Amsterdam Works to Shore Up Its Crumbling Canals and Bridges


It was a rainy evening in April when Marlies Pinksterboer, an Amsterdam-based jewelry designer, was startled by a loud, rumbling sound. “It was as if a part of a building had come crashing down,” she said. “It was crazy.”

It was too dark to see what had happened, but when she opened the curtains in the morning she saw that the street on the other side of the canal had been cordoned off. A large sinkhole had appeared, and an antique lamp post next to it had fallen down. A shopping cart, devoured by the gaping pit, glittered in the hole.

Had it happened during the day, she said, “someone could easily have fallen in.”

That’s when Ms. Pinksterboer started worrying about the 17th-century canal house she lived in. “Will that one day come crashing down,” she wondered, half serious, while standing on one of the ancient brick and mortar walls that line the canals in her neighborhood of Groenburgwal, one of the oldest areas of Amsterdam.

The danger is certainly not exaggerated. Amsterdam, with its scenic canals lined with picturesque, 17th- and 18th-century buildings, a major European tourist destination, is slowly crumbling.

Perhaps surprisingly, the pilings are still in relatively good shape, but they were engineered for a different age.

“At the time these were built to carry the weight of horses and carriages, not of 40-ton cement trucks and other heavy equipment,” said Egbert de Vries, the alderman in charge of what promises to be an enormous rebuilding project. As modern life changed the city, many houses were fortified with cement and concrete, but the underpinnings of streets and canal walls were ignored.

Many of the wood pilings have shifted, cracked or collapsed under the pressure, causing the bridges and canal side walls to sag and crack. Water then seeps in, cleaning out mortar, further hollowing out the infrastructure and creating sinkholes.

Add to this all the traffic happily cruising the 17th-century canal rings where centuries earlier Rembrandt would walk to his studio and Spinoza debated religion. S.U.V.s park right on the edges of the canals, while garbage trucks have displaced the boats that used to collect the waste. Before the pandemic, a flotilla of tourist boats swept through the canals, making sharp turns that created propeller turbulence, further eating away at the foundations.

Something had to be done, and soon. “If we would have continued like this we would have headed straight for a catastrophe,” Mr. De Vries said.

“It’s a very complex intervention,” said Dave Kaandorp, a building contractor working on the renovations. He did see one upside, as the canals were suddenly being used for what they were intended for. “We bring a lot of the building materials over the water now.”

The alderman, Mr. De Vries, acknowledged that Amsterdam in the coming years would look different from its usual postcard self. Still, he insisted that tourists should not be discouraged from visiting. “We invite everyone to come and see what we are doing,” he said. “We want visitors to realize that such a magnificent city needs maintenance.”

Ms. Pinksterboer, the jewelry designer, stood next to the closed-off bridge by the sinkhole. Small red plates have been connected to the base of the bridge and to the canal walls. “They use those to measure with lasers if the sagging is increasing,” she said. “It’s a warning system.”

She burst out singing a popular Dutch children’s song:

Amsterdam, big city
It is built on piles
If the city would collapse
Who would pay for that?

“I guess we are,” Ms. Pinksterboer said.



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