Implementing Waterfront Redevelopment in Amsterdam and Havana

Frank Uffen, Abril 1, 2004

Over the last 50 years cities have been the scene of major transformations that have allowed them to evolve from being centers primarily for economic activities to a combination of more specialized productive, commercial and service functions. The results are mixed, but in those cities considered most successful, beauty and humanism have managed to coexist with economic efficiency and effectiveness, significantly increasing the creation of wealth and the well-being of the community at large. In this context, developments known as “large urban projects” seek to rescue dilapidated areas such as historic centers, former industrial and military zones, vacant railroads and airports, and decaying housing settlements and transform them into vibrant residential areas able to generate tax revenues, employment, and public and social benefits to enhance quality of life.

The redevelopment of waterfronts creates tremendous opportunities to reintegrate historic city centers with their adjacent waterways and to facilitate growth that would otherwise move to the outskirts of the city. Many concerns have to be addressed, however. What type and scale of development are desirable and possible? How can meaningful relationships be established between the old and the new? What are the impacts on the environment and the existing infrastructure? What public policies and investments are needed? What are the roles of the public and private sectors? How do we organize the planning process, including building political and community support?

Amsterdam and Havana are cases where waterfronts provide challenges and opportunities to address this complex balancing act. Both are UNESCO World Heritage Cities dealing with the pressures of profit-driven real estate development and the desire to protect both their historic centers and the interests of their contemporary populations.

In December 2003 the Lincoln Institute, with Havana’s Group for the Development of the Capital (GDIC), the Office of the Historian and the Port Authority of the Ministry of Transportation, cosponsored a seminar in Havana at which waterfront experts from Amsterdam, Rotterdam, New York and Panama shared their experiences with Cuban planners and public officials. This article elaborates on the Amsterdam presentation, in particular how management, experiments, planning and land policies enabled an impressive transformation of that city’s former industrial waterfronts, and offers lessons that may be applicable for Havana.

Planning and Development Policies in the Netherlands

The Netherlands has a well-known tradition of strong national planning and development, precipitated by the housing shortage since World War II. The notion of limited space drives the country’s development policies and its commitment to preserving green and agricultural areas between cities. Housing, infrastructure, retail and office development, environmental protection, agriculture, water management and open space are major concerns at both the national and local levels. With two-thirds of their country below sea level, the Dutch have always pursued new ways of relating to water. National planning policies thus concentrate on facilitating growth in designated areas, controlling urban sprawl and reorganizing inner cities without neglecting major infrastructure and the management and control of green spaces and water bodies.

The Dutch rediscovered the importance of their cities in the 1980s after the rapid growth of suburbs and new towns caused increasing congestion and a lack of livable spaces. The idea of a “compact city” was adopted in the nation’s Fourth Memorandum of Urban Planning (1988), advocating concentration on the urban nexus in order to “redevelop currently abandoned areas.” Typical sites include Rotterdam’s Kop van Zuid and Amsterdam’s Eastern Docklands. The compact city concept was broadened in the 1990s with the notion of the “complete city,” marrying concepts of multiple and intensive land use with the concentration of functions and activities in a melting pot of lifestyles.

The reorganization of transit areas and transport routes is another planning priority that aims to combine different transport functions and discourage the use of cars. Examples include the Airport City plan for the Amsterdam Schiphol Airport and the area around the future high-speed train station Zuidas-WTC. The Zuidas master plan creates enough space over the railway and highway for the construction of 7 million square feet of offices, 1,500 dwellings, retail space, hotels, museums and a new park.

Despite the national government’s plans and ambitions, financial resources determine its role in development projects. The significant decrease in national housing and development subsidies since 1990 has highlighted the strategic importance of the local government in the (re)development process. However, the Amsterdam case also shows that management capacity, reliable development partners and creative financial and development tools are instrumental for redevelopment.

Amsterdam’s Land and Housing Policies

Amsterdam is the cultural and financial capital of the Netherlands and the largest city in the Randstad-Holland or Deltametropolis region of 6 million people. The city has close to 750,000 inhabitants, 375,000 housing units and 417,000 jobs, and has one of the world’s largest conserved historic city centers.

Amsterdam’s land policies are strategic tools in the city’s redevelopment strategies. In 1896 the city democratically decided on a land-lease system to acquire land and lease it to future users. Important arguments for leasing were that increases in land value should benefit the entire community and the city should determine the use of scarce land to prevent speculation and undesirable development.

The land-lease system works as follows. The city’s land corporation acquires land and leases it to private developers for periods of 49 or 99 years. Leaseholders pay an annually adjusted amount for use of the land, determined by location, square feet of development, type of use (office, retail, affordable or market rate housing, open space, etc.), new or existing buildings, and parking (on the street or inside). The city determines the price of land through a residual land value method that links the market value of the property, the land and the construction costs. The value of land equals the sales value of the property minus the construction costs determined by the location (costs are considerably higher in the historic neighborhoods). In 2002 leases totaled 59 million euros.

Acquisition of privately owned land—as in the Eastern Docklands area—is financed through loans to the city’s land corporation, whose interest payments account for 80 percent of its expenses. Excess revenues are used to support the city’s development and rehabilitation efforts, particularly for commercially unprofitable projects such as parks and open space. This system also serves political objectives such as the provision and geographic distribution of affordable housing. In a high-density city like Amsterdam, land is scarce and its use is subject to much real estate pressure. As the landowner the city maintains a strategic role in determining the use, quality and amount of land available for development.

Amsterdam relies on its relationships with the city’s civic and nonprofit development groups for support and implementation of its plans, and the role of housing associations is critical. These associations were created as a result of the housing law of 1901, which allowed for union-related associations and religious organizations to establish nonprofit housing associations. With national subsidies and strong support from local governments, they have built thousands of units, especially in the neighborhoods damaged during the war. In some of these areas over 75 percent of the units is owned by housing associations.

The deregulation of the Dutch housing market in the early 1990s strongly affected the housing associations’ position as both owners and developers. They lost most of the national housing subsidies, but in exchange the government granted them more financial and institutional freedom to manage their assets. As a result, the nonprofit sector had to become more professionalized, and many of the housing associations merged to create economies of scale. Today, Amsterdam counts 13 housing associations that manage over 200,000 units, ranging from 1,400 to 37,500 units each. Many associations successfully positioned themselves as trustworthy and financially stable developers. Moreover, they became strategic partners for commercial developers looking for experts on affordable housing and partners for creating goodwill for their projects with the city and community groups. More and more, they develop mixed-income projects in collaboration with private developers using creative financial packages. In 2000, for example, half of the units built by housing associations were market rate. The resulting profits financed the other half as affordable and moderate-income units.

In an unexpected side effect of the housing reform, these associations have become leaders in setting high standards for urban design and planning. With their commitment to the city and to community development they have been willing to take risks with low-cost but provocative designs, and many of their projects have become international examples for innovative affordable housing concepts.

Waterfront Redevelopment in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is a city founded on water and around a dam that separated the Amstel River from the IJ River. In the seventeenth century, Amsterdam was the world’s most prominent commercial and maritime center. The canals and waterways built in that era still marvel the millions of tourists who visit the city every year. The relationship between the city and its waterfront has not always been organic; mistakes have been made, such as the 1898 decision to build Amsterdam’s central railway station in the middle of the port area. The station effectively ruined the visual relationship and physical connections between the IJ, the port and the dam, destroying the ancient heart of the capital.

In the past 40 years, most port functions have moved closer to the sea to handle container ships, while the large financial institutions moved to the south axis of the city due to a lack of space and poor accessibility. The inner city of Amsterdam, which is adjacent to the old port areas, remains the region’s largest center for retail, culture and entertainment and is well suited for pedestrians, bicyclists and public transportation. Although the port continues to play an important economic role for Amsterdam, the city essentially turned its back to the harbor for many years.

Major areas of Amsterdam are now being converted and rehabilitated, while entirely new areas are being built on artificial islands. The city’s southern and northern waterfront system of old piers and wet docks is becoming an attractive residential and mixed-use district with retail and cultural centers, new transit, parks and waterfront promenades, most of which mix contemporary design with the historic maritime character. The construction of IJburg, an overspill area in the IJsselmeer Lake, is designed to accommodate 45,000 new inhabitants.

Discussion about the redevelopment of the Eastern Docklands and the rest of the southern IJ waterfront began in the early 1980s. Following years of negotiations between the municipality, developers and well-organized community groups, the plan, currently in the final phases of construction, proposed a series of high-density, moderate-rise communities on the water, thus remaking a historic and cultural bond with the water. Housing is the major component of all development on the IJ bank, and 40 percent of it is affordable. In many cases the city’s professional nonprofit housing associations have led the development and encouraged private investment.

The formal planning process for the IJ-waterfront started with a design competition in 1984. Initially the city government endorsed the IJ Boulevard master plan by Rem Koolhaas for the entire 10 km southern waterfront. The redevelopment program incorporated a range of uses, but focused on office development and supporting amenities to stop the exodus of corporations and to finance the proposed infrastructure program. The plan was to be implemented by the Amsterdam Waterfront Finance Company (AWF), a public-private partnership of the city and one master developer/investor with unprecedented authority. Subsequent controversy over the size and cost of the plan, the collapse of the office market in the late 1980s, and growing discontent with the plan among the city’s prominent civic and community groups led to the dismantling of the partnership in 1994.

The city then changed its approach and passed a strategic memorandum titled “Anchors of the IJ” in 1995. This plan proposed to build on the existing island structure with a phased development starting at the outer edges and working toward the Central Station area. This pragmatic and organic approach concentrated the city’s efforts and resources on master plans for smaller and more manageable areas. The development program shifted toward housing with public buildings and squares (the anchors) at strategic locations within a framework of larger infrastructure investments. The national government committed to building a new tunnel in the early phases of the planning process and a light-rail system at a later phase. Urban design and development programs were determined by site potential and strong community input and were modified over time based on experience, new ideas and changing market conditions. Since the city owns the land and thus controls how much land is available for development, it encouraged private developers to team up with nonprofit housing groups to bid for portions of the waterfront. The Amsterdam case underscores the fact that strategy, planning tools, leadership and partners are interdependent and instrumental for redevelopment that benefits the community at large.

Implications for Havana

The uniqueness of Havana’s waterfront makes it a formidable site for innovative and comprehensive redevelopment and for avoiding the mistakes that have spoiled the charm of many other cities around the world. Havana is Cuba’s capital city, home to more than 2 million of the country’s 11 million citizens. Prior to the 1959 revolution Cuba was the leading business and tourist destination in the Caribbean, but its subsequent political isolation and lack of economic development have resulted in a mostly unspoiled historic city now in desperate need of repair. Since the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the subsequent loss of a market for 65 percent of Cuban exports, Havana has focused on attracting investment through real estate ventures. Most joint ventures (350 were active in 2001, worth $2.6 billion) are with Canadian and European companies in the booming hospitality industry. Tourism and related activities again generate much-needed foreign currency, especially in Havana where historic downtown hotels have been upgraded and new office buildings are being built in nearby elegant neighborhoods to the west.

The government recognizes the historic and economic value of Old Havana’s architectural heritage and strongly supports renovation and rehabilitation of its historic buildings and squares. The progress and benefits are impressive, considering the limited public resources and the state of the city’s infrastructure and buildings. The Office of the Historian, the development authority for Old Havana, has stimulated revenues that generated $50 million for social and historic preservation programs in 1999 alone (Nunez, Brown and Smolka 2000).

Havana’s waterfront is considered a key asset for future growth and therefore a key area of concern. The waterfront includes the famous Malecon Boulevard as well as the lesser-known inner-harbor districts on the east side of Old Havana. Along the shores of this bay, historic warehouses and small communities are mixed with decaying infrastructure, port facilities, heavy industry and shipyards. Many different city and state agencies are involved in planning for this vast area, yet no clear development directive has been defined and most players lack the authority to take that role. In response, some agencies have developed plans for individual properties, but implementation is unlikely because there is no funding in place and the oil refineries across the bay produce heavy fumes, which discourage some tourist-oriented activities.

Since land in Havana is publicly owned, capturing the increase of land values could create a strategic and sustainable source for financing much-needed public investments in affordable housing, public space and infrastructure. The local government can lead the redevelopment process; however, support and collaboration with regional and national public partners will be important for larger investments. Flexibility in program and a focus on process instead of blueprint planning is essential to accommodate changing market conditions and emerging opportunities. The latter is especially evident as development depends significantly on private investments.

With its historic beauty, proximity to the United States and lack of development for more than 40 years, Havana draws the attention of developers from throughout the world. It has the potential to become a model livable city that has preserved most of its heritage and is not spoiled by the automobile. It is in the interest of all of us, but especially the Cuban people, to ensure that attention to both high-quality redevelopment and the public interest determines the transformation of Havana’s waterfront.

Frank Uffen is managing director of New Amsterdam Development Consultants in New York. Other Dutch participants in the seminar who contributed to this article are Riek Bakker (partner, BVR Consultancy for Urban Development, Landscape and Infrastructure, Rotterdam), Ad Hereijgers (partner, DE LIJN Office for Urban Development, Amsterdam), Willem van Leuven (project manager, Amsterdam Project Management Bureau) and Rutger Sypkens (project developer, Ballast Nedam Construction, Amsterdam).


Nunez, Ricardo, H. James Brown, and Martim Smolka. 2000. Using land value to promote development in Cuba. Land Lines 12(2):1–4.