Doing It For The Culture: The Amsterdam Story

Culture has been the catalyst for environmental sustainability in Amsterdam. Without the culture revolving around the environment of the Netherlands, it would be extremely difficult for the city to maintain its environmental infrastructure.

Amsterdam is 2 meters below sea level and always at constant risk of massive flooding. These circumstances present a significant risk to the city’s inhabitant. Despite flooding hazards, Amsterdam remains one of the world’s most renowned cities and the largest city in the Netherlands with over a million residents. Why would more than a million people want to live in a city that can be washed away at any moment? The answer is simple. The residents believe in their system of environmental sustainability, which includes polders, dams, and dikes. However, that presents another question. Why do the citizens believe in their environmental system? That answer is not so simple, but it can be summed up as cultural sustainability.

Over the last millennium, Amsterdam has created a culture around its system of water control and flood prevention. From the written works and verbal statements of Fred Feddes, Nescio, Han Meyer, and Joppe Schaaper, the connection between culture and environmental infrastructure can be made. Feddes and Meyer provide the facts and figures of Amsterdam’s history while Nescio and Schaaper provide a perspective of how the city’s inhabitants connect with that history on a cultural level.

According to Feddes, Amsterdam was founded in a polder, which was created by draining water from low-lying land through system of dikes, dams, and canals.  The creation of the polder allowed the founding inhabitants of the city to reclaim the city’s land from the sea. High sea levels surrounding the city also caused issues for farming. Therefore, the inhabitants of the Amsterdam area built another series of water drainage just outside of the city to create arable land for farming. By this point, Amsterdam had created a sustainable system for living and farming against the sea. In a somewhat literal sense, Amsterdam’s residents were eating from and living in the city’s environmental system from the start. Therefore, the city was founded on the trust in water control and flood prevention systems. (Feddes, pg. 12)

In Nescio’s Young Titans, we can see how Amsterdam’s residents interacted with dikes, dams, and other protections during their everyday lives and created a cultural around environmental sustainability. The story’s main character says in reference to his group of friends: “We were big on excursions after work to the ring of dikes around the city. We sat in the grass down on the dike, among buttercups, and inquisitive cows came up to us with their big eyes and looked at us and we looked at them (Nescio, pg. 37).” Based on the excerpt, it can be perceived that Amsterdam’s residents treat the dikes and rural polders as recreational spaces. The dikes and dams aren’t simply protections but spaces that the city’s residents hold dear.

Because of the government establishments upon dams, Amsterdam’s residents regard the dams as place of authority and power. Dam Square is one of the most popular areas of Amsterdam. Today, the Square holds the Netherlands’ royal palace and the National Monument. Dam Square was originally established in the late 1200s on top of the original dam that held back the Amstel River. Before it was replaced with the royal palace, Amsterdam’s town hall was atop of the dam. According to Meyer’s Delta Urbanism, town halls and police stations were placed on top of dams to protect the dams from unruly farmers. Many farmers were upset with the water fluctuations that were caused by dams and sought to sabotage or destroy the dams (Meyer, pg. 68).  With the former town hall and National Monument atop of the city’s original dam, which was also the highest point in the city, Amsterdam’s residents have had no choice but the associate and regard their dams as place of authority.

Christianity has always been the dominant religion in the Netherlands, and the Dutch have been strong believers for most of the country’s history. In fact, the country fought a religious war known as the Eighty Years War for more than 80 years. As a result of the war, Protestantism became the majority Christian denomination in the Netherlands, and it stills remains as the majority denomination today (Schaaper, Architectural History #1).

The country’s strong ties to Christianity could be one of the reasons why its citizens and cities, such as Amsterdam, see fit to change the landscape and environment to fit their needs. The Bible has several instances where it encourages human to make the lands of the Earth their own. In Genesis chapter 1, verse 10, God says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” From this one verse of the Bible, God gives humans, including the Dutch, the power to transform their lands. The Netherlands most likely used its religion to create a foundation for its environmental practices similar to how the United States used Christianity as a foundation for the Bill of Rights, slavery, anti-abortion laws, and other legislation. Examples of the Dutch tying their land to God can be found in Nescio’s Young Titans. As the story’s main characters walk through Amsterdam, Bavink associates the ocean with God as he says, “It’s like the ocean wants something from me, that’s what it’s like. God is in there too. God is calling (Nescio, pg. 47).”

Without the culture around the environment in Amsterdam, it’s unlikely that the city would have sustained its environmental practices for nearly a millennium. The manipulation of the surrounding environment is extremely costly and often forces rural residents to make sacrifices by giving up land. Furthermore, the Netherlands as a whole seems to just be punching a brick wall when it comes to environmental sustainability. The United Nations has a list of sustainable development goals that each country should try to achieve by 2030. Life Below Water is one goal, and it states that country should “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.” The Netherlands is one of the lowest ranking countries for this goal. According to the United Nations, major challenges remain for the Netherlands to be environmentally sustainable. Despite the upsides of Amsterdam’s environmental manipulation, there is just as much downside. The culture created from polders, dikes, and dams have allowed residents of the city to ignore the downside and only focus on the upside. As long Amsterdam’s environmental culture stays strong, the city will continue to develop its system of water control and flood prevention.

References

Nescio. Little Titans. True True True, 2008.

Feddes, Fred. A Millennium of Amsterdam: Spatial History of a Marvellous City. Thoth Publishers, 2012.

Meyer, Han. Delta Urbanism: the Netherlands. American Planning Association, 2010.

Joppe Schaaper, “Amsterdam Architectural History Crash Course”, Amsterdam: City as Work of Art. George Washington University, 2020.

“Dam Square in Amsterdam.” Amsterdam Travel Guide, http://www.amsterdam.info/sights/dam_square/.

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