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Amsterdam city profile | city data
  • Since the 17th century the city has been known for its liberal thinking and tolerance
  • It encourages its many visitors to explore beyond the city centre by branding and promoting its neighbourhoods
  • The ‘Night Mayor’ model for protecting nightlife, originated in Amsterdam, has been copied by cities around the world

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I Amsterdam

City data: Key facts

  • Geographical area: 2,580 sq. km
  • Total population: 2,349,870
  • Percentage of total national population living in the city: 14%
  • Education level – percentage with degree level or higher: 42%
  • GDP (PPP) million: US$ 103,511
  • Percentage creative industries employment: 8.3%

Amsterdam has been inhabited for a thousand years. Originally a region of low-lying peat bogs, its land was reclaimed for agricultural and urban use through a system of extensive water engineering that has shaped the city to this day. A planned expansion outside the medieval city walls created the Canal Ring, which recently celebrated its 400th anniversary. It is the largest and one of the best-preserved historical city centres in Europe, and became a UNESCO world heritage site in 2010. It is the physical expression of the major economic, political and cultural growth of the city in its Golden Age. For the city, heritage remains an important aspect of urban planning.

Although Amsterdam is relatively small, it was an early exemplar of the innovation and diversity of thought created through city life. As the capital of the Dutch Republic in its 17th century ‘Golden Age,’ it was a great port, trading with the world, welcoming outsiders, and dominated by its merchant class. It was unusually tolerant of religious and intellectual differences, with liberal and humanist thinkers such as Spinoza and Descartes flourishing alongside artists such as Rembrandt. Amsterdam was central to the flowering of the Enlightenment in Europe.

Amsterdam remains a city whose culture is moulded by liberalism. It continues to be open to the world, tightly integrated into global networks of trade, finance and ideas. Known for its (ambivalent) tolerance of soft drugs and prostitution, it has also been at the forefront of issues such as gay rights and multiculturalism – the latter an increasingly important topic in a city where more than one third of residents are foreign-born.

Over the past fifteen years, Amsterdam has invested massively in cultural infrastructure. More than 25 institutions have been built, rebuilt or refurbished, including the central public library, the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk Museum, Hermitage Amsterdam, Muziekgebouw aan ´t IJ, and the De La Mar theatre. Much of this was financed via public-private partnerships, and some of it completely through private means.

Management of cultural institutions has also evolved. Amsterdam’s national institutions - such as the Rijksmuseum - were ‘privatised’ in the 1990s and, though still funded in part by the government, are run by private foundations. Now the city is placing an increased emphasis on financial sustainability. Its sixth Plan for the Arts (2013-16) required every funded cultural institution to generate at least 25% of its own income by 2016. In the seventh Plan for the Arts (2017-2020), funding available for arts and culture has been increased by over 9%, to 90 million euros per year. In addition, 6 million euros have been allocated to fund innovation, experiment and talent development.

A Standard Package for Art and Cultural Education in primary (and special) schools was introduced in 2013 with up to three hours of cultural education in the curriculum per week. Signed by the central municipality, the City Districts and almost every school board in Amsterdam, and with a commitment for the next ten years, this agreement is unique to the city.

As a small, deeply historic city, Amsterdam must find a balance between preserving its heritage, encouraging tourism, and remaining a liveable city for its residents. It has been named the seventh most popular European city for international tourists by Euromonitor, and welcomes around 15 million visitors per year. This level of popularity poses issues for the city. It is encouraging visitors to explore beyond the city centre through a programme branding its neighbourhoods and highlighting their cultural attractions.

With a culture that for centuries has emphasised free thinking, experimentation and innovation, it is not surprising that Amsterdam has a very active ‘fringe’ and informal cultural sector. In 2002 the city acquired the world’s first ‘Night Mayor,’ who advocates for late-night businesses and serves as a liaison with the city – a model which has already been exported to many other world cities. Since 2013 Amsterdam has allowed several venues to be open for 24 hours, experimenting with the idea that extending hours can actually reduce antisocial behaviour. Not all of these venues are nightclubs, and some function as mixed arts cultural venues, including cafes, gallery and concert space.

Amsterdam is responding to the challenge of making room for the artists who power this sector. In the past many artists lived and worked in ‘squats’ in abandoned industrial buildings, organising themselves into collectives. The current Art Factories Programme (Bureau Broedplaatsen) is grounded in these experiences and aims to continue to offer space in Amsterdam which can allow this sort of free experimentation. In Amsterdam North, across the river from the city centre, the former NDSM shipyards were a potential site for development in the late 1990s. Rather than pursuing a more traditional approach, the city decided to turn this area into a ‘breeding ground’ and funded Kinetisch Noord, a guild arising out of squat culture, to manage and develop NDSM. The area is now a vibrant destination for both tourists and locals.

Amsterdam is one of the world’s cultural capitals, with a rich heritage not only reflected in its museums and historic sites, but inscribed into its urban fabric. The city continues to embrace its history of tolerance and liberalism, while balancing the demands of preservation and innovation. Its embrace of new ideas and its position as a global hub are carrying Amsterdam forward into its second millennium.