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.

 
 
 
 

How spurious imperial science affected the layout of African cities

Freetown, Sierra Leone. Image: David Hond/Freetown From The Air/Wikimedia Commons.

As the European powers spread across the world, systematically colonising it as they went, one of the deadliest enemies they faced was disease. In 1850s India, one in twenty British soldiers were dying from such diseases – on a par with British Empire casualty rates during World War II.

When Europeans started dropping dead the minute they got off the boat, the scientists of the day rushed to provide their own, at times fairly dodgy, solutions. This era coincided with a key period of city planning in the African colonies – meaning that there is still visible evidence of this shoddy science in the cityscape of many modern African cities.
For a long time altitude was considered a protection against disease, on the grounds that it was far from the lowland heat associated with putrefaction. British officials in India retreated to the ‘hill stations’ during the warm season; this practice continued in the African colonies established by all sorts of European powers in the late 19th century.

So it was that one bunch of imperialists established the capital of German Kamerun at Buea, high on the side of Mount Cameroon. The city still has a population of 90,000 today. Evidence of this height fetish can still be found in the ‘Plateau’ districts of Brazzaville, Dakar and Abidjan as well as the ‘Ridge’ district of Accra.


Malaria, particularly, was an ever present fear in the colonies, and it did much to shape the colonial cities. It’s a sign of the extent to which 19th century medical science misunderstood how the disease was spread that its name comes from the French for ‘bad air’. By the late 19th century, knowledge had managed to progress far enough to identify mosquitoes as the culprits – but views still wildly diverged about the appropriate response.

One solution popular in many empires was segregation. The Europeans had incorrectly identified Africans as the main carriers of the disease; African children under five were believed to be the main source of malaria so they were to be kept far away from the colonists at all times.

And so, many powers decided that the European settlers should be housed in their own separate areas. (Of course, this wrong headed but at least rational response wasn’t the whole explanation: often, sanitary concerns were used to veil simple racial chauvinism.)

The affluent Hill Station – a name reminiscent of the Indian colonies – in Freetown, Sierra Leone was built as a segregated suburb so Europeans could keep well clear of the local children. Today, it’s where the home of the president can be found. Yet despite all this expensive shuffling of Freetown’s urban landscape, inhabitants of Hill Station came down with malaria at about the same as those who lived elsewhere.

 

The Uganda Golf Course, Kampala. Image: Google Maps.

In Kampala, Uganga, a golf course now occupies the land designated by the British powers to protect the European neighbourhood from the African. A similar appropriation can be seen in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of The Congo, where a zoo, botanical garden and another golf course can be found the land earmarked for protecting colonial officials and their families.

All this urban juggling was the privilege of immensely powerful colonial officials, backed up by the military might of the imperial powers. The indigenous peoples could do little but watch as their cities were bulldozed and rebuilt based on the whims of the day. Yet the scars are still visible in the fabric of many modern African cities today.