Amsterdam. Bijlmermeer urban transformation

Jun 13th 2009
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On April 2009 we organized a study-trip to Amsterdam-Rotterdam with our students of 2nd year of architecture. Walking around the Bijlmermeer we were talking about how possible is to transform a neighbourhood. The Bijlmermeer has been an example of the expectations and ideas of CIAM-planning, the disappointment, problems and stigma of numerous improvement trials and nowadays of a radical redesign and integrated approach.

From 1974, as we can see above in the promotional video of the Amsterdam Council, to nowadays, look at our trip video below,  we distinguish several phases: upgrading the environment, improving the management, fighting crime and safety, setting up participation projects and formulating integral approaches. The last phase will result in demolition on a large scale. The Bijlmermeer is renewing its own future and stands out as the leading example of Dutch renewal policy, not only because of the size of the operation, but primarily because of its integral approach.

Amsterdam-Bijlmermeer from edicions espontaneas on Vimeo.

Between 1968 and 1975, 13.000 dwellings in 31 very large blocks (300 to 500 dwellings each) were built, each 10 storeys high and 200 to 300 meters long (click over here in order to see pictures of building construction). The balcony access apartments were laid out in a honeycomb pattern, as previously built in Park Hill, Sheffield and Toulouse-le-Mirail near Paris. About 90 percent of the area consisted of high-rise. All of the ideas of Le Corbusier and the CIAM on modern living were applied: separation of functions (living, working, recreation), a great deal of space between the apartment blocks, large-scale park-like landscapes, parking garages and separation of traffic flows by an orthogonal system of raised main roads (three meters above ground level).

Contrary to the long-term process of individualisation of home life, the Bijlmermeer Plan emphasised collectivity. The designers imagined that the new social spaces would compensate for the limitations of high-rise living. Covered walks linking buildings would be lined with shops and recreate the feel of traditional streets. Using communal facilities would encourage neighbourliness and collective life. The dwellings themselves were, and in some respects still are, of high quality: large floor space, luxurious sanitary facilities, central heating and their own storeroom. Most of the dwellings are in the social rented sector, though definitely not in its least expensive segments. The aim of the planners was to attract households with children and a middle-income, because the city of Amsterdam already had enough dwellings for low income groups.

However, soon after its realisation problems began and multiplied in the following decades. The early protests against the then high rents, the deviant behaviour of some residents, the negative image building in the media, the mix of cultures, the first black town in the country and the policy changes that led to the start of building new single family houses nearby. 

Add to those problems was the unfinished character of the district. A lot of ideas and planned facilities, like stores and spaces for sport and recreation were not realised because of lack of finances. Other facilities, like public transport, were realised too late. The Bijlmermeer became, instead of a city district with the appropriate level of facilities, a satellite town of Amsterdam without good transport links to the centre of the municipality.

The second category of problems are the enormous liveability-problems in the Bijlmermeer. The numerous uncontrollable semi-public and collective spaces like entrees, alleys, corridors, 13.000 storage spaces on the ground level, 110 kilometres of galleries and 31 parking garagesturned out to be blind spots rather than cosy places where people could meet each other. Because the flats were in the hands of 16 different housing associations, all based in downtown Amsterdam, management was chaotic. No one was willing to assume responsibility for the large tracts of public green space, which had been laid out in such a way that any form of surveillance was impossible. Surveys held among residents uncover the most important grievances: pollution, degradation, vandalism and lack of safety. Almost 80 percent of all residents mention these aspects as the main problems. 

A third group of problems refers to the housing market. Demand and supply did not match properly. Even during the construction of the flats there was insufficient demand for them. The intended inhabitants, middle-class families, preferred other towns around Amsterdam where single-family houses with gardens were built. Many new inhabitants in the Bijlmermeer moved on to these areas, and others decided not to come at all. Socio-economic factors, like increased incomes, more free time and mobility, led to a process of individualisation which did not go hand-in-hand with the collective living of the Bijlmermeer.

In 1974, the turnover rate was 30 percent. The pressure of the housing market meant that new residents were initially found, but it was clear that many people did not favour high-rise. Letting the flats became a severe problem, which was thought unthinkable in a period when the housing shortage was at the top of the national political agenda. The Amsterdam area was one of the tightest housing markets in the country, but obviously not in the Bijlmermeer. From the late 1970s, the gap between supply and demand was closed by rentals to poorly-housed, low-paid workers, needy social groups and immigrant ethnic minorities (Surinami people). The Bijlmermeer became more and more a single-class, low-income and unemployed, ethnically diverse and increasingly non-white urban enclave.

A lot of the planner’s ideals changed into disadvantages (click over here in order to see more pictures from 1977-1988). Privacy became anonymity, the collective and egalitarian ideas did not catch on, the advantages of traffic security turned into disadvantages of social insecurity, parking garages were hardly used and instead of friendly meetings in the covered walks and hallways, the numerous semi-public spaces were filled with litter, drugs-dealers and homeless people. The Bijlmermeer changed from a citadel of modernism to that of a problem estate, a place of poverty, of aliens and illegal immigrants, petty crime, unemployment, with a high incidence of truancy and drug abuse. Thanks to all this and the negative stories in the media the image of the Bijlmermeer got worse every year. As a matter of course, this did not help to solve the vacancy problem and led to a critical financial situation. 

Many solutions were tried. The first one was to stop building new high-rise. Originally, another Bijlmermeer-south was planned, later replaced by a single-family housing area which ‘emptied’ the old Bijlmermeer.

During the 1980s vacancies rose again, and in 1985 around 25% of the apartments were unoccupied. These high turnover rates and the level of vacancy led to a critical financial situation of the housing association. It also destroyed or even prevented the existence of sustainable social structures.

In 1983, as a reaction to all of the occurring and growing problems, a rehabilitation program was drawn up. The aim was to adapt and to improve the existing spatial concept. At the beginning of the 1980s the Bijlmermeer started to become less isolated when the metro was realised. Public services like a sports hall, indoor swimming pool, police station and mosque were built and at the end of the 1980s a big shopping centre was completed. Management was consolidated into one large housing association called New Amsterdam, rather than being dispersed over 15 different associations (one refused to join). Rents were reduced and people were given free use of the parking garages. Structural improvements were made on the buildings. Entrances and the immediate surroundings were improved, covered walks between parking garage and flat were closed, extra elevators and security cameras were installed, the buildings were colour painted, storerooms were closed or transformed into houses with a garden and some of the dwellings were divided up into smaller homes to meet the demand for single-person and two-person households. Assistance for and welcoming of new inhabitants was initiated as well as other social actions such as co-operation between the maintenance-team and the inhabitants were started. Employees of the housing organisation say that “all thinkable measures have been tried and tested in the area”. Regrettably without great success.

Urban Renewal in the 90´s
Despite all the efforts the dwellings remained unpopular and the liveability problems were not resolved. Extra maintenance, surveillance, manpower, management, participation and control could not match the huge scale of the area, individual housing preferences and the behaviour of some of the inhabitants. The Bijlmermeer was unable to gain a respectable position in Amsterdam’s regional housing market. Worse still, the new consolidated housing association had run up so much debt that it was close to bankruptcy, along with its guarantor, the municipality of Amsterdam.

After years of debate, maintenance experiments, adaptations and partial solutions, it became clear that the urban concept had to change structurally. The Bijlmermeer’s physical layout was considered to be a fundamental mistake in urban design: too massive, with too much high-rise and especially having too little differentiation in the housing stock. Only one dwelling type was available: a high-rise rented apartment.

As an answer to this monotony, radical plans were introduced in 1990 and worked out in 1992. Step by step, these plans are still being realised. The plans included the demolition of a quarter of the housing stock, another quarter sold and the remaining part improved or upgraded, while new types of houses were planned, including owner-occupied low-rise dwellings. Previously, inhabitants who wanted a single-family dwelling were forced to move out of the Bijlmermeer. Improvements in the residential environment should encourage present inhabitants to stay and offer a housing career in their own neighbourhood, as well as attracting newcomers. With this differentiation of living forms and ownership categories the renewal parties intend to differentiate the population structure and to stop the ongoing concentration of poverty.

Improvement and differentiation of the urban environment was also included in the plans. The lack of facilities and liveability problems are part of the environment, as we have already shown. Thus, following the plans, more functions are being introduced into the living area, like small shops and firms. Parks between the blocks have been, for safety reasons, cleared of bushes, leaving only trees and greens, easy to look through and hard to hide in. The separation of traffic, one of the basic principles of the Bijlmermeer layout, has been mostly changed, by lowering the dike roads to ground level and mixing motorised and non-motorised traffic. The argument of social safety wins it over traffic safety. Most of the 31 large parking garages have been demolished or converted into other functions, while in some blocks parking fields are created next to the block.

Besides the physical renewal the plans are supplemented with both social-economic measures and an intensification of the maintenance to improve liveability. All three elements are important. Social renewal in the Bijlmermeer is strongly focused on job creation. For example an employment advice bureau has been established, there is education for adults, ethnic entrepreneurship is encouraged and the unemployed are involved in the building activities. Other social interventions support multicultural activities and religious celebrations.

The third element in the plans is to improve safety and liveability and reduce degradation and vandalism. There are watchmen to patrol the buildings and daily management tasks on site. While these measures increase safety, it also helps to combat unemployment. Police patrols in the Bijlmermeer were intensified because of a national redistribution of police forces in favour of the big cities. Measures were taken to reduce pollution by introducing an outdoor underground garbage collecting system, instead of the stinking containers in the ‘internal streets’ within the blocks. And several participation projects were carried out to involve people in their own living environment.

It is also worth mentioning that the relative location of the Bijlmermeer itself has changed radically. In many European cities large housing estates were planned far out of town on cheap land available in large quantities and the Bijlmermeer was no exception. In the first years, living in the Bijlmermeer meant living far away from the rest of the world, hardly connected by public transport and far away from shops, work and leisure. However, since the mid 1980s various facilities have been opened close by: a metro line to the city, a new stadium for Ajax football club and large cinemas and theatres (the ‘Amsterdam Arena’ area). One of the most expensive office areas in the Netherlands was built just opposite the railway station. All these positive developments nearby have helped to rebuild the image of the Bijlmermeer, provide demand for extra housing and create a lot of jobs at all levels. In fact, the location of the Bijlmermeer has changed from an isolated ‘satellite of a core city’ into a national hot spot, the ‘core of a network city’.

In 1999, after the first years of renewal, a broad evaluation took place. The question arose of whether the physical renewal should be intensified, whether more high-rise dwellings should be demolished, renovated, sold or refurbished.

These new plans are made in close consultation with the residents. In 2001 a large questionnaire was conducted in the areas to be renewed researching which physical renewal measures residents supported . The results were remarkable, with almost 70% of the inhabitants agreeing that it is ‘a good idea’ to demolish one or more of the remaining high-rise blocks. The respondents visualise the demolition of the whole building rather than just part of it. Even when it includes their own house, 60% still support demolition!. Renovation and the sale of dwellings are less desirable options, but still over 40% support the idea to sell some flats.

There are more explanations for these results. Firstly, there is the disappointment with the current situation. In spite of all the renewal efforts problems still exist. The survey confirms the assumption that the inhabitants blame the concept of the high-rise estate. Another explanation is the benefits for inhabitants when their house is demolished. For example, present inhabitants of the high-rise blocks are given preference for the newly built houses in the Bijlmermeer. If they prefer to leave the Bijlmermeer, they are given high priority to choose from almost every vacant dwelling in Amsterdam suitable to their type of household, instead of waiting years for vacant social dwellings. For many this is a great opportunity. Moreover, in the Bijlmermeer as in the Netherlands in general, residents who are forced to move because of demolition receive compensation for their relocation costs, which varies between € 3,000 and € 4,500. Many people consider demolition more of an opportunity than a disadvantage. A third reason to support demolition is the great success of the new housing developments in the 1990s. Because of the popularity of the new houses, renovating the old high-rise blocks has become a much less attractive solution.

Urban renewal in the 21st century
After the evaluation and the resident survey, in 2002 the ‘Final Plan of Approach’ was approved for the urban renewal of the Bijlmermeer for the period until 2010. It is called the ‘final approach’ because it concerns the last areas in the Bijlmermeer not physically renewed yet. The Final Plan agrees with the residents’ opinions, as researched in the survey mentioned above. According to their preferences, more differentiation is needed: almost 70 percent of the thirteen remaining high-rise blocks will be demolished and replaced with new buildings. In the new Bijlmermeer 15 blocks, or parts thereof, will remain of the original 31. Six of them, in the eastern part of the area, together form an ensemble. This is called the ‘Bijlmermuseum’, which will remain on the instigation of active residents who were against demolition.

When new houses are completed in the Bijlmermeer, they are first offered to people who have to leave their homes because of the demolition activities. As a second priority, the rest of the residents in the Bijlmermeer are then offered the dwellings. Third and fourth, people from Amsterdam and the rest of the country get priority. Until now, almost all new developments have been taken by people from the first two categories. This illustrates the popularity of the new living environments and the dwelling types offered within them.

The total investment – the investments in the ArenA area not included – is over 1.6 billion Euro. About 450 million Euro of this investment will produce no returns , which is about 35,000 Euro per household. This includes all physical and management costs and not the social and economical measures. Of this almost 50% is contributed by the City of Amsterdam and over 50% by the housing corporation sector, primarily by the Central Fund for Housing. The latter is a national public housing fund, paid by all housing associations and therefore by all tenants of social housing. The renewal is also supported by a grant from the European Communities URBAN fund for related social-economical measures.

Integrated policy
The integrated policy of the 1990s is continued in the ‘final approach’ in the 21st century. There is a wide belief that an integral approach is necessary because the problems cannot be solved by new housing developments alone. That is why the plans also include new parking facilities, public transport, educational facilities, recreational facilities as well as more social and economic facilities like business spaces, churches, mosques, hotel, day-care centres, and studios. Besides that, the ‘Amsterdam ArenA’ area will be developed further on. This new centre also houses two major education institutes and an academy striving to assist young and unemployed people with basic education. The social economic renewal, the second constituent of renewal, started at the same time as the physical renewal. Recently, an overview has been made of the results of the last eight years. About a hundred projects, both large and small, have been set up at a total cost of 56 million Euro. Some examples are a Women Empowerment Centre, sport and play facilities, a centre to care for drug addicts, surveillance by guards and cameras, facilities for entrepreneurs starting out in business and school facilities. The third ingredient, better maintenance to improve liveability, also has to be intensified, especially as the last blocks will not be demolished before 2008. Intensive maintenance is necessary to guarantee a safe and quiet living for the remaining residents.

Conditions for success
For some reasons, the renewal of the Bijlmermeer remains an exceptional example because of the scale of the area and of the renewal approach. However, five conditions can be distinguished that support the success so far. These conditions are characteristic of the Bijlmermeer approach.

No more isolation
The first condition for success is the improvement of the surrounding Amsterdam ArenA area, which is being used as a catalyst to improve the nearby problematic high-rise area. This removed the isolation of the Bijlmermeer area and made it part of the network city.

Integrative approach
The second condition is the integrative approach, in which a combination of three different strategies is set up. These are worked out separately, but in combination with each other. The physical renewal results in more popular housing types and environments. Social and economic renewal results in an improvement in the personal situation of deprived people. Improvement of the liveability and maintenance results in a safer and cleaner place to live. All three mingle with each other, and it is seen as essential that all three interrelated problems will be tackled."Radical solutions"

The third condition of the Bijlmermeer’s renewal is the search for radical solutions. Even with improvement, renovation, maintenance and residents’ involvement the Bijlmermeer did not become an attractive proposition and vacancies and high turnover rates persisted despite the pressure on the Amsterdam housing market. Liveability problems, like a lack of cleanliness and safety, caused major problems over the years. Moreover, the Bijlmermeer never rid itself of its very negative stigma. As an ultimate and radical solution low-rise flats and ordinary single-family houses will replace half of the high-rise blocks.

The fourth condition is financial. This includes for the whole project and for individual inhabitants. First of all, there is money for major investments, in which an important factor is the role of the Central Housing Fund, which pays half of all costs, but which is not government money. The whole renewal process is very costly because technically reasonable and not paid off dwellings are demolished. The other financial condition is the residents. New dwellings are sold at moderate prices or have the same rather high rent level as the former high-rise blocks. People who cannot afford it, get allowances.


The fifth and last condition for success is the way it is done, together with the inhabitants. In other cases demolition goes together with a lot of protest, displacement of poor people, breakage of social networks and loss of affordable housing. In the Bijlmermeer, inhabitants have an important vote in the whole process. Residents must not only have a say, but the starting point of the renewal approach must be that the present inhabitants will profit, either by getting a better house in a better area in the Bijlmermeer, or if they prefer it, somewhere else. To offer perspectives to inhabitants is one of the basic elements for success in renewal. In this way social networks can be preserved and a stronger bond to the neighbourhood can exist.

(New) challenges
Nevertheless it would be wishful thinking to suspect that all the problems like litter, crime, drug abuse, and unemployment will be completely solved. This might be a major problem in the future for various reasons. Firstly, economic growth has had very little impact at the neighbourhood level. Secondly, improving some of the blocks results in a concentration of problems with drug addicts, crime and safety in the remaining blocks. The results halfway pointed to a displacement of problems, where the renewal works like a waterbed: sit on one place and it goes down there, but another spot comes up. This was one of the reasons both for making the final plan immediately rather than leaving some blocks and for intensifying the integral approach: the only way to solve all the problems instead of spreading the problems by relocating residents. At this point we support the thesis of Crump (2002) that demolishing and relocation of inhabitants is not the answer to spatially-concentrated poverty. Poverty is a social-economic problem and should also be solved by social-economic measures.

Another concern is where all the drug addicts, delinquents, tramps and other people with anti-social behaviour will move to, when the safety situation is seriously addressed in the Bijlmermeer. People who destroy the living climate are not welcome in the newly built areas, but neither will they disappear. Allowing the continue spread of the problems is not a sustainable solution, it is the roots of the problems that needs to be addressed, however difficult this will be.

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Amsterdam. Bijlmermeer urban transformation

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