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Amsterdam: unexpected swimming may become the norm

Jonathan van Bilsen



November 6, 2020

Amsterdam: unexpected swimming may become the norm

One of my favourite cities in the world, and not because I am Dutch, is Amsterdam. This vibrant metropolis, with its old world charm and a population of only 800,000, is overrun by tourists, while at the same time showing devastating signs of slowly decaying under its own watch.

Amsterdam, like so many European cities is aging, as major infrastructural challenges are surfacing, after years of unheeded warnings. This ‘Venice of the North’ as it is sometimes known as, is suffering from similar problems found in Venice and other cities, built in water filled areas.

With over 600,000 cyclists trekking the bike paths on a daily basis, they are actually losing cyclists to cracks and sinkholes, which are appearing alongside the waterways of Amsterdam. Quay walls are crumbling against houseboats, and bridges are in serious engineering difficulties.

An overabundance of tourism (nearly 18 million annually) has had a very adverse effect on the city, and while the recent COVID-19 restrictions have given the Dutch capital a reprieve from over-tourism, it seems the city has a more pressing crisis.

Hard as it is to believe, Amsterdam is in danger of crumbling into the water it was built upon. A major reconstruction project seems to be the only thing that can save it. Fortunately, the destruction which has taken place, has not caused injuries, but if the millions of dollars’ worth of repairs are not attended to, it will only be a matter of time.

The risk of continuing to postpone rebuilding of the infrastructure, will have devastating effects on the beautiful medieval groundwork that makes Amsterdam such a popular destination.

This problem, does not come as a surprise to anyone living in the city. Every school child knows a lyrical verse, which translated reads, ‘Amsterdam, big city is built on piles. If the city would collapse, who would pay for it?’ And now it is collapsing, and the Dutch are paying.

When Amsterdam began to grow, between the 12th and 16th centuries, buildings were constructed on wooden piles, in the swampy and unstable land around the Amstel River. Canals were dug into that same soft soil and canal walls were built.

Here we are, 500 years later, and unfortunately the municipality has neglected to keep an eye on some of its most admired constructions. Today, a significant number of its 1,600 bridges and 200 kilometers of canals need checking, and in some cases replacing.

In January, a local news station announced five years of reports on the perilous state of the waterways, went largely unheeded by city authorities. They even went so far as to report a diver had refused to carry out inspections under one of Amsterdam's older bridges, because of the fear of imminent collapse.

The municipality responded, explaining repairs were being carried out when urgently needed, but the state of every quay wall and bridge, meant safety couldn't entirely be guaranteed.

With tourism at an extreme low, due to COVID-19, it seems that something is finally being done. The total cost of structural work taking place over the next few years is estimated at around 450 million Euros or $700 million Canadian dollars.

After several incidents involving collapsed canal walls, an independent report concluded, at least 5% of the city's 200 kilometers of brick canal walls are in a poor state of repair, heightening the risk of collapsing.

The report also made some recommendations that, for the next few years at least, could fundamentally alter the way the modern city co-exists with the ancient infrastructure upon which it is built.

Where necessary, trees may be cut down, parking spaces removed and roads closed to vehicles, weighing more than 3.5 tonnes. A repair budget of 22.5 million euros ($35 million CDN$) a year is being made available for maintenance work.

Canal walls in the worst condition are at the top of the list for short-term replacement. Should they no longer be found to be safe, immediate measures will be taken. Six bridges have already been partially or entirely closed, and emergency measures have been taken at some vulnerable points along canals. A spokesperson for the municipality explained that safety always comes first, but it is a huge puzzle to keep the city accessible and livable.

How does a city, supported totally underwater, check the condition of its support structure? The municipality is using traditional measuring bolts that track structural movements, but also more innovative methods such as satellite data, sonar and 3D scans.

The process of replacing the walls and bridges is made more complex because of the limited working space on land and water, congested by the presence of houseboats. In the past, this has slowed down even small repair projects, but with time running out, officials are now expediting these processes.

The city is no longer waiting for results of extensive research, if immediate action is required. Assessments will be made by checking construction drawings, and details from previous inspections. 

Repairs are one thing but, there is also a need to rethink how Amsterdam goes about its daily business. This city was, after all, constructed for horse and carriage. Today, huge trucks are driving over the same quays and bridges. This process will have to change, if the city is to survive.

City officials are confident they can resolve and rewind the present destruction of Amsterdam’s failing infrastructure. Tourism will be curbed, and repairs will be on going. It would be a real shame if this beautiful European metropolis was on a destructive road of no return.

Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit

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