First published in AMS business magazine. Author: Elysia Brenner

“We are a city and a country of water,” says Kees van der Lugt, Regional Director of World Waternet, the company responsible for everything to do with water management in the greater Amsterdam region – from delivering drinking water to waste-water sanitation to the preservation of lakes and rivers. An overarching position unique in the Netherlands and most of the world. “We can work more cheaply and efficiently,” Van der Lugt explains. “We can lay pipes for water and waste at the same time, for example. When repairs are needed, they’re serviced by the same repairmen using the same processes.”

However, Van der Lugt and Waternet represent only one point on the ‘golden triangle’, a moniker the International Office of the City of Amsterdam uses to discuss one of the city’s most essential collaborations with its foreign partners. In the triangle’s other two corners are Evert Lichtenbelt, Strategic Advisor of Energy at waste-to-energy company AEB Amsterdam, and Eric van der Kooij, Team Leader of the Department for Physical Planning and Sustainability of the City of Amsterdam – working with other disciplines, such as mobility, when relevant.

800 years of expertise in Amsterdam

“We are living in a delta below sea level,” Van der Lugt continues. “Water is our enemy and friend. In the 13th century, when most of Europe was still under the feudal system, Amsterdam was working democratically. Building dykes and canals, creating polders (drained and reclaimed land), required cooperation, an open conversation seeking general consensus called the ‘polder model’.

The city’s collaborative, boundary-blurring ‘Amsterdam Approach’ to water projects goes back to the first dam in the Amstel, continuing through the enormous Golden Age Canal Belt project to today’s Amsterdam Water Supply Dunes, a coastal nature reserve just south of Zandvoort that supplies Amsterdam with infiltrated water from underground and the Rhine River.

Amsterdam water is not only pure, thanks to a lack of chlorine and other additives, but it’s productive too. That’s where AEB Amsterdam steps in with the world’s most efficient waste-to-energy plant, recycling up to 99% of incoming solid waste. Waste water is used as a source of geothermal energy. Phosphates removed from the urine during treatment are used as fertiliser, and salt, gypsum, sand and other materials from the solid waste in construction. The energy released by burning the remaining sludge is harnessed for electricity and heating. “Our partners keep finding more and more valuable new products and innovations,” Van der Lugt says. “This is how we keep costs down”: Amsterdam water has cost one cent per litre for the past 100 years.

International ambassadors

International governments from Hanoi to Buenos Aires are making use of the golden triangle of expertise. Deyang, China, for example, is creating their own version of the Amsterdam dunes: the Jinan Wetlands Park, a climate- and earthquake-resilient drinking-water production system. Though Deyang is currently smaller than Amsterdam, the population is expected to expand to one million in the next five years.

“In terms of planning, China is experiencing a rapid growth beyond any Western city,” Van der Lugt says. “However, despite the size differences, the challenges are mostly comparable, as are the solutions. The scale and design just need to be adjusted.”

Removing barriers

One thing Amsterdam seems to have in common with many Asian cities is the government involvement in city improvement. This is one of the strengths of the Amsterdam model of urban management, according to the golden trio. For example, the city’s ‘erfpacht’ system of land ownership, where 80% of home owners lease their land from the city for 49 or 99 years. “This system provides structured, long-term income,” Van der Lugt explains, “giving the city the ability to improve infrastructure, even in hard economic times.”

“It’s important to make new urban designs water-resilient,” Van der Lugt adds. For example, designs for IJburg and the other newly built islands of Amsterdam incorporated rain-water storage on roofs and in public spaces. Flood-proof design before the flood.

However, Amsterdam is still learning. Says Van der Kooij, “We can learn from the quick decision making in the world’s fastest-growing cities. We sometimes have a tendency to put off taking action.” Adding, “Of course, looking at other cities we also see what Amsterdam does really well. We work with governments where no one is collaborating at all. The first challenge is to get people around a table. This isn’t a problem in Amsterdam.”