Self-Organisation in Amsterdam: Case-Study of Oostenburg


A city – a meshwork of players, comprises of people with common interests pursuing their lives in different ways. There are many unpredictable collaborations between the stakeholders to achieve their individual, commercial or political goals (Landa, 2000). These collaborations develop a pattern of connections based on the hierarchy in the society or the styles of interaction that define the community structure. Therefore, the focus of planners should be on implementing short-term, slight changes to adapt accordingly (Batty, 2011).The traditional Dutch approached planning with specific details. This included distribution of activities, spatial layout and even the visual appearance of urban blocks. The dense urban spaces left very little scope for redevelopment with lesser density and future projects. These cases can be seen in many city centres of Dutch cities having an evident mix of activities but limited scope for redevelopment.

However, Netherlands has also been trying to develop co-operation strategies among citizens, civic organisations, entrepreneurs, etc. for many years now (WRR, 2008). The new Structural vision of Amsterdam ‘Amsterdam 2040’ follows the old Dutch spatial planning approach, yet on many important points they have diverted from the previous structural plans. The emphasis in these cases is on addressing the social needs and concerns. The visual aspects are complimentary (WRR, 2008).

Organic planning (Buitelaar, 2014) focuses on creating conditions to allow diverse local initiatives for an incremental urban development. The stakeholders, here, are directly responsible in creating a demand-driven urban ecosystem (Rauws and Roo, 2015). Organic planning approaches a multi-layered view emphasising on inter-dependence between processes of different scales and different moments (Byrne, 2003). The multi-layers of an urban system can be broadly divided into three levels (Boonstra, 2015):

  • Macro – Society or neighbourhood
  • Meso – Network of established playersƒƒ
  • Micro – Group of independent agents

This new approach has brought interesting development strategies in many neighbourhoods of Amsterdam. This article takes the case-study of Oostenburg in Amsterdam and explores the development strategy of the local authority. The neighbourhood has an interesting approach to bring diversity in activities, avoid homogeneity or polarisation, encourage small-scale entrepreneurs and have temporary land uses to adapt to the changing socio-economic context. It emphasises on realising a coherent relation between social desires and spatial development through different approaches.

Oostenburg, Amsterdam

Oostenburg is one of the three (Oostenburg, Kattenburg and Wittenburg) islands in the northeastern part of Amsterdam. The island was built in the 17th century by the Dutch East India company for warehouses and a shipyard. Given the strong historical influence on its structure and planning, the municipality is taking special considerations for the conservation of the urban values. On the south-western side, four buildings of early 20th century, named after the architect Van Gandthallen, received the monument status in 2001 because it constituted “great historical, architectural and urban values” (Loos, 2014). After the collapse of the industries, the area went through a lot of clean up and regeneration. Although some parts of Werkspoor are still preserved, the island, however, lost its vibrancy with the decline of the industries and its locational isolation.

Figure 1 – Location of Oostenbug in Amsterdam.  Source – Urhahn, 2012 

Amsterdam’s dense urbanisation brings opportunities for growth in Oostenburg. The INIT building was built in 2000, it has the district’s wharf on the ground floor and offices on the upper floors. In 2004, real estate company Stadgenoot bought the Van Gendthallen buildings. For many years, many professional and cultural activities were hosted there. In 2008, Stadgenoot bought the remaining area of Oostenburg north except INIT and the south-western area.

Decision Making Process

From 2004 to 2008, Stadgenoot made many unsuccessful plans to re-develop the area, primarily due to lack of clear vision for political and social development (Stadgenoot, 2013). These failed interventions alongside 2008 crisis made Stadgenoot re-strategise their development plan. Therefore, in 2011, Stadgenoot and the municipality eventually intervened with an ambition to create a mixed environment for working and living.

In the initial stages, the plan was to develop an open structure connected to the environment. Instead of developing a single master plan, the development plan was implemented in stages where the land is sold in small lots, individually. The sale and development of parcels, and investment in public spaces and facilities is taken care from the profits of the sale of previous parcels of land.

The focus was on creating a good outdoor public space and have limited vehicular access, by:

  • Visualising the yard floor as a unifying element and as a medium to promote pedestrian and bicycle movement
  • By avoiding traditional building block layout

In a general outlook, most of the outlines for the design and the program is fixed, but the island, on the inside, has a lot of freedom and flexibility for better spatial solutions. Through a series of products, a framework of rules for the development of the spaces were developed, this framework identifies four qualities of the island (Urhahn, 2016):

1. Island

Definite boundary made by the waterways, the railway embankment on one side and limited access gives the area a clear identity of an island.

Figure 2 – Quality 1 – Island (Source – Urhahn, 2012)

1. Connections through public spaces; 2. Limited vehicular access; 3. Orientation of the plots in line with the water around Oostenburg.

2. Liveliness

The mixed use ensures public movement and activities through the day, the public spaces of the island work as a unifying element and also becomes a utility space. The INIT and van Gendthallen buildings are capable of accommodating many exhibitions and manufacturing at once. Simultaneously, Stadgenoot wishes to provide houses for low-income groups in a limited area. The remaining plots will be sold to private owners to recover the break-even cost.

A higher plinth and plots’ grouping encloses the inner yards. This brings privacy in the inner yards and parks, makes it quieter and allows the owners to use it as per their needs & convenience. The limited traffic movement and open plinth of the INIT & van Gendthallen buildings makes the use of outer spaces possible.

Figure 3 – Quality 2 – Liveliness (Source – Urhahn, 2012)

1. Coherent design of the inner yards. The green space can have; 2. The areas marked in red are to be opened at the ground level and are preferred for public activities; 3. Around 2 levels Variation in height in relation with  the adjacent building; 4. Variation in height of around 1 level in relation to the adjacent building

3. Contrast

The neighbourhood has an industrial presence but also accommodates bars & restaurants. The architecture and activities are diverse.

To ensure contrast in activities and the architecture, the land owned by Stadgenoot is being developed in parcels. Size of the plots varies; the development plan suggests maximum width of a plot but does not put any restrictions on the depth. The plot width is coupled with the front orientation of the buildings. There is a lot of scope for variation in height, roof shape, activities in the plot, etc. The distribution of activities for the neighbourhood is fixed as 50% each (live-work). These areas are kept car free and will have spaces reserved for public greens in the centre of the parcel. There are at least three variations proposed for the height of the building. The proposed layout places a building of smaller height between two higher buildings to create visual contrast in the arrangement of the buildings and provide light and air through the cluster of the buildings.

Figure 4 – Quality 3 – Contrast (Source – Urhahn, 2012)

1. Small grain v/s large industrial plots; 2. Variation in lot width; darker – Max. width 24 m., lighter – Max. width 18 m.; 3. Variation in height of around 2 levels in relation to the adjacent building; 4. Variation in height of around 1 level in relation to the adjacent building; 5. Variation in roof shapes. Entrances (hatched) have a special roof shape

4. Toughness

The heavy industrial history and the rugged architecture gives a strong visual impression and an identity to the island. The older buildings in Oostenburg appear as a single block with simple but robust detailing. The activities opening on the yard floor worked as a unifying element.

The development plan follows the same line of visual appearance around the van Gendthallen building. The indoor and outdoor public spaces run into each other. The roofs of the buildings are decided on what fits best, they do receive proper attention and are not cut-off abruptly. Aiming for a higher level of interaction and liveliness, balconies on the side of the street are encouraged, especially if the side is waterfront. The buildings are more open towards the side facing the water.

Oostenburg is relatively dense and has limited scope for greenery. Hence, the users are suggested to develop green roofs and install solar panels. The industrial image is enhanced by the steel balconies, openness of the buildings and rugged style of architecture. These four qualities further has sub-categories (mentioned in figure 5) and bring forward a framework focusing on six key issues:

  1. Society: Implement mixed use and encourage adaptive re-use
  2. Mobility: Limited access for cars, focus on more soft mobility
  3. Material: Preserving the island’s historical significance
  4. Water: To reduce the water consumption
  5. Energy: Reduce energy consumption
  6. Biodiversity: Possibility to grow native plants in the dense urban area

Figure 5 – The four qualities and the sub-categories within the qualities. (Source – Urhahn, 2012; Gemeente, Amsterdam)

Van Gendthallen building offers temporary work spaces capable of adapting to different needs of different organisations. The offices in INIT building and nightlife in Roest is already active. This mix of activities makes Oostenburg capable of attracting public and keep the place active.


The land in Oostenburg is of high demand due to its location and proximity with the city centre. The sale of the plots in the first parcel began in 2017. Currently, sale of DIY plots in the 9th parcel is active and construction in 5 parcels is under-going (, 2019). The end of construction is stated to be around the end of 2020.

Figure 6: Parcel distribution in Oostenburg. The parcels marked in red are under construction, the areas marked in blue are upcoming projects. (Source –, 2019)


The outcomes of these cases manifests specific physical growth, urban form and morphological or functional patterns. It allows the urban systems to distribute the decision-making power to its diverse actors and avoid the dominance of a single actor (or activity). It’s tendency to self-organise the development safeguards the interests of the actors and maintains a dynamic socio-spatial nature (Boonstra, 2015).

The distinctions (agency, rules and physical order) in decision-making process carry out the transformation process in their own way. This results in a complex environment capable of selforganising itself through multiple interventions. The development plan has four design principles (Rauws, 2015):

  1. Small-scale sub-plans
  2. Incremental development strategies
  3. Carrying structures
  4. Loose rules

It is also important to understand that these development plans are highly contextual and depend on the level of interaction. The planners’ style of intervention and the style of mediation in this complex set-up depends on the context and the understanding of the social system (Tan, Bekkering, and Reijndorp, 2014). A good interaction among the actors can only come with a strong sense of community building. It may not be active and prevalent in every case. Therefore, such a solution can be implemented only after a deep understanding of the neighbourhood or the city. In absence of strong and dense pre-existing networks, taking an intervention like this can be too much work, even if the actors are skilful and committed (Uitermark, 2015).

From the case-study, it is also evident that the nature of organic planning is not entirely self-organising. It requires interventions at multiple levels to safeguard the interests of the actors. Therefore, the true role of the actors and the level of freedom they eventually enjoy while developing their spaces is always in question.