It’s amazing how much of a city you can see in a single day, if you put in the legwork and the city has a decent public transport network. Amsterdam does, and in Maurice Specht I had the perfect city guide.
The intercity train from Rotterdam where I’d stayed the night beforewas a good start – double decked with seats more spacious and comfortable than anything in the UK. And plenty of spaces for bikes, too. Every station has huge cycle racks, housing hundreds of bikes; so big in fact that a regular complaint is that the edge of the cycle parking is still five minutes walk from the station.
In Amsterdam itself, the bike is king. Beautiful, rusty and battered sit-up bikes are ridden down cycle paths as wide as the UK’s roads and it means the city’s traffic has a human face.
We started with the short ferry ride from Central Station to the Noord district, home to Tolhuistuin and a growing creative community. While we couldn’t get inside Tolhuistuin– a jumble of old municipal architecture reconfigured for creative use, with open spaces full of ad-hoc structures used for events – we were given a much more warm welcome at T-shirt print studios Tees Me. We were literally passing and were dragged in off the street and offered coffee in the offices of what is essentially a web-based business. There has been a concerted effort to give these businesses space in the Noord, and mixed in amongst neat residential housing are small studios and galleries mainly selling online. There are odd corners of craziness too; one street of tiny, brightly-coloured wooden houses stood out as worth exploring.
The creativity of Noord is a huge contrast to our next stop, Bijlmermeer. This area of the city was planned post-war; it’s all big city blocks and a maze of spaces that on a plan might have seem structured but in real life are insane. Motor traffic is raised on roads at first floor level, with pedestrians, scooters and pushbikes at ground level. There was a street market selling the same jumbled stuff as any UK street market, with foodstalls and street barbeques billowing smoke across the maze of precincts. This wasn’t the future people planned. It’s a confused jumble, an illegible space that’s the the wrong scale for people to live. It reminded me of nothing as much as the dystopian refugee camp in the final scenes of Children of Men. We never even found the place and the person we were looking for.
The beautiful ‘Plan West’ estates from the 1930s might well have been what the Bijilmermeer architects were inspired by. But here, the vast city blocks felt very comfortable. Each unit of housing and flats took up a whole city block, and was finished with small details like art nouveau tiles and elegant house numbers. Blocks look subtly different, and there are details like clocktowers, balconies and the like that give the buildings an organic feel. The blocks have wide streets between them and neat, well-designed squares spread around them. The squares have good public space, and are used for events throughout the year. Shopping streets are cared for, with bike lanes and tram tracks meaning cars are the transport of last resort.
However, last year a jeweller was shot on the main shopping street here, Jan Eef, and the fear of crime and the sight of empty shops led local residents to start the ‘Ik geef om de Jan Eef‘ campaign.
It’s a simple, elegant and well designed campaign, bringing local residents, community groups and shopkeepers together to show they care for their local street. There’s a neat branding, applied to paving slabs along the street, and a number of the empty spaces are being used for pop-up shops under the same banner. It’s made people aware, in a very simple way, that their local street is worth having; a lesson that many UK high streets learnt the hard way.
Equally inspiring was the project which housed the meeting I was attending. A converted shop just round the corner from Jan Eef house Groen Gras, an events company which employs young people as stage managers, technicians and stewards when it delivers events for the city council. It has given hundreds of young people worthwhile and well paid employment and staged events attended by tens of thousands of people. While a lot of projects aimed at getting young people back to work have good intentions but no way to deliver, Groen Gras is really changing lives.
And that seems to be the spirit of Amsterdam; the spirit of can-do optimism that our own prime minister David Cameron wants to see more of in the UK. Who’d have thought that Amsterdam, with its obvious reputation for cannabis and prostitution, might just be the best Big Society inspiration we can find?