The Best Part of Any City

Amsterdam: Day fifteen

What do you think the most visited attraction might be, in a small seaside town? Is it the beach? The fish and chip shop? Or maybe it’s the local bottle-o? I reckon it might be the Real Estate agents window. This is a place of opportunity, and enigmatic potential. It’s the place where people dream of snapping up a bargain or hidden gem that everyone else has overlooked (…suckers! Oh, HOW MUCH!?) It’s from this spot on the pavement that the charm of a place begins to lure many, for a short time at least, into entertaining thoughts of a life lived somewhere else.

Traveling to a strange and new city can arouse similar ideas. Could I live here? I wonder what it’s like for those that do. What do these people do for a living, and how do they spend their evenings and weekends? What would I miss most about home if I lived here?

The built form plays a substantial part in influencing these superficial first thoughts, particularly if it complies with our imagined view of the place. Every city has a built form that distinguishes it from another city, in much the same way the each of us has a face with familiar features, but with characteristics that make us unique. After some time though, the realities and peculiarities of a place are revealed and it’s mysteries are solved. At this point we can begin to find the answers to these questions.

But how do we know that what we’re seeing is the real deal? Amsterdam for example, is a place that challenges the city stereotype. Although it’s built form adheres quite closely to it’s image, it’s a city that is largely overshadowed by it’s reputation. To most who knew I was coming here, it’s renown has little to do with it’s built form, and the things I came to look at. For many, it’s a city of sin; a series of ‘coffeeshops’ with a Red Light District and some museums attached. (These coffeeshops by the way, are unlike any I’ve had much to do with back home – they don’t sell coffee). What I came to look at has little to do with it’s reputation as a place .

For planners, a place’s reputation presents some substantial opportunities, and challenges. How do we enhance, influence or overcome the reputation of a place? In doing so, how do we build places that maintain integrity in both their built, and imagined form? Do we build places that appeal to residents, visitors, or both? Is it possible to achieve a happy balance, or does someone always feel short changed? Sitting in a pub last night I overheard (it was rather impossible no to) a bloke preface his grievance to staff with the phrase “I’m not just any fucking tourist, I live right next door!” Maybe its an impossible task, because not everyone wants their place to become attractive to visitors.

There’s been a concerted effort by the city of Amsterdam to clean up it’s reputation. Despite this, it appears to me that the city is failing. For contrast I visited Rotterdam; a city that is busily trying to reinvent itself as an “international city by the water” (a catchphrase that seems a little too contrived, if you ask me). Rotterdam has the task of trying to overcoming it’s reputation as little more than the delivery dock of Europe; or as I was continuously reminded; once the worlds largest shipping port (but not any more). Rotterdam was something. The challenge now for it’s planners is to define what it is now.

After a along bike ride around the suburbs of Amsterdam, I stumbled across some of the best parts the city has to offer. Charming places that obviously retain some rich fabric of community life, without a red light or coffeeshop in sight. But I’m reminded of something I overheard on a walk around Frieburg one morning early on the study tour. K declared that she could live in a place ‘like this’, to which T’s response was; “I could live in the best part of any city”. Touché.

If much of your time in Amsterdam is spent in any of it’s many museums (most of which display nothing uniquely Dutch at all, by the way), or if you came to Amsterdam to indulge in the things that thrive in this liberal minded city, you may not have noticed that Amsterdam is mostly just a space searching for a place to distinguish itself. It’s a city that despite its substantive efforts, has a long way to go to outshine it’s reputation. I suspect that Rotterdam has commenced it’s run-up, while Amsterdam is still in the change room putting on it’s running shorts.

In the race to become the of most popular attraction in Amsterdam, the windows of Real Estate agents are unlikely to surpass those other windows for which Amsterdam is most famous. Sadly, this is a city who’s reputation continues to overshadow it’s best parts.

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