© Mendel Giezen


Assistant Professor at the Centre for Urban Studies, University of Amsterdam

The Compact City of Amsterdam: past, present and future

The Netherlands is one of the most densely populated areas in Europe. The western provinces of North and South Holland and Utrecht are home to 7.5 million people. However, despite the population density, settlement has been strongly concentrated in urban areas and even the western provinces feature rural areas. In other words, there has been comparatively little sprawl of housing and commercial activities. The key here is the Dutch planning tradition, which has limited urban and suburban expansion and promoted densification.
Particularly the notion of ‘compact city’ has been highly influential in Dutch planning . As a result of compact city policies, Dutch cities and towns are well connected. Also, its residential areas are relatively close to places of work and city centres, often within cycling distance. Furthermore, urban centres are comparatively lively with shops, entertainment and leisure. This last point is not only the case for (historic) city centres which attract many visitors but also for smaller towns. Amsterdam is perhaps the best and most successful example of Dutch densification policies. The city is appreciated by residents, visitors and urban scholars for its scale, density and its socially-just implementation.
This contribution will give an overview of how Amsterdam was ‘shaped’ by densification and discuss some of the plans and challenges for future development. Before doing so, I will give a brief history of planning tradition for densification in the Netherlands.

National Policy framework

The compact city policy originated from a concern over the urban social and economic decline which followed the mass suburbanisation of middle classes in and the persistent economic crisis in the Netherlands since the 1970s. To combat decline, policies advocated intensive land use in cities by building on vacant areas (mostly housing) and transforming buildings for new uses. In doing so, mixed-use areas with residential and commercial functions were preferred. Conversely, suburban development in New Towns, designated as growth areas, remained predominantly residential. Since the Structuurschets Stedelijke Gebieden memorandum in 1983, planning policies have effectively followed a two-pronged strategy: on the one hand, ‘condensation’, restructuring, renewal and transformation in urban areas; on the other hand, a clustering and concentration of new extensions close to the existing built environment.
Two memoranda in 1988 and 1991 (Vierde Nota and Vierde Nota Extra) focused on concentrating new urban extensions on sites near cities. In addition, new office development was preferred at locations which well well-connected to public transport, while car use in cities like Amsterdam was deterred through stricter parking regulations. These measures served to decrease car use and limit (sub)urbanisation in rural areas. Meanwhile, several key projects were developed within the big cities to intensify land use, improve liveability, improve economic competitiveness. In Amsterdam, this concerned the redevelopment of desolated eastern harbour area.
From the mid-1990s, urban reinvestment was further stimulated with the introduction of urban policies. These focused on social issues in neighbourhoods, which were to be tackled through both social programmes and through renewal and privatisation of the housing supply.
The Nota Ruimte (2004) memorandum continued the policy of concentrated extensions, and reaffirmed the need for inner-city revitalisation through area-based initiatives. Its ambition was to facilitate 40% of all population and job growth in the existing built environment. While the memorandum continued compact city policy, it also gave more leeway to lower levels of government and market actors in the planning process. Furthermore, municipalities were given more opportunities to build in rural areas.

A break with tradition

While rationales have varied between economic, environmental and mobility issues, the compact city has been a constant theme in Dutch spatial policies from the 1980s. However, the most recent spatial planning memorandum (Ontwerp Structuurvisie Infrastructuur en Ruimte, 2011) breaks with this tradition. Central government no longer adheres to the concept, and, moreover, cancels 26 out of 39 existing national planning regimes. In addition, new policies strive for more decentralization of planning competencies, deregulation and more market-oriented development.
New policy does stipulate several key strategic projects which will mean subsidies for transformations and densification in the Amsterdam region. Furthermore, other policies continue to adhere to the compact city idea: recent housing policies continue to stress the transformation and restructuring of deprived neighbourhoods, and environmental policies stress the efficient use of land. Nevertheless, the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency assesses that new policies will likely lead to an increase in suburban developments on ‘green fields’. New supply of housing will likely undermine demand in already developed areas and threaten liveability and social conditions in cities.
The increasing tendency towards more decentralisation, deregulation and market-oriented development in Dutch planning seems to imply more sprawl. Indeed, a study by the Environmental Assessment Agency revealed that, between 2002 and 2008, sprawl is increasing in the Netherlands. This is due to a reduction in average household size in cities and the movement of larger households to new suburban areas. Growth in population and jobs mostly took place outside the already-existing built environment. Conversely, the already-existing built environment saw a decline of residents. However, looking at the metropolitan scale, it was found that Amsterdam saw increasing densification of residents and jobs. Here, densification is driven by economic development, but is also the result of municipal policies.


Compact city policies have had a large impact on Amsterdam. When population decline set in, in the 1970s, compact city policies maintained a level of investments in housing and urban (re)development. Also, restricted suburbanisation ensured some urban housing demand. These investment together with immigration, demographic changes (smaller households), and the rise of a more urban-based economy, led to a long period of economic and population growth after the 1980s. Population growth is even continuing in the first years of the current crises. In 1985, Amsterdam’s population reached a low of 675,570 (from a high of 870,000 in 1959). In 2012, the city had more than 800,000 inhabitants again. The growth in population can be attributed to densification. While there have been many small-scale instances of renewal and densification, there have been three drivers:

  1. Development close to the city, as designated through the Vierde Nota Extra (see above). This includes green field development. In addition, because land is scarce, six new islands in the IJ-lake have been developed since 1997 (‘IJburg’). Currently, the area houses 16,000 inhabitants. The original plan stated that ten islands would ultimately result in 18,000 dwellings for 45,000 people. With the financial crisis and decreased demand, the plans for further extension have been postponed indefinitely.
  2. The Eastern Harbour renewal, started in the early 1990s and nearly completed has produced dense mixed-use areas with a middle-class character. This renewal now serves as a template for further developments along the IJ estuary close to the city centre.
  3. Neighbourhood regeneration had been on the policy agenda before the compact city policies. However, with the sustained investments, 19th century neighbourhoods with derelict and vacant housing could be regenerated and made habitable. After the 1990, the focus shifted to regenerating postwar housing estates. While deemed problematic, vacancies and deterioration were less an issue. Nevertheless, to make these attractive for middle class residents, these areas were renewed, often increasing the dwelling stock to cover the costs and ‘correct’ out-of-date modernist planning ideals.

Future Densification

The high demand for housing in Amsterdam has resulted in a continuation of densification policies. The most-recent spatial memorandum, Structuurvisie Amsterdam 2040 (2011), states that the municipality wishes to build on the existing qualities and expand to an ‘internationally competitive, sustainable, European metropolis’. In addition to strengthening regional public transport networks, improved public space, sustainability, and the use of green spaces, the memorandum places a heavy emphasis on constructing more housing (70,000 additional units in 2040) in mixed-use settings to accommodate demand. It explicitly wishes to ‘intensify’ the use of space in the next three decades.
However, Amsterdam faces several constraints. Most importantly, in contrast to earlier decades, the availability of vacant municipal land is limited. Remaining green fields have been designated as protected, and are to be kept rural or used for recreation. Most available land is on the IJ waterfront. Some areas are already derelict while other areas are still in use, which implies that companies will need to be moved. Furthermore, the memorandum explicitly mentions that Amsterdam should see more high-rise development. This is constrained by the listing of the historic centre as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2010. Consequently, high rise development has been limited in a 2 km buffer zone around the centre. This includes part of the IJ-waterfront developments, which will have limited high-rise development. Outside this zone, the City sees possibilities for high-rise construction along the ring road and near peripheral transport nodes. Furthermore, the City intends to expand public transport networks and maintain its policies to dissuade car use. Currently, a new north-south subway line is being constructed and the memorandum envisions an east-west line. The memorandum also discusses other underground such as road tunnels and underground parking and storage facilities.
The memorandum mostly focuses on residential development and associated functions. Except for the South Axis business centre, office space is less important in the memorandum. Today, the Amsterdam region already have an oversupply of office space due to deregulation and the erstwhile profitability for municipalities of developing business parks. Moreover, the City wishes to move non-intensive economic activities which are not directly servicing Amsterdam, to the region.
Lastly, while the City is choosing for housing in highly urban environments, it is leaving suburban development to neighbouring municipalities. In that respect, Almere fulfils an important function for the city of Amsterdam. Built as a New Town in the 1970s, it is currently one of the fastest growing municipalities in the Netherlands. Its growth is heavily tied to economic activity in Amsterdam an Utrecht, and has resulted in a population of nearly 200,000 inhabitants. Moreover, an additional 60,000 housing units are planned to be constructed by 2030. If successful, the projected 350,000 inhabitants would make Almere the fifth municipality in the Netherlands. With its suburban character, Almere is perhaps the best example of Dutch urban sprawl.

Compact city policies in the Netherlands have arguably been very successful in curtailing urban sprawl, in ensuring an intensive use of land, in lively town centres, and in an extensive public transport networks. Despite positive experiences, central government has increasingly opted to leave planning to lower levels of government, and impose less constraints on new developments. As a result, the aim of compact cities policy has nearly vanished in national policies. As a result, urban sprawl is increasing in the Netherlands. This is not the case, however, for Amsterdam. Despite constraints, the City is choosing to expand through urban densification: mostly through transformation of industrial land, and through high-rise development. Suburban development is mostly concentrated in designated municipalities in its region, notably in New Towns (Haarlemmermeer and Almere).
The current crises have severely delayed plans for urban and suburban development. Nevertheless, Amsterdam is choosing to intensify in the coming decades. However, further densification is not without risks and disadvantages. It may overburden current transport infrastructure and threaten unprotected green spaces such as community gardens. If densification of housing developments results in the relative reduction of public and green space, it may reduce liveability and attractiveness. Particularly, households with children value high-quality public space. Some studies of densely-built projects indicate nuisance problems associated with families. In terms of liveability, there are also the question of design of high-rise housing. In recent decades, many postwar housing apartment blocks have been demolished because of their faulty design (i.e. beyond human scale, anonymous). There is a risk of repeating the same mistakes. Furthermore, the displacement of industrial functions to accommodate more intensive uses of space will have environmental consequences elsewhere. Lastly, compared to green field development, densification involves high construction and demolishment costs, inefficient zoning, and more complexity in planning and construction.
Nevertheless, as a growing city, Amsterdam has little choice than densification. In the end, the City believes that the benefits of a growing population while sustaining green areas around the city outweighs the risks.

  1. Population density of nearly 1 100 inhabitants/km2. To compare, density in Île-de-France region is about 980 inhabitants/km2.
  2. See S.S. Fainstein (2010) The Just City. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  3. This section makes use of: Planbureau voor de Leefomgeving (2012) Stedelijke verdichting: een ruimtelijke verkenning van binnenstedelijk wonen en werken. Den Haag: PBL
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