdam’s urbanisation. Good connectivity is seen as essential. But turning plans into reality requires determination and joined-up thinking from the national government and local authorities. An example of such cooperation can be found just outside of Amsterdam in the municipality of Amstelveen. This suburb is one of the prime business locations in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area, and is home to many big businesses across different sectors. A €160 million plan to widen and submerge the A9 motorway that connects Amsterdam, Amstelveen, Schiphol Airport and Almere is about to give a new meaning to the word ‘sustainability’. It will be covered with a bicycle and pedestrian-friendly open green space that will also serve as a location for neighbourhood festivities. At a stroke, this cut-and-cover project will reduce noise and pollution levels from cars and create a more pleasant place to live and work.

‘We talk a lot about the quality of life in Amstelveen,’ says Jelle Westra, Amstelveen’s Programme Manager for Urban Development. ‘It’s recently been ranked among the best three cities to live in the Netherlands. People enjoy good incomes, crime is low and it’s a green city. This is a good example of how cooperation on a national and local level can improve the environment.’

Retaining identity

Haarlemmermeer is one of the largest municipalities in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area, with a population of just over 140,000. It is strategically situated just 23 kilometres from Amsterdam in the commercial heartland of the Randstad conurbation, and is made up of 26 villages dotted across an area of 18,500 hectares. The municipality is home to Schiphol airport, which is only 15 minutes by train from Amsterdam Central Station. Many leading international corporations have established their European headquarters in Haarlemmermeer. It has become popular with both singles and families due to its prime location, low property and rental prices, good schools, and culture and leisure facilities. Jeroen van der Ven, Senior Manager of Foreign Investments for the City of Haarlemmermeer and amsterdam inbusiness, does not see urbanisation as a threat and welcomes the growing interest from home and abroad. ‘Each village has its own DNA and will always maintain its distinctiveness,’ he says. ‘We won’t lose our identity; our differences are complementary.’

Everybody wins

In the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area, quality of life is at the heart of densification. From 2019, all new buildings and homes in the area are required to be carbon and energy neutral. A focus on creating a sense of community and belonging will make neighbourhoods inspiring places to live. Towns and villages will have fast and reliable connections to elsewhere, yet will retain their identities. In order to ensure this holistic approach, cooperation between decision makers is essential. In the words of Lisette Van Doorn: ‘Forget about your ego and look at the bigger picture. If you get future urban development right, there will be no losers.’