Amsterdam, The Netherlands
The streets of Amsterdam are like a smorgasbord for those looking for history, architecture of depravity. Step through doorways or look from outside – every block presents opportunities for exploration, study or escape. But it’s between the streets, in the canals that divide them, that the true wonder of the city flows.
The canals of Amsterdam were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2010 as an example of town planning that influenced the world for centuries. But when they were first built in the 17th century, they weren’t meant for inspiration – they were critical to the survival of the city.
They were in part necessary for the expansion of the urban area. The canals were used to drain away the swamps that once dominated the land and, in the spaces between the new waterways, the building began.
The canal system provided another important benefit, though. It gave protection to the city at a time when the Dutch were becoming an important power in the world and making enemies and attracting jealousies. The relative peace and security that Amsterdam enjoyed saw it continue to grow and at one point the average income of a resident was four times that of someone in Paris.
At the time, this was the largest urban extension in the world. It was an impressive system to reclaim the land, it created a beautiful residential environment, and it allowed the country to grow economically and politically.
It’s easy for us to go to Amsterdam today and think the canals are cute. But they are not there as a simple tourist attraction – they are there because of ingenuity hundreds of years ago which enabled a city to grow and become a leading light in Europe.
Much of what you can see now is as history created it. The canal system – complete with embankments and facades – has survived in entirety. Many of the old hydraulic systems have been rebuilt but most of the houses built in the 17th and 18th centuries are originals and are protected by heritage listing.
As part of my week of World Heritage Sites in Europe, I would now like to share some photos of what is officially called the ‘Seventeenth-century canal ring area of Amsterdam inside the Singelgracht’.