Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Widened canals—and underground bike parking—will bring the city’s Central Station a little closer to nature and history.
In Amsterdam, asphalt is out and water is back.
Thanks to a redesign of the area around the Dutch capital’s Central Station, road space will be cleared away to allow for wider waterways. This will strip away some of the area’s concrete cladding to make the terminus site look once more like what it actually is—an island in the city’s harbor. The revamp should help to restore a little of Amsterdam’s maritime character—especially as this site, known locally as The Entree, has long been a key arrival point for Amsterdam.
The extra water is just the tip of the iceberg; it really will contain much more beneath the surface. The ground beneath the station is being excavated to accommodate a new metro stop, which will extend into chambers under the canals and lake that surround it. In what could be the most Dutch urban twist ever, these chambers won’t solely be used for metro lines, shops, or storage. Mainly, they’ll be filled with bikes.
The intriguing plan, which CityLab first reported on back in 2015, sees Amsterdam struggling to make up for its lack of bike parking spots. In a city where 63 percent of citizens cycle daily, you can’t just leave people to chain their bikes to railings or lampposts without clogging the streets. Last year, Amsterdam confiscated almost 64,000 bikes, many of which (although not the majority) had been left in places where they obstructed the footpath or the roadway. To make space for commuters’ bikes, the already densely built city has to find more space. The answer, they’ve decided, is to create floating bike parking pontoons around the central station, as well as to excavate below the canals to create more places to stow two-wheelers. By 2023, when the Central Station revamp is complete, there will be space for 17,500 bikes here, rising to 21,500 in 2030 when the bike islands are complete.
The plan has been in the works for a while, but last week the city released its first renderings of how the Central Station area will appear when work is complete. The results look set to be a great improvement on what is already an attractive if somewhat chaotic corner of the city. Bus lines will be stripped away, quaysides narrowed or removed to allow more space for water, with extra jettied landing stages being added to encourage boat traffic. A major stretch of road on the city side will be off limits to cars to create a large pedestrian plaza threaded with a new cycle lane.
On the other side of the water, the Central Station’s island location will be emphasized in a subtle but ingenious way. The station’s forecourt will be repaved with stone flags, while the short bridges leading to it from the direction of the city core—due to be widened—will be covered with darker granite surfacing. This will, the city hopes, provide a visual reflection of the move from (relatively) dry land to island.
It’s a timely change. Amsterdam may be famously threaded with canals, but it sometimes feels like less of a port city than it should. The Central Station is perhaps the chief culprit in creating this impression. Completed in 1889, it was constructed on artificial islands in the harbour just beyond the historic city core, in the waters of what was then the Southern Sea (Zuider Zee) and is now, since being dammed in 1932, a lake called the IJmeer. The site choice was, in many ways, a brilliant one. The city had managed to find a super-central location, but because the railway lines were built along the quayside, it wasn’t necessary to do much demolition.
At the time, though, many locals hated it, and for good reason. The building’s florid hulk blocked the view of the harbor from the city’s center, acting like a screen against the activity beyond. Visiting the area now, the sea is so absent that it seems incredible to think that wharves once stretched down as far as the city’s central Dam Square.
Some widened canals in front of the station won’t change that, of course, but for some time Amsterdam has been turning itself back out to face the open water. The city’s docks—wonderfully wide and windswept in a city otherwise characterized by miniaturist intimacy—are now one of the key sites for new housing in the city, while new residential islands continue to rise from the waters of the IJmeer. As sea levels rise globally, it seems healthy both practically and psychologically for this most aquatic of cities to allow space for the waterways that allowed it to exist in the first place.