Amsterdam wants to keep nomads, activists and artists for the city by offering them free space. The question that both the municipality and the freebooters ask themselves: do you still belong to the counterculture if the government facilitates you?
These are the places you pass unnoticed on your way to the hardware store or the football field. A dilapidated harbor quay with some sheds, a stubble field with a rusty fence around it, a strip of no man’s land along the railway slope. There is a good chance that urban nomads live there who together form a mini-community.
‘Do it yourself’ artists, freebooters and ex-squatters who have settled in the fringes of the city. Once hunted by the municipality, but now cherished as trendsetters of the city. They must create a stir and prevent Amsterdam from losing its idiosyncratic character through commerce and gentrification.
To the delight – and also to the amazement – of a former squatter like Bassie Simon, a 53-year-old bus driver with dreadlocks and a bomber jacket. He points to the old command and communication vehicle of the fire brigade in which he lives on Het Groene Veld, the first real Free Space in the capital. His red truck stands proudly among other caravans and converted portakabins on a former water treatment site along the A10 ring road. ‘Just call it a tiny house with a minimal footprint. That is suddenly completely hip, but that’s how I’ve lived my whole life.’
Amsterdam has recently been experimenting with unregulated areas where alternative groups are allowed to do their own thing. At minimal cost, provided they develop non-commercial activities that benefit the neighborhood – even the entire city. If you have a good plan, you can report to the municipality for your own fringe. Living there is only allowed in exceptional cases. The Cultural Defense Line of Amsterdam, an alliance of dozens of breeding grounds and free spaces, made clear on Saturday how much free space there is with a tour with parade floats through Amsterdam. On 7 May, Het Groene Veld will festively open the large gate that has been closed to the public for years.
It is not easy to find space for an alternative lifestyle, warns initiator Hay Schoolmeesters of Het Groene Veld. From his portakabin with a wood-burning stove, he sends long-term plans to the municipality, calls officials about tolerance constructions, negotiates leases with the Municipal Real Estate department and with banks about long-term leases. At the same time, he coordinates the renovation of the buildings and the grounds and meets weekly with fifty fellow residents about every step for which he needs a mandate.
The 62-year-old Schoolmeesters, once a program maker at the Westergasfabriek, among others, was one of the squatters who were violently removed from the ADM site in 2019 by enforcers. ‘We had lived there for 21 years, we arrived here shaken and mentally broken.’ But now there is hope again for the former ADM’ers. ‘First we were allowed to stay until 2021, and now that Free Space has been made policy, we can stay until the end of 2024.’
Schoolmeesters hopes for a further extension as soon as the municipality realizes what an indispensable role the site will play for the neighbourhood. He puts on a check and walks out. ‘This is where our socio-cultural center will be located’, he says, pointing to the former office space of the water purifiers. Resident Stepan from the Czech Republic is putting the finishing touches on a new floor and new LED lamps and a WiFi router are twinkling on the ceiling. Schoolmeesters walks through a former workshop in which a club is planned. ‘Here comes the bar, there the stage.’
Ahead are circular basins among blackberry bushes that he says are perfect for water lilies and floating art. A high silo without a roof is perfect for acrobatic theater performances and young people from the neighborhood can chill out in a wooden beach bar on stilts under which a conservatory is being built. The first project with the neighborhood is finished: a winding walking path named after 14-year-old Pepijn who died in these bushes during corona. Due to carbon monoxide poisoning while camping in the wild. “His father is very involved.”
The ex-squatters live on half of the seven hectare site. Julie from Colombia lives in a red shack with a vegetable garden, postman Milan sits in a beige mobile home and Brey from Spain sleeps in a converted bus. Here and there are communal shower rooms, distribution boxes with electricity cables are reminiscent of a festival site and in the corner are picnic tables in front of a communal kitchen. All tolerated, because living here is not allowed according to the zoning plan (protected peat meadow area). Nobody pays rent to live, but 75 euros per month for water, electricity and WiFi.
Schoolmasters: ‘I can already see you thinking. Everyone wants that. But there is a promise to give something back to society.’ According to him, every resident is committed to Het Groene Veld at least one day a week. For example, by doing odd jobs, or by helping to organize a neighborhood event. Signing a (beneficial) lease for the buildings and borrowing money for renovations was a difficult step, according to Schoolmeesters. ‘Many residents felt that they denied their squatting past. We talked about it for eight meetings.’
This begs the question: do you still belong to the counterculture if the dominant culture facilitates you? Schoolmasters firmly: ‘Certainly! We express this in our programming. And in the groups we select to use our buildings.’
Alderman Marieke van Doorninck (Spatial Planning) prefers to talk about alternative culture. ‘The decision as a municipality to look for free space was quite strange; a contradiction in terms.’ She points to a large map of Amsterdam on the wall of her study. ‘The frayed edges are disappearing. All unused areas will be filled, partly to save the greenery around the city. But a consequence is that there will no longer be room for alternative forms of cohabitation.’ According to Van Doorninck, these groups make Amsterdam attractive. ‘Look, pigs are temporarily walking around on this sports field, local residents are given vegetable garden lessons in this harbour, and this old bowling alley is turning into a self-run community centre.’ The alderman calls it wry that the price of the surrounding real estate is only rising thanks to such non-commercial neighborhood initiatives.
According to social geographer Marco Bontje (University of Amsterdam), it seems sensible to create free, unregulated places. ‘If you leave it to the market, commerce and gentrification will eventually leave you with a raked-in city that is purely aimed at a middle class with money.’ It is not without reason, he says, that cities all over Europe are starting to look alike. Still, according to him, it is difficult to say what the use of freebooters is. ‘No investigation has been done yet. But I’m pretty sure such places are important for young, aspiring artists. In addition, neighborhood projects increase the well-being of residents.’
Professor of Urban Issues Stan Majoor (Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences) warns that the intended Free Spaces are temporary places. He investigated the frayed edges on behalf of Amsterdam. ‘If the current development continues, freebooters will ultimately only be welcome in shrinking regions such as Northeast Friesland or Central Limburg.’ He argues for a long-term solution within the city.
The city hall is working on this, assures process manager Joekenel van der Pijl. She mentions the guiding Environmental Vision for Amsterdam 2050 as an example. This explicitly offers space for places that are less regulated, not to be confused with breeding grounds. Incubators are collective buildings where selected artists rent workspace for a reasonable price. ‘Free Space goes further; that is semi-public territory that a community fills in itself.’ Unfortunately, she says, every square meter of the city is included in a zoning plan or policy vision. ‘The Green Field, for example, will become a sports field. That is also important for the neighbourhood.’
Until now, according to Van der Pijl, it has not been easy to find users for her list of free places. Among other things, it is looking for users for the Gardens of West, the Six-Haven in North and a strip of greenery at the Sloterdijk industrial estate. ‘We do receive calls, but often by groups eagerly looking for accommodation. And that doesn’t fit into the zoning plan.’ According to her, it is exceptional that caravans are tolerated on the Groene Veld. ‘That was a political choice after the eviction of the ADM site.’ The temporary nature of the sites is also a choice, she says. ‘Sometimes temporary is permanently under pressure from residents.’
In addition to housing and temporariness, the discussion with potential users is often about all the rules and regulations of the municipality. Just give me that key, we’ll do the rest, Van der Pijl often hears. But that’s not how it works, she says. ‘There are rules in the field of safety, hygiene and nuisance that serve the public interest. Especially if you’re organizing public events.’ Freedom actually means customization, she says. ‘That is a difficult task for a municipality. My colleague who tests permits does not come up with exceptions on request. That wouldn’t be good either.’
According to Van der Pijl, the Groene Veld is an experiment, an instructive search for space within rules. “Everyone understands that baking cookies with neighborhood kids is different from a professional dance party, but the same rules apply to both events.” According to her, the discussion of whether a caravan is the same as a house is also a recurring theme.
On the Groene Veld, pioneer Schoolmeesters envisions it all: a smashing opening party where neighborhood children come into contact with art, teenagers walk the Pepijnpad together, neighborhood fathers discover vegetarian barbecues and activists hold a secret meeting in one of the buildings. And then all dance together. With the help of a new online tool, Schoolmeesters will try to quantify the socio-economic impact of the site in the coming years. ‘Policy makers simply love that.’