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.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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