Raising Diemen: Amsterdam's never ending battle against the sea

The city and its sworn enemy: Amsterdam's Lake Ij. Image: Getty.

Amsterdam is a city that is constantly sinking into the North Sea, and being dragged out again by its determined citizens. Built on layers of overworked peat, overwrought clay and the overly intrusive North Sea, this capital city is a subsiding monument to Dutch engineering.

The silver-lining to all this sinking is that Amsterdam council has found a number of ways to link raising the city to citizen wellbeing. It’s not just about raising the streets to their previous levels: it’s about improving the lives of people who live on those streets.

The technology used to do this was on offer to – and robustly ignored by – both the US and UK governments, prior to Hurricane Katrina and the UK floods in 2014. But that may have to change: the cities that will be underwater if we embrace all the hubris and melt all the ice by burning all available fossil fuels include London, New York and Hong Kong.


The latest terrifying numbers on climate change include the news that the heat waves which used to happen every three years are now happening every 200 days. With these doom-laden figures in mind, and the uneasy knowledge that my Amsterdam apartment is 5.5m below sea-level, I went to find out exactly what it means to raise a city.

Maita Van Der Mark is an alderman for Diemen: a small town in the south of the Amsterdam-area, surrounded and intersected by multiple rivers. Areas of north Diemen are currently being raised back to their previous levels.

The project saw used satellite technology to pinpoint exactly which areas of the city are sinking, and when work will need to begin. Armed with this information, civil servants started redesigning Diemen; they then sorted through citizen feedback, and checked in with the town council, before presenting the plan to the alderman and the mayor.

A Diemen pavement, beginning to sag. Image: Beluah Maud Devaney.

Van Der Mark is involved in the community outreach side of things: her job is to ensure the citizen satisfaction levels are rising along with the pavements.

Since 2012, the aldermen have been working to citizen wellbeing targets: Van Der Mark herself is responsible for making sure the public are aware of when, why and how their neighbourhoods will be reconfigured.

“We took [the 2012 targets] as an opportunity to look at the needs of the community,” she tells me. “The town council wanted a more harmonious public space, and that naturally lead to more citizens participating the in the redesign.”

The sinking is caused by the ancient peat and clay beneath Diemen slowly compressing into thinner and thinner layers. The maximum amount an area can be allowed to sink by is 20cm: at that point, cracks are appearing in the pavements and street signs are starting to look rather inebriated. (Some of the buildings are sinking too, but not as quickly: they usually have stronger foundations, rather than just sitting on top of slowly condensing peat and clay. These also aren't being raised in this particular piece of work.)

The raising is accomplished by, affectively, lifting up the sinking area, adding another layer of sand and soil, and then laying the pavements, tarmac, playgrounds, et al. back down again. The rate at which neighbourhoods are sinking can vary: some areas need work every five years, others only once every 50. But after the first few hundred years of doing this, the Dutch had streamlined the process so effectively that entire neighbourhoods would be raised with minimum disruption. 

A garden in the process of being raised. Image: Beluah Maud Devaney.

Before the aldermen began doing citizen outreach, many Amsterdam-area residents wouldn’t have been aware that their streets were being raised at all.

“Last time I saw the workmen but I didn’t really ask what they were doing,” explains Anita, a Diemen resident. “The builders were here for a few days and then they left and the streets were nice. We got a note saying we needed to raise the garden and that was that. We raised it. This time they [the town council] have explained what’s happening and invited us to meetings about it.”

This increase in communication doesn’t only mean that citizens are more involved with the planning process: it’s an opportunity to air some neighbourhood disputes and dissatisfaction with the previous attempts at town planning. This has included ongoing discussions about where a children’s playground should be relocated, and whose turn it is to have the street’s trees in front of their house.

The raising and redesigning of Diemen’s streets is easy to spot. A street paved with bright white stones suddenly disappears into a privately owned path composed of cracked, discoloured slabs. Privately owned property must be raised by the owners: often between 10 and 20 houses will be involved in discussing the costs, and it can take another year for a homeowner to organise for their own garden to meet the newly raised street.

None of which acts as a deterrent for house buyers or investors: the raising process has become such a part of life residents like Anita didn’t even consider potential building work when buying property in the area.

There is a misplaced perception that adapting cities to climate change is a massive, costly headache: this is usually the reason given by governments for not taking advantage of the Dutch anti-flood technology. When one looks at the raising process in Amsterdam, however, it’s clear that reconfiguring a city (or even a few postcodes) can be a positive, low-impact undertaking.

Despite politicians’ reluctance to face reality, the effects of climate change are already being felt around the world. As more of our capital cities are threatened, it’s going to become increasingly difficult for governments to hide from the Dutch technology – or their pragmatic approach to citizen wellbeing.

 
 
 
 

On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.


He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.