August 5, 2023
From Popular Resistance

Why is Amsterdam, a city famous for its progressive culture, so determined to build a big-box distribution center on a 60-hectare plot of unspoiled land on the edge of the city? Despite the obvious downsides of the idea, politicians and city officials seem more eager to cater to the Amazon retailers of the world than to plan for climate disruption, a carbon-frugal economy, and wiser land use. The City seems poised to sell or lease the public’s crown jewels – land – on behalf of a world of economic growth, consumerism, and carbon emissions.

Thanks to a spirited campaign by thousands of Amsterdam citizens, however, an alternative future for the land may yet materialize. Over the past several years, thousands of city residents have held public protests, teach-ins, and organizing sessions to advance a different vision for the land. They envision the building of Voedselpark Amsterdam, or Food Park, that would use the land as an urban farm and a green space for recreation and nature studies, all to be stewarded as a commons.

The basic idea is to generate locally sourced, nutritious food; create farm jobs that would contribute to the city’s food security; and strengthen civic culture through commoning – while avoiding the problems caused by capitalist growth and climate breakdown. Supporters of the Food Park have been passionate enough about these ideas that they raised half a million euros in cash and pledges through crowdfunding, in an attempt to acquire the land.

To learn more about the campaign to establish the Food Park, I spoke with Natasha Hulst, one of the organizers, on my podcast Frontiers of Commoning (Episode #41). Natasha also happens to be a colleague of mine at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, where she is Director of the European Land Program. 

“It’s very much a David-and-Goliath story,” said Hulst, pointing out that the City of Amsterdam is trying to displace family farmers who have grown organic food on the land for generations.  The title of a documentary film about the struggle is entitled, “The Last Farm of Amsterdam.”

Plans to develop the land got underway in 2003 when a zoning change was approved under ethically questionable circumstances. But things really started to heat up over the past five years as more citizens – alarmed by climate change and concerned about local self-sufficiency and resilience – began to protest development plans.

The market value of the land is not exactly clear because much hinges on the land’s zoning status and intended uses. If used for agriculture, the land could probably fetch 4.3 million euros, reflecting the high cost of agricultural land in the Netherlands, said Hulst. But city policies would affect the price. And if the land is used as a warehouse distribution center, its value could skyrocket tenfold.

To complicate matters, the City government is not just a neutral decisionmaker on the land’s fate. It owns the land and is an investor in a plan to develop it, along with a Wall Street hedge fund and others.

Defenders of development have been known to criticize activists by invoking NIMBYism – “Not In My Backyard.” They insist that warehouse centers need to be built somewhere, after all.  But Hulst points out that political support for the Food Park has grown precisely because “people started to realize the value of the area for the whole city” – in providing food, recreational space, civic pride among commoners, and climate mitigation. It’s not just a location-specific thing.

The land in question is cooler than most locations in the city and so could offset the “heat-island effect” that sometimes makes central Amsterdam a pressure cooker. By producing food locally, too, the Food Park would help all city residents obtain fresh, healthy food. It would also reduce the supply chains and carbon emissions from food transport. Then there is the ecological and economic impact of building an industrial site on a site that is five meters below sea level:  not an ideal place to build infrastructure in one of the first areas of the city to flood.

Politicians and political parties initially ignored the groundswell of support for the Food Park, but more recently they have engaged supporters and offered compromises, such as allocating a smaller portion of the land to the Food Park while still proceeding with the warehouse center.

The more significant point may be that the political establishment doesn’t really want to envision a localized, postgrowth economic scenario for the land. Their lack of enthusiasm for the Food Park idea — a modest initiative for fighting climate change and rethinking agriculture — is a sobering statement in itself.

In a Washington Post piece, MIT history professor Kate Brown, an expert on urban agriculture and food sovereignty, noted how “city leaders have pledged to make Amsterdam energy self-sufficient and zero-waste by 2050, while consuming food from a belt around the urban center.” However, she argues that the idea of “the technophilic Dutch” and “efficient technocracy riding in on a white horse to save overheated, flood-prone cities is a fantasy.” Brown continues:

The Netherlands has a massive nitrogen crisis with emissions far exceeding European Union regulations. In the past four years, Dutch forests have shrunk, and the planting of new trees has decelerated.

The Green Party running Amsterdam makes a lot of florid statements, but the city has no composting program, earns a mediocre score for its tree canopy, and aggressively pursues development. Protesters have battled for the past decade to save the city’s last organic farm, which municipal leaders want to transform into a logistics center. In the Netherlands, it is citizens, not the government, who have initiated most of the successful projects to save forests and green space.

Hulst agrees with this general critique: “What I’ve found [in] talking to a lot of politicians and civil servants, is that they feel totally powerless to do anything different than is happening at the moment. Even though they are in political power, they are so stuck with being in the System.

“This is why commons are so important. This is why we can’t trust the existing system to get us out of the problems they created.  One of the things that really appeals to people is the commons narrative.  We can own the land….”

You can listen to the full podcast episode here.