Venice of The North (Part 1)

My introductory post touched on the rich history Amsterdam has with water: namely its extensive canal system and the ways it adapts to its changing environment. Water shapes an intrinsic part of the Dutch identity: it’s responsible for the country’s key industries (trading and agriculture) and its notorious landscape of dykes, windmills and polders.

23.pngPhoto: Amsterdam Canals, Amsterdam Ticketbar 2017 


Urban metabolism is often thought of as an interconnected space of flows, determined by the external input of energy, materials and information (Gandy, 2004). Water in the urban sphere is not just a material element in the production of cities, but also a key component in the social production of space:

The very sustainability of cities and the practices of everyday life that constitute ‘the urban’ are predicated upon and conditioned by the supply, circulation and elimination of water

Swyngedouw, 1999

From existing as a messy and disconnected service in the nineteenth century, we have seen water provision evolve to become a public good associated with democracy and citizenship rights. Investigating the flows of hydro-social relations water through urban space allows us to unravel the complex nexus of diverse social, institutional and technological structures that constitute everyday life in the modern city. It underlines the implications in decision making  and environmental governance in creating effective public realms (Cousins, 2017).


Water surrounds Amsterdam. This has created advantages (shipping and trading) and disadvantages (threats of flooding). Various characteristics make its water cycle unique:

  • Reclaimed Polders to the South and West of the City to provide land for surrounding suburbs.
  • Lies 2m below sea level and has manmade dykes to protect it from flood threats.
  • Has hundreds of navigable canals that link it to the North Sea Canal and the dam at the Amstel river (the dam that gives “Amsterdam” its name)
  • Has old infrastructure in the centre that makes high ground water levels and rain water discharge problematic.
  • Uses water from the Rhine and operates a series of dunes and Polders to the west and the province of Utrecht to purify and store its drinking water (Rook et. al, 2013); with significant economic, biodiversity and environmental costs.
Screen Shot 2017-12-31 at 16.15.01.pngFigure: The complicated water system flows in Amsterdam, Waternet 2016

Currently, Amsterdam is seen as a leader in wastewater management and climate change adaptation; being the first Dutch city to develop a piped water system (1853) and the first in the developed world to exclude chlorine in treating surface water. In 2006, the various water-related services were combined under one water cycle company: Waternet – a beneficial approach that will be discussed next.







Cousins, J.J., (2017). Structuring Hydrosocial Relations in Urban Water Governance. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, pp.1-18.

Gandy, M. (2004). Rethinking urban metabolism: water, space and the modern city. City8(3), pp.363-379.

Swyngedouw, E (1999). “Modernity and hybridity- The production of nature: water and modernization in Spain.” Annals of the association of American Geographers, 89(3), pp.443-465.

Rook, J., S. Hillegers, and J.P. Van der Hoek, (2013). Visie van Waternet op de drinkwatervoorziening 2020-2050. H2O-Online, 25 Juli 2013.


2 thoughts on “Venice of The North (Part 1)”

  1. ‘Black-boxing’ of water flows and rendering it occult to everyday life, as it serves as technological networks through which governance of everyday practices can be achieved, is prevalent in many developed cities around the world. Reasons include hygiene purposes as waste water are seen as unhygienic and should be distanced from people in the sanitary city. Interested to see how you explore the notion of wastewater management in your next post (:


  2. Hello Yiming! Thank you for your continued interests in my blogs, I appreciate it a lot 🙂 Having initially only thought of doing one short post on water, it was definitely enlightening for me to discover the complexities of water schemes in the city, and how connected the management schemes of both waste and water are in the greater schemes of the city’s sustainability agenda!


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