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A studio in Amsterdam's Slotervaart neighbourhood (Isabel Nabuurs/Isabel Nabuurs)
A studio in Amsterdam's Slotervaart neighbourhood (Isabel Nabuurs/Isabel Nabuurs)

Netherlands

Amsterdam brings the inner city to the outskirts Add to ...

From the sky, Amsterdam's Slotervaart neighbourhood looks like a verdant paradise, its low-rise apartment buildings separated by wide green spaces, its meandering streets sandwiched between a canal and a big park.

On the ground, these are the very features that have made this western Amsterdam neighbourhood one of Europe's most notorious slums, known for gang crime, Islamic extremism, fiery riots, muggings and angry young men who are sometimes driven to political murder.

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For the 45,000 people who live here, the features that made Slotervaart a workers' paradise in the years after the Second World War have turned it, for the poor Moroccans and Turks who are now almost the only people willing to live here, into something of a prison: A lonely expanse of bleak concrete buildings separated by big, frightening, empty spaces, and no connection to the wider world.

So the government of Amsterdam is taking a typically blunt approach this year, knocking down the scores of apartment buildings, getting rid of the grassy gardens and courts between them, and building tight, square blocks of high-rise buildings with no space in between.

The resulting neighbourhood, dense and vertical, looks like the ex-warehouse district of a big-city downtown core from the 1930s. Its first buildings have just opened, and they look like the sort of art-deco blocks that Western countries razed by the thousands in the postwar years to make way for "garden" communities like Slotervaart.

The thinking behind it is equally blunt: If you make Slotervaart look and act like one of those post-industrial downtown neighbourhoods that have turned into artistic and entrepreneurial hubs, then there's a good chance it will start to become one.

In turn, the influx of creative and small-business people will move its immigrant residents out of the cultural and physical isolation, which, it's felt, has made them desperate and radical.

"This is an effort to make the neighbourhood more inner-city-like, higher density, to end the social exclusion that has partly been produced by isolated housing," said Lizette Ploeg, the head of the Slotervaart branch of the New West Project, Amsterdam's effort to remake its outskirts and integrate the immigrants who populate them.

The big patches of grassy space, she noted, are themselves serving as barriers to integration and stages for casual crime and destitution.

"It looks very green here, but there is no sense of ownership of public spaces. That makes it a bit of an anonymous zone - it becomes empty and people get scared when they walk there alone. Gangs prey on people in the empty spaces."

In one sense, this is the latest trend in a growing realization among urban planners that poverty and cultural segregation are created by unduly low-density neighbourhoods. The most successful urban neighbourhoods are often those, like Kensington and Chelsea in London or the Upper West Side in New York, with the highest densities of housing.

Indeed, Amsterdam's flourishing centre has an extremely high population density.

But the Dutch are going a step further in Slotervaart, and actually trying to replicate the living conditions, economic activities and social and ethnic mixes that typically take place in a successful inner-city neighbourhood.

They're doing this not only by creating downtown-looking buildings, but by luring herds of small-business people, artists and creative entrepreneurs with offers of cut-price, and often free, office space, along with government subsidized services such as receptionists, photocopying and computer networks.

In exchange, these entrepreneurs, who are mainly young, ethnically Dutch people moving out from the expensive environs of Amsterdam's downtown, are obligated to spend a few hours a week on projects meant to engage the local immigrant population, and ideally to help them start their own small businesses.

Members of the neighbourhood's Moroccan-born majority are welcoming the initiative, though they are reserving their judgment on the full set of plans.

"What new immigrants like to do is start small businesses - shops and things - so they can get some savings and make a better life, but this kind of neighbourhood, with everything so far apart, makes it impossible to do that," said Mohammed Mallaouch, a teacher and community leader who came here 24 years ago from rural Morocco.

"It's a very bad situation - our children have no way of seeing or experiencing Dutch life, so they become trapped between two cultures, never able to become a full member of either culture, and they don't learn to read and fall into crime," he said. The new shape of the neighbourhood, he said, is a start, but far more radical changes will be needed.

There is something disconcerting about the mass migration of young, fashionable, creative types into the midst of a troubled enclave of second-generation immigrants. "We are very happy to mix with the people around us, but we haven't all found the right projects to make it work yet," said Dymphie Braun at Beehive, a business-startup centre at the foot of one of the high-rise housing projects.

She admitted that none of her 30 small businesses are run by immigrants from the area. Officials said it will take time for entrepreneurial opportunities to be taken up by the local community.

Aside from moving everyone closer together and bringing in the bohemians, the Dutch have adopted some other assertive measures to make Slotervaart's residents start acting like they live in a prosperous neighbourhood.

There are the "street nuisance patrols," dozens of plainclothes police officers on bicycles who sweep the neighbourhood every week. They search for children and teenagers who aren't in classrooms during school hours - the result is a forced march to school and a fine for the parents - and police small, disorderly infractions such as graffiti and window breaking.

There's a youth program called "pimp my block" - the name is American slang, perpetually popular among Arabic-Dutch youth - in which teams of teenagers are awarded €5,000 ($8,000) budgets if they can come up with plans to improve the appearance or function of their streets.

The results are hard to discern at the moment, since the high-density blocks are only a couple months old and most of the neighbourhood is still a sea of construction cranes, demolishing or renovating the old buildings into big-city structures. In a country whose politics and society have been deeply polarized by clashes over immigration, it is an explosive attempt to make a new start.

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

 

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