Global Amsterdam: “Global City” or a shell of its former self?

Note: This article was originally written on 03/05/2021 and will be published in the 3rd 2021 edition of De Derde Dinsdag magazine.

By Sam Volkers

Introduction

Amsterdam has changed a lot over the past decade. Every year, millions of tourists visit Amsterdam to enjoy the canals, museums and of course, other, less virtuous, activities. The city has also seen a large influx of expats and international students, while big business and multinationals have set up activities in our city. Our city seems to have become a true global city. But is that such a good thing? Although these changes have been extremely profitable for some, to many, the city has seemed to have lost much of its original soul. These problems can best be seen in three areas: the housing market, tourism, and the local economy.

Tourism

One of the most often heard complaints of Amsterdammers (1), is that the city has become way too busy. A lot of this has to do with the sharp increase of tourism, due to the phenomenon of mass tourism, which has plagued many other big cities as well. In 2019, CBS estimated that 9 million tourists visited the city (CBS 2020). Although this tourism brings in money, it comes at a cost.

Amsterdammers often complain about the large amount of tourists who — often while being drunk or high — make a lot of noise or behave in other annoying ways. I have personally had the misfortune to have seen a tourist take a dump next to a playground when I was younger. As you can imagine, it was not a pretty sight. But these are not even the worst problems caused by mass tourism. The police have reported a sharp increase in muggings of tourists and the illegal sale of (fake)drugs to tourists (Milikowski and Naafs 2017). Another often repeated complaint is that of locals whose neighbours rent out their apartment or house on Airbnb. This has brought all the excesses of Amsterdam a bit too close to home (literally) for many locals.

These problems often end up costing the police, ambulance personnel and other people working in public services a lot of time. Time which they do not have, because they also have to deal with other pressing concerns, such as the city’s rising crime rates. For Amsterdammers, these problems also have consequences. Research has shown that they have caused a sharp decline in liveability and social cohesion in the city. Although some might try and relativize these problems by pointing out that tourism makes the city a lot of money, this too does not add up. It is estimated that the important profits of this mass tourism are around 64,1 million euros, the costs are around 64,5 million (Milikowski and Naafs 2017). In the end, a select few profit from this system, while the rest is left to deal with the problems it causes.

Housing Market

Another problem that has been reshaping the city is the price of housing. It has become near impossible for normal working- and middle class families to keep up with rent prices in Amsterdam, let alone buy a house here. Gone are the days when a working class family, like my mother’s, could live anywhere near the city centre. Nowadays, places such as the Overtoom, which used to be made up of mostly social housing for the working- and middle class, have been gentrified completely.

A big part of this problem has to do with the internationalization and financialization of the Amsterdam housing market. In the aftermath of the Great Recession the Rutte-government began the process of selling off social housing all over the country, including Amsterdam, and de-regulating the housing market. Most of these houses ended up in the hands of private investors and foreign investment firms. While these houses were once built for working- and middle class families, the private investors and foreign investment firms that now own them rent them out to the wealthy (Hochstenbach 2019), expats in particular. Over the past few years, the financialization of the housing market has gone hand-in-hand with its internationalization. The city has seen a large influx of expats, who benefit from tax benefits that put them in a better position than locals. This process has caused Amsterdammers to be displaced from their neighbourhoods, because the rents have gone up and become too expensive for them to keep up with (Flengte 2019). The effect of expats on rent was clearly illustrated last year when, due to Covid-19, expats stayed away from Amsterdam. Rents went down instead of up, in some parts of Amsterdam with almost 15% (Couzy 2020).

Another issue which, although not related directly to internationalization of the housing market, has added to the problems, is the fact that the city has not been building enough housing for the middle class. Last year, only 575 houses were built for middle income families, which has caused middle class families to leave the city en masse (Couzy 2020). This process, combined with the aforementioned processes of financialization and internationalization, have forced working- and middle class Amsterdammers and their families to leave the city.

The effects of this have been striking. Amsterdam has seen its neighbourhoods reshaped and its local culture decline. A tragic example of this has been the near disappearance of “het Amsterdams” (2) from the city. Although you can still find some speakers in certain parts of the city, most have moved to nearby towns and cities, such as Duivendrecht or Almere. It can truly be said that Amsterdam’s soul has been eroded.

Local economy

These aforementioned changes have also affected the local economy. Small local stores and bars such as “bruine kroegen” (3), have been replaced with trendy hipster bars, chain stores and corny tourist shops, all in an effort to cater to mass tourism and the new wealthy and expat population. But it’s not just the stores and bars that have been changing. The whole local economy is.

With the introduction of the platform economy has come a whole heap of new problems for the city. As mentioned before, Airbnb has been causing problems in the city, with whole neighbourhoods being disturbed by tourists on a day-to-day basis. Airbnb has also affected the housing market, with investors buying up properties for the specific purpose of renting them out on Airbnb. Besides Airbnb, other big platforms have caused issues in the city. Uber, with its lax interpretation of labour laws and ability to set its own prices (which normal taxi-companies don’t have), has proven to be an unfair competitor on the taxi-market (Van der Veen 2019), while Deliveroo and Thuisbezorgd use their dominant position on the food delivery-market to extort high commission fees from the local restaurants that they deliver for (Van Dijk 2017).

These big platforms — which are often backed up by foreign venture capitalists — have used their near monopolistic position to crush local competitors. Local family businesses are driven out and replaced by global chain stores, all for the benefit of a few rich investors.

Conclusion

It can be said that the effects of internationalization on Amsterdam can be seen as two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, some, most notably rich investors, have made out like bandits from this process. For the rest of us it is less positive. Normal Amsterdammers have found it increasingly difficult to stay in the city, and many have left for the outskirts or other cities already. This, in combination with the changing local economy catered towards tourists, expats and international speculators, has set in motion a slow disappearance of Amsterdam’s old charms, from its “bruine kroegen” to its local dialect. Although I have hope this decline can be reversed, it will not be a quick and easy process.

Definitions:

1: Amsterdammers: People from Amsterdam

2: Amsterdams: Local Amsteram dialect

3: Bruine kroeg: Old-school pubs

Sources:

CBS. (2020). “Aantal toeristen in logiesaccommodaties naar 46 miljoen in 2019”,

https://www.cbs.nl/nl-nl/nieuws/2020/10/aantal-toeristen-in-logiesaccommodaties-naar-46-miljoen-in-2019. Accessed on 17/04/2021.

Couzy, M. (2020). “Expats blijven weg: huren in Amsterdam dalen na jaren weer eens”,

https://www.parool.nl/amsterdam/expats-blijven-weg-huren-in-amsterdam-dalen-na-jaren-weer-eens~b4f2a0cf/. Accessed on 18/04/2021.

Couzy, M. (2020). “Amsterdam bouwt vooral voor arm en rijk, nauwelijks voor middenklasse”,

https://www.parool.nl/nieuws/amsterdam-bouwt-vooral-voor-arm-en-rijk-nauwelijks-voor-middenklasse~ba7e9352/ Accessed on 18/04/2021.

Flengte, E. (2019). “Pak verdringing van Amsterdammers door expats aan”,

https://amsterdam.sp.nl/nieuws/2019/01/pak-verdringing-van-amsterdammers-door-expats-aan. Accessed on 18/04/2021.

Hochstenbach, C. (2019). “Wie zijn de particuliere beleggers op de woningmarkt, en wat brengen ze teweeg?”,

https://www.uva.nl/shared-content/faculteiten/nl/faculteit-der-maatschappij-en-gedragswetenschappen/nieuws/2019/11/wie-zijn-de-particuliere-beleggers-op-de-woningmarkt-en-wat-brengen-ze-teweeg.html Accessed on 18/04/2021.

Milikowski, F. and Naafs, S. (2017). “Oprollen die rotkoffertjes”,

https://www.groene.nl/artikel/oprollen-die-rotkoffertjes Accessed on 17/04/2021.

Van der Veen, C. (2019). “Uber versus de ‘oude’ taxi: wie is spekkoper?”,

https://www.metronieuws.nl/in-het-nieuws/2019/02/uber-versus-de-oude-taxi-wie-is-spekkoper/ Accessed on 19/04/2021.

Van Dijk, M. (2017). “Beste klant, kunt u voortaan Thuisbezorgd.nl mijden?”

https://www.trouw.nl/nieuws/beste-klant-kunt-u-voortaan-thuisbezorgd-nl-mijden~b47604ee/ Accessed on 19/04/2021.

I am a first year bachelor student studying political science at the University of Amsterdam. I write about politics, economics and history.