Amsterdam's Project 1012: Regeneration or regression?

20 February 2012, by

It has an innocuous title, but Project 1012 is perhaps the most controversial initiative to emerge from the city hall over the past decade. It aims to drastically slash the Red Light District and coffee-shop industry for which Amsterdam is famed for worldwide.

Amsterdam is a city with an identity crisis, torn between conservatives and liberals, and between residents and tourists. It's schizophrenic demeanour is most apparent in its coffee-shop policy. Selling cannabis is technically illegal, but coffee-shops will not be prosecuted as long as they comply with the regulations. This thus produces a haze in which controversial activities are tolerated, but not always wanted.

For residents of Amsterdam, the Red Light District and coffee-shop culture represent such contradicting predicaments. For some, the lack of control has led to a dirty underbelly, in which criminal elements fester, and trash culture is actively encouraged. They point out that tourists come to Amsterdam specifically to engage with these businesses, thus pumping tourist revenues into a zone that they argue is overwhelming Amsterdam's high-end service sector.

Other residents strongly disagree, particularly those who view district 1012 as a celebration of Amsterdam's famed tolerance, a city which is comfortable in diversity and individual freedom, acceptant of life's prickly realities. For them, control is an anti-thesis to Amsterdam's identity.

When Project 1012 was announced, the city authorities were clear about their intentions. Under thunderous rhetoric, the city declared war on what they viewed as "tourist trash" and illegal activity. Lodewijk Asscher proclaimed: "We are going to reconquer the heart of the city, and give it back to the Amsterdammers." Coffee-shops and prostitution was thus perceived to be alien to ordinary Amsterdam residents, placed in the context of criminal gangs and foreign stag-parties.

Project 1012 is extensive; under the city plans prostitution will be reduced to just two zones, Oude Nieuwstraat and Oudezidjs Achterburgwal, reducing the supply by roughly 50 percent. Red Light District zones along Singel canal and Spuistraat will be shut down. In addition, all windows around the Old Church will be forced to close. There will also be a 50 percent reduction in the number of coffee-shops in the 1012 district, which is a drop of 17 percent city-wide. Those that remain, will be more tightly regulated.

The city also wants to clear Damrak of "low quality" businesses, which the authorities describe as "smartshops, callshops, convenience stores, massage parlours, souvenir shops, sex cinemas, sex shops, sex amusement arcades, sex theatres, and headshops." In their place, Amsterdam city authorities would promote high-end entertainment, restaurants, cafes and hotels, along with housing and space for the "creative businesses."

amsterdam project 1012
Photo by Flickr user great_roe

Several large retail and hospitality corporations have provided their backing for the project, which will take 10 years and billions of euros in investment.

In a joint press release from the City of Amsterdam and the urban district Centrum, the authorities argue that many of the targeted businesses are a front for criminal activity and money laundering. They point out that many souvenir stores and convenience shops have turnovers that are disproportionate to the rent that they pay. Drug and women trafficking are also highlighted as criminal activity that is given space to thrive in the loose control of district 1012. Finally, the City of Amsterdam also wants to break the "monoculture" of low-quality businesses, and encourage a more varied use of the area.

There have been protests that many Amsterdam residents, especially expats, rely on tourist revenues for income, and that clamping down on the district will cause grave damage to Amsterdam's tourist industry. It is unclear how prostitutes removed from their windows will be accommodated in the industry, or rehabilitated into other employment. There is a danger that prostitution will be driven underground, removing the industry from the regulation and safety controls of the state. In addition, there are those who resent the association of coffee-shops with criminal activity, and as a slur on Amsterdam's quality of life.

Regardless of the opposition however, Project 1012 looks set to be implemented. After its completion, Amsterdam is likely to be a changed city, and its outcomes may have far-reaching consequences.

What do you think of Amsterdam's future under the proposals, is it a regeneration or regression?

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Comments arranged by date (Total 3 comments)  
February 20 2012, 11:16AM

I'm ambivalent about their project. I can't complain if they get rid of all the crap souvenir shops that do cheapen Damrak and the surrounding area; but I have massive doubts about the idea that less coffeeshops and less red light windows will help contain trafficking. Isn't it quite the opposite? I just hope Amsterdam doesn't lose its liberal spirit. It often feels like the last civilized enclave of freedom, and I don't know where I could move if it turns into just another western big city.

February 20 2012, 11:30AM

I sympathize with a lot of the arguments that oppose Project 1012 out of principle, and am concerned that restrictions on prostitution will indeed simply drive it underground (and probably make conditions even worse for the prostitutes). I'm also not sure if the wholesale gentrification of Amsterdam is really in the city's best interest.

On the other hand, as an Amsterdam resident who has worked in the heart of the Red Light District, I can testify that it IS almost entirely overrun by tourist trash, and also that most of the businesses are shitholes owned by dodgy foreigners catering to dodgy foreigners. I don't think they're adding anything positive to the city, they're just allowed to exist because of a positive principle (tolerance). I would never, ever compare it to the squat scene, for example, which adds an edge to the city which is overwhelmingly positive (in my opinion). I used to just avoid the area, and thought, "Let them have their fun." But maybe the city government is right, maybe it is time to reclaim the Red Light District. I just hope it's reclaimed for the people who live here, love Amsterdam, and are helping to make it an even more beautiful place, and not just huge businesses trying to turn it into another sterile, chain-filled shopping district.

February 20 2012, 12:59PM

This is an excellent overview of what's a rather troubling project. I understand why City Hall is implementing it. Walking around the RLD is not pleasant these days. The place is overrun with tacky souvenir shops, sketchy people, unpleasant tourists and some rather lame coffee shops. As one residents I know put it, "I'm tired of the rest of Europe coming to my city to use it as a toilet!"

But Project 1012 is a step in the wrong direction and it goes too far. For what it's worth, "tolerance" is what makes Amsterdam interesting and what sets it aside from the other great cities of Europe. Let's be honest, no one comes here for the food or the architecture. The city can't hold a candle to the likes of Paris or Rome on that front. If the project is successful, and if City Hall accomplishes its goals, I envision a safer but blander Amsterdam.

Can you imagine a De Wallen filled with the same boring/overpriced bistros and art galleries as the rest of Europe? Zzzzzz.... That might be great for the locals but it's not going to draw much in the way of tourism dollars. Let's say you're an American who will only get to visit Europe a few times in your life. Are you going to head to Amsterdam 2.0 or France, the UK, Italy, Spain, etc? As hard as it might be to accept this, these other destinations are always going to have the better art, food and attractions. Sin is what makes Amsterdam special and it's something it should continue to embrace and refine. All Project 1012 will accomplish, in my opinion, is kill off tourism and drive all the drug/prostitution trafficking underground.

About the Author
James Shaw

James is an assistant editor at IamExpat, and is the newest member of the team. Interests include tr...



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