The Sunday Telegraph
Amsterdam undergoes that sinking feeling
IT’S been a long time since Elizabeth Burt-Schultz witnessed the familiar sight of a bicycle squeezing past her home, where the street slopes down dramatically towards the canal.
“The canal wall has been unstable for some time,” she said, pointing to the steel walls and sand stopping her corner of Amsterdam from falling into the water.
“Further down the road, the canal fell in.”
As tourists gradually return to Amsterdam, many will have no idea that the charming canal-side pavements and beautiful bridges that provide perfect backdrops for their selfies are, in fact, falling down.
Sinkholes have opened up, vulnerable bridges are closed to traffic, 125 miles of canal wall are badly damaged and at risk of collapse, while 20 metres have crumbled. Even Amsterdam’s ever-present cyclists have been told not to ride in certain areas.
The city is facing a bill of at least £1.7billion and two to three decades of rebuilding to save its 17th and 18th-century structures from the water.
“A lot of canal walls and bridges need to be repaired urgently,” Egbert de Vries, the vice-mayor responsible for water management, said. “We have had some situations where some things collapsed or sinkholes appeared.”
He blamed large numbers of tourists, cars and lorries for putting pressure on a system which was not designed for modern life. Before the pandemic, large numbers of tourist boats would create turbulence, which further impacted the canal walls. Amsterdam is below sea level and was built on a swamp before growing vastly in the 17th century. Its foundations are millions of wood pilings, which support almost the entire city.
But many wood pilings have moved or collapsed under the pressure of modern traffic and tourist footfall. Bridges and canal walls crack, which lets in water. The water cleans out mortar and increases the risk of sinkholes. Amsterdam has more than 370 miles of canal walls and 1,797 bridges. The logistics are complicated with engineers having to disentangle phone and internet cables and work around houseboats.
Between 2016 and April last year, just six bridges and 0.8 miles of canal wall were rebuilt. Now, Amsterdam is developing a plan for 850 bridges and another 125 miles of walls in an attempt to clear the maintenance backlog.
From October, heavy vehicles of more than 30 tons will be banned in the centre, while €300 million (£260 million) is reserved for repair work up to 2023.
Some residents are concerned that the rush to repair will destroy the city’s beauty. Eveline van Nierop, 80, has lived in Amsterdam centre for more than five decades. She is part of a campaign group to preserve old canal-side elm trees, rather than destroying them to rebuild the canal side, then replanting.
Others are concerned that the city may ignore its own rules when dealing with listed bridges.
Walther Schoonenberg, an architectural historian at the VVAB local interest group, said: “They are simply destroying things and replacing them with modern constructions that superficially appear old.”