Amsterdam of Yesterday and Tomorrow

When examining city maps, these tend to teach us how places were developed, specifically the unique geographical shapes, roads, settlements, and other symbolical features of cities. Yet, many other elements are hidden from a person’s view. Whereas city maps portray a rather historical contextualization from a bird’s view, they still lack the atmosphere of the city and the conditions that the inhabitants experience. More specifically, how it feels like to live in the city.

When it comes to Amsterdam, a man-made city, history offers a rich tale about society and its interaction with its territory. Amsterdam has a rich chronicle of perseverance, development, and flourishment. Throughout the 16th century, the public developed projects to reclaim large portions of lands from the sea and surround the town with canals and dikes to diminish sea level risings and promote a sustainable settlement. Every inch of the city was designed and crafted carefully to define the intermixed street and water system promoting a truly Dutch Renaissance city that used both mathematics and science to create proper hydraulic systems, fortifications, and plans.

Feddes’ A Millenium of Amsterdam excerpts give a rich notion about factual evidence and information that provide from a ‘birds-eye-view’ what the city was like and what it developed into. However, Nescio’s Little Titans, although a fictional novel, delivers a fresh insight into how the people of Amsterdam lived and experienced the city. By combining the two readings, I believe that students who are eager to find out what it feels like to live in Amsterdam will be given a fresh outlook about the city as well as its social, economic, and geographic elements. 

Part II: The Half-Shaped Melon

Panoramic Map from 1876 – Feddes A Millennium of Amsterdam (p.148)

As described by Feddes, the entire long route through the Zuider Zee, which was attached to both the North Sea as well as to the IJ, was covered in sandbanks, especially the previous harbor which docked thousandths of ships annually bringing in various resources for its populous. The waters of Amsterdam were known to be shallow and filled with deposits of sediments and sand (Feddes 150). It was expensive for the city to keep removing the sand to keep the harbor. Therefore in the 18th century, the government began to seek a permanent solution and decided to fill in the harbor and build a central station in its place. To prevent flooding of the station and of the new railway that would connect the city to neighboring towns, massive 18 feet dikes were constructed in the outskirts of the city. 

According to Fedde’s historical depiction, the dikes had a practical purpose, however, in Nescio’s work, the boys had a different perspective of them. Through the boys’ eyes, the dikes represented their haven, where they would escape the monotony of city life. Nescio writes that the boys “sat on the stones down on the dike with eyes half-closed and looked through their eyelashes at the little arrows of dancing gold that the sun made in the water” (Nescio 36). Thus, Nescio’s narrative shows the hidden beauty of Amsterdam’s functional dikes. In the map above, which Feddes also uses in his work, the city has the shape of a half melon. Clearly, the industrial part of the town is in the inner part of the melon and behind the melon is the countryside. This map dates back to 1876, therefore, the expansion towards the Southeast had not yet taken place. In Nescio’s novel, the boys found themselves in Oosterpark – which was developed until 1891 – an area that was previously a rural landscape. From Oosterpark, the characters found their way towards the Zuider Zee ( With the expansion of the city, Nescio’s characters had to go further out into the countryside to be able to sit among the croaking frogs, inquisitive cows, and horses running freely across the meadows (Nescio 37). 

Part III: Bird’s View vs Person’s View

Since the 16th century, the city’s population grew by thousands of inhabitants every year (Feddes 81). Within Amsterdam, the society already found itself in a densely crowded city which demanded immediate expansion plans to keep up with the growth of the large population. Farmers, immigrants, and formal workers of the city all tangled together in an informal economy (Feddes 81). Shelters within the city located by the roads, canals, and railways were not merely elements that defined slums or poverty. In the multi-dynamic city, the shacks had the prospect of one day becoming a socio-economic asset of formalizing a legal and fixed status in the province (Feddes 82). In a way, the shacks and the poorer regions of the city expressed the uncertainty of the people that were residing there. This was especially true during Amsterdam’s “boom” period by the 17th century (Feddes 82).

Yet overcrowded neighborhoods were a problem. As described by the main character in Nescio’s narrative, the poor districts of Amsterdam had remained clustered and overpopulated well into the 20th century. “We had to live on streets that were too narrow” the narrator states, “with a view of the oilcloth curtains across the street and the tasseled fringe and the potted aspidistra with an impossible flower on top” (Nescio 40). Peace and seclusion were impossible in an Amsterdam where your neighbor’s window was as close as Nescio writes. The indoors were not much better. “Stuffy little apartments” and families struggling to share a single bathroom were the daily routine for the city’s large working-class (Nescio 59). Overpopulation and clusters of homes and shops in narrow streets diminished the city’s attractiveness in the main character’s view, who, with reason, sought the canals and the meadows to escape the crowded slums (Nescio 40). 

Part IV: Nature in the City

Arieal View Amsterdam Canal District [ Granchtengordel ] – by AeroStockPhoto

Around the city lay a thick fabric of gardens, industrial areas, country homes, and pleasure gardens that were inseparable from the city itself. After the 16th century, a massive planting program of elms and limes decorated the canals and squares. According to the city council, trees provide ‘sweet air, adornment and pleasantness’ and their roots systems also strengthened the soil (Feddes 96). Amsterdam was widely admired for this systematic effort to make urban life more pleasant (Feddes 96). A modern example of greenery within the city is the canal street of Sarphatistraat, which Bekker, one of Nescio’s characters, walks down every morning but does not give a detailed description of the area. This is why it is important to read Feddes and Nescio together because their factual and fictional descriptions complement each other giving a more complete picture of the city. While reading Nescio it is hard to follow through the characters around the city, but a simple map is not sufficient to capture the true colors of the Amsterdam’s enviornment. 

Part V: Promoting Protection and Sustainability

These readings show how sustainable cities are strategically planned and built, but also shows how it feels like to live in one. Observing from a sustainable scope, it is vital to preserve the natural environment not only for our wellbeing, when we need to find some solace to escape the crowded parts of the town but also for the sake of nature’s survival on Earth. Deforestation and excessive combustion of greenhouse gasses have only lead us towards destroying our life here and jeopardizing the health standards of future generations. Pollution has skyrocketed, and the drilling of oil reserves seems to be never-ending. It is our duty as global citizens to protect and restore our terrestrial ecosystem by promoting the 15th goal of the UNs Sustainable Development. Cities such as Amsterdam, Rome, and Sydney need to continue settings examples to the rest of the world on how to properly protect nature and secure a safe and better future for all cities.

MLA Cite

AeroStockPhoto. “Aerial View Amsterdam Canal District (Grachtengordel).”, 13 June 2017, Accessed 4 June 2021.

Amsterdam Info. “Oosterpark in Amsterdam.”, Accessed 4 June 2021.

Feddes, Fred. A Millennium of Amsterdam: Spatial History of a Marvellous City. Bussum, Thoth, 2019.

Nescio, and Damion Searls. “Little Titans.” Amsterdam Stories, The New York Review Of Books, 2012.


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