Posts tagged planning

62 notes

Amsterdam’s Morphology, A History

Amsterdam, today.

All cities have a unique story to tell about their spatial history. So does Amsterdam. The layout of the inner city canal ring was even inscribed on the World Heritage List by Unesco in 2010. Lately, I have been doing some research into the Dutch world heritage sites - most of the sites have to do with land design, water engineering and planning - which inspired me to look at Amsterdam’s old and new urban patterns with fresh eyes. Here is a little visual history of the city’s planning.

Amsterdam, 1538 (looking from north to south).

The pre-1600 inner city today.

Above is one of the oldest known painted or mapped cityscapes of Amsterdam, by Cornelisz Antonisz from 1538. The map is basically upside down, with Amsterdam (that evolved from a late 12th century fishing settlement) looked at from the North. The dam in the centre is now Dam Square. The city is walled (on the left side at Zeedijk and on the right at Singel). The pattern of the old city is still intact, with some of the waterways now paved.

The first big extension plan was formed in the first decade of the 17th century. Because the city was literally full after the Golden Age started, it was decided to build a canal ring around the old city and move the defence wall outward (over 1km eastwards and almost 1km to the west). The canal ring was built in two phases, one starting in 1610 and one starting in 1660.

A 1657 map showing the large canal ring extension (south side up).

The canal ring today (take a look at how green it actually is).

The first extension of the canal ring (from Brouwersgracht in the west to Leidsegracht) was a huge relief to the city, releasing the pressure on its land. It was filled up quickly with some of the richest Europeans migrating to one of the classy canals. The second extension (completing the concentric half to the east) was finished by the time the city’s immense prosperity had already started to decrease. It took almost two centuries (until around 1900) before all plots laid out were built on. De Jordaan was also part of the first canal ring extension. It was a planned segregation, with the three canals built for the rich (especially Heren- and Keizersgracht), and the Jordaan area built for the poorer workers and industries.

De Jordaan today (it is located on the very right of the 1658 map above).

The city’s economy only really started growing again in the second half of the 19th century. That is when plans for expansion were made again. The first residential bit outside of the canal 17th century extension was built in 1870 (as part of an 1866 plan than never was executed except for this part, because it turned out to be too expensive). This was the northern part of the current De Pijp area. The city expanded concentrically in these years after, according to the 1876 Plan-Kalff.

First 19th century expansion of De Pijp

The 1876 Plan-Kalff

Staatsliedenbuurt, part of the 1876 Plan-Kalff.

The next large expansions were undertaken between 1920 and 1940, consisting of Plan Zuid (South), designed by Berlage, and Plan West. These developments included a lot of Amsterdam School architecture.

Plan Zuid.

Plan Zuid today.

Plan West with the respective architects of the building blocks.

Plan West today.

After WWII, several big urban plans have been realized. Much of it, realized between 1951 and 1966 was the execution of the General Extension Plan of 1935. Most of these developments are based on early modernist ideals. 

General Extension Plan.

The functionalist Slotermeer, a result of the General Extension Plan.

The Bijlmermeer was built just before 1970 and is considered one of the most radical post-war plans in The Netherlands. Part of it has already been demolished because it turned out to be not as utopian as planned.

Bijlmermeer plan.

Bijlmermeer today.

Lately, Amsterdam turned to the water, with the KNSM-Island (1990s), Java-Island and IJburg (both 2000s) being the largest expansions. Currently, the second part of IJburg is being built. In the near future, Amsterdam wants to house the increasing population mostly by densifying the existing city.

Java- and KNSM-Islands.

IJburg (a few years ago, GMaps seems to be behind some five years).

Amsterdam, 2040

Filed under Amsterdam Berlage architecture canals history planning modernism city urbanism

34 notes

The Origination and Mental Effects of New York’s Grid

Looking south from Union Square in 1840. ©

The Museum of the City of New York currently hosts the exhibition The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811. In this plan, a proposal was accepted to create an orderly street pattern between 14th Street and Washington Heights, regardless of the island’s shape. The exhibition shows the evolution of Manhattan’s grid using original maps, photographs and manuscripts.


When I read about the exibition, I had to think of Richard Sennett’s and other sociologists’ interpretations of the origination and implications of New York’s rational makeup (and that of other cities). Below I will discuss on some of them.

Why gridded?
According to Sennett, the combination of man’s mastery over nature and the ideology of business enterprise have created a specific shape of urban order: the grid. First, by mastery over nature (or the neutralization of space), Sennett means that humans have and use the ability to remove inconvenient parts of nature in order to create a workable landscape. This has increased over the past centuries - older cities have grown more organically (or disorderly).
Secondly, the ideology of the business enterprise influences urban design. In capitalist societies, undertaking business means that things have to be commodified in order to create exchange value. In order to commodify and exchange, goods need to be comparable. This also goes for land and buildings, which need to be shaped in a somewhat similar way in order to be comparable, supplementing and excheable (Henri Lefebvre: capitalist space has to be homogeneous and fragmented at the sime time in order to be commodifiable). An ordered, standardized physical urban pattern is the result of these mechanisms. For capitalists, it is important to divide the land and buildings in such a way, that the balance between the amount of real estate property and value per property is optimized. That is where the mastery of nature comes in, to create a gridded urban pattern in order to create equivalent commodities. Sennett, by the way, adopts relationship Max Weber sees between this business enterprise ideology and Protestantism. Protestantism equals sober living: hard working, believing and not being self-indulgent. The protestant individual is a person that does not spend a lot of money, and only spends it wisely. Accordingly, he invests in order to create more value, in order to become a ‘worthy person’ (Sennett, p.55). Sennet’s explanation is similar to the somewhat cynical arguments of Georg Simmel in his classical piece The Metropolis and Mental Life: in the end, all that urban space has to do is create exchange value.

The psyche of those that inhabit the grid
Richard Sennett argues that a gridded urban layout has psychological implications for individuals that live in it. He says that the standardized environment disorients people and makes it hard for them to establish anything of real value in an endless, mindless geometric division of space. The grid subdues and dominates individuals, creating blasé city dwellers. The blasé state of mind that Sennett describes is different from the one that the inventor of the term, Georg Simmel, talks about.

City Chaos by Gill Turner

While Sennett argues that the non-emotional individual is the result of a standardized built environment, the homogeneous grid is produced by blasé individuals, according to Simmel. He emphasizes that urban living has a significant impact on the mind of people. The high density of the city and the great dynamics of urban life in the closely compressed, rapidly changing and contrasting stimulations of the (confronting a lot of people, noise, smells, etc.). Because of the exposure to an unlimited number of stimuli, the nerves are constantly agitated and become incapable of reacting to new sensations with the required energy. The city dweller therefore stops reacting emotionally and approaches everything rationally. A consequence of this is that there is a larger development of intellectual qualities in the city. The product of this rationality is the purely intellectual individual, the individual with a blasé attitude. This emotional rationalization is accompanied by economic rationalization. Because people produce only for the market, they don’t know for who they produce. This creates an abstraction of activities. Money causes qualities to be quantified and acts as a universal equalizer, causing an indifference and all things to be perceived as meaningless. This has its implications on the urban makeup of the city: the blasé individuals create a rational environment with less and less symbolic and emotional value. The most important condition for the organization of urban space is that it is ordered in such a way that it creates the most surplus value.

These writings are just a few of many on the grid and the effects of urban space on the psyche. The intersection of sociology, geography and psychology is an interesting one to use when looking at a city. I don’t know whether people living in New York’s grid are actually more blasé than people residing in the historic core of an old city or in the countryside, but the reasoning is interesting. 

Related Posts
Richard Sennett on Quality of Life in Cities
Thinkers of Space in Their Working Spaces
Sassen & Sennett
MEGACITIES: Exploring a Sustainable Future
Cities are Attention Whores

Lefebvre, H. (2003) Space and the State. In: State/Space, A Reader.
Sennett, R. (1992) “The Grid” in The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities, pp. 46-62. New York: 
W. W. Norton & Company.
SimmelGeorg (1903) “The Metropolis and Mental Life in P. Kasinitz ed.) MetropolisCenter and Symbol of our Times. New York: NYU Press, 1995

Filed under Sennett Simmel Lefebvre New York grid economy sociology planning urbanism

12 notes


The Venus Project is an organization with a plan for a new kind of humanity. It advocates “an alternative vision for a sustainable new world civilization unlike any social system that has gone before.” 

They claim to have a plan for a new world with cities that are built using the newest technologies, creating sustainable environments, not only by altering the physical construction as we know it, but also the social fabric of the city. Part of the plan to replace the current monetary system as we know it by a resource-based economy.

"The Venus Project calls for a straightforward approach to the redesign of a culture, in which the age-old inadequacies of war, poverty, hunger, debt, environmental degradation and unnecessary human suffering are viewed not only as avoidable, but totally unacceptable."

A seriously ambitious plan. Large scale urban plans usually remind us of the failures of modernism, but it is difficult to judge the designs of The Venus Project because we would have to predict the outcomes of such cities within the framework of the proposed new kinds of culture and society. All I can say is that I think it would need (more) serious crises in our current way of doing things before designs like these can be implemented. Nevertheless, I like The Venus Project’s radical way of thinking.

Thank you Benjamin (

Filed under futurism Zeitgeist planning society

2 notes


I’m looking forward to seeing the documentary Urbanized, which will premiere in 2011. It’s the new project by director Gary Hustwit, whose previous documentaries, Helvetica and Objectified were very interesting.
Being the third in the trilogy, Urbanized will discuss the future of cities. I hope it will be as fascinating as the previous two films, especially since it features my favourite field of interest.
It reminds me of last year’s Dutch documentary Amsterdam Make-over 2040, discussing the challenges the city of Amsterdam is facing in keeping up with other cities from around the world.

Filed under urbanized urbanism cities documentary design planning