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Amsterdam is frequently portrayed as a city of tolerance. Popular accounts explain this with Amsterdam’s long-standing tradition as a city of merchants who cared more about profit than about differences of origin, language or religion. How come, then, that a neighbourhood of Amsterdam (Slotervaart) is the first one in the Netherlands to develop an Anti-radicalisation Plan? How come, radicalisation is high on the general Dutch policy agenda? And if radicalisation – or at least a degree of polarisation between certain population groups – is indeed such a pressing problem, what is the role of the urban environment in reflecting and shaping this trend?

01_maps2Two interrelated processes are noteworthy in this context: One was a massive wave of residential construction in Amsterdam’s periphery to provide larger, lighter, healthier living conditions for the Dutch population after the 2nd world war. These projects were designed according to modernist architectural tenets but did not always ‘work’ in terms of social dynamics. The second process was a wave of immigration – mainly from Suriname, Turkey and Morocco – after the independence of Dutch colonies and the signing of special treaties with certain countries. Many of them settled in these new neighbourhoods which eventually resulted into a degree of segregation few outsiders would expect from the city of tolerance.

The more recent background is characterised by the 9/11 attacks and the War on Terror, Pim Fortuyn’s assassination (2002) and Theo van Gogh’s murder (2004). Research conducted after these events mainly focused on radicalisation of young Muslims and showed that many of them experience alienation both from their first-generation immigrant parents but also from the Dutch society. Instead, some of them seek a firm identity in their religion and thus turn to rather orthodox versions of Islam. Experts argue that 2% of Amsterdam Muslims are “potentially most receptive to radicalisation” (1).

02_map01The neighbourhood of Slotervaart in the west of the Amsterdam conurbation is an area considered at high risk because of its ethnic composition and previous ethnically charged riots – besides, it is the area where van Gogh’s murderer grew up. This context prompted the development of the aforementioned Slotervaart Action Plan: Countering radicalisation, published in February 2007. Our project therefore focused on Slotervaart, an area characterised by many modernist high-rise blocks and separated from inner Amsterdam by the Rembrandt Park and the motorway A10. These are often perceived as infrastructural boundaries that are difficult and occasionally unsafe to cross for some, thus creating a sense of being cut off from the rest of the city.


1 Slootman, M. and Tillie, J. (2006). Processes of Radicalisation. Why some Amsterdam Muslims become radicals. Amsterdam: Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies. Universiteit van Amsterdam.



Not too long ago, Mercator square was redesigned at great expenses but failed to attract a vibrant street life for everyone. Instead, it is claimed as “hang-out” place by young people who are perceived - by some - as threatening.



An interesting material phenomenon in Slotervaart – as well as in many other parts of Amsterdam – are so called Hangplekken (hang-out places) such as squares, playing grounds or certain street corners. These potentially convivial spaces are perceived by some, especially elderly Dutch people, as threatening when frequented by youngsters, many of whom are unemployed and of a non-Dutch ethnic background. Hangplekken are often portrayed in a rather simplified version as dangerous, dominated by Muslims, even as places where recruitment for potentially radicalising youth takes place. And indeed, numerous instances of rather defensible architecture have been observed in hang-out spots, possibly in response to acts of vandalism.

Some interviewees related such (perceived) anti-social behaviours to the lack of physical infrastructures for harmless activities: Community centres, rooms for after-school activities, sports facilities on the one hand and attractive private residential space on the other. The latter problem allegedly is accentuated by the size of many flats which were originally built for Dutch families with two children but are easily outgrown by immigrant families who tend to have more children. Adolescents with an immigrant background thus have a material incentive to spend their time on the street. This, again, feeds into all kinds of stereotypes and fears linked to Hangplekken and can complicate the friendly coexistence of different ethnicities.



The so called Western Mosque - a centre for prayer but also a range of profane uses - was planned at the Baarsjesweg (about 500 m east of Rembrandt Park). Although initiated by Muslims, it was intended as asset for the wider neighbourhood and even designed with architectural elements of the “Amsterdam School”. Photo: Minke Wagenaar



Also the construction of mosques can be a contested issue. Some perceive their very existence as a sign of encroachment of Islam into the Dutch society. Others criticise certain architectural design features (esp. minarets) as statement of alleged religious superiority, especially in a predominantly profane society. The spatial context around mosques is another matter of concern. For example: A police station was built next to the mosque on August Allebéplein in Sloterwaart. Its rather defensive architecture and surveillance cameras overlooking the mosque’s outdoor praying areas, however, do not physically represent the statement of good neighbourliness expressed to us by a police officer. In short, architecture matters.

The line between paranoia, surveillance, safety, stereotypes and coexistence is also blurred by such seemingly mundane artefacts as satellite dishes or net curtains. The former are often taken by Dutch people as evidence of a high presence of immigrants trying to stay in touch with their country of origin. Net curtains are often interpreted as an attempt to ‘hide something’. Both types of artefacts can, in an ethnically mixed neighbourhood, be seen as statement by the ‘others’ to demonstrate their presence. Similar (mis-)interpretations can be triggered by foreign shop signs, smells, music and different bodily expressions such as beards and veils.

The traditional insistence on one’s own private entry to one’s residence results in architectural features like alcoves and niches. The police considers them problematic because perpetrators can use them to escape human and non-human (CCTV) observation.



Maybe the best description of such dynamics is a kind of relative polarisation. This expression signifies that polarisation between two poles can, in principle, always be caused by the distancing of both poles from each other. In the context at hand, the immigrant community is not necessarily the only one that builds stereotypes and mental walls against the native Dutch. The latter might simultaneously erect a very similar kind of defensive mentality. In the built environment, this is expressed in gated communities, defensible new architectures, hardening of infrastructure and increased surveillance. Slotervaart, too, has its share of such gated compounds. Many of them are linked to the wider process of neoliberal urban renewal which results in new, commodified and privately owned flats for a higher income population. In some cases, this provoked the displacement of immigrant-background families, as well as a deepening in the socio-economic gap of the neighbouring populations.