On becoming an Amsterdam-mer

With its beautiful canals, picturesque bridges and iconic 17th-century houses, not many would dispute that Amsterdam is a breath-taking city. That is one of the reasons why tourists, while strolling over the narrow streets, contemplate one day residing in the Venice of the North. In the last few years, the city’s population has been on the rise (also probably due to great photos tagged on Instagram). In 2023 alone, the city’s demographic growth increased more than it had in the last 77 years. The new residents are primarily expats and international students. The new influx of inhabitants who do not speak Dutch or know the history of the city can cause social problems, with newcomers feeling isolated and locals fearing their city is becoming overrun by temporary residents who have no connection with the city.

Always foreigners
The concern about foreigners not integrating into the local culture is nothing new. Already in the late 16th and early 17th century, Amsterdam was primarily a city of foreigners. Between 1578 and 1622, it grew from a small town of 30,000 dwellers into a city of 105,000 residents. By the end of the 17thcentury, it had more than 200,000 inhabitants and, after Paris and London, was the third-largest city in Europe. Today, with little more than a million residents (1.181,000) it is a modest-sized city. The difference between the 17th century and today is that there was no lingua franca like English, and temporary foreigners working in the country had to learn Dutch and integrate into the local culture. International students in the 17th century, on the other hand, did have an international language – Latin – and could study anywhere throughout Europe. Today, expats and international students live in a bubble, which social media does not help.

To solve the isolation, last month Amsterdam’s municipal council member Lian Heinhuis of the Labour Party (PvdA) proposed ‘becoming a citizen of Amsterdam course’ for newcomers.  It is an integration course in becoming an Amsterdammer. The plan will require expats and international students to learn basic Dutch, the history of Amsterdam, a visit to the city’s Vrijwilliger’s Centraal (city volunteer center), as well meet-up evenings with locals who have lived in the city for longer. The most important difference between the national integration course that immigrants to the Netherlands are required to enroll in is that the initiative would be financed by the business community instead of the municipality. The Labour Party initiative argues that businesses that lure expats to Amsterdam should also take more responsibility in their social role in the city. Heinhuis points out that ‘companies earn from the city, but they should also require their international employees to engage more with the city’. This is why she believes that companies should be responsible to facilitate expats as much as possible into Amsterdam society. By learning Dutch, having a basic knowledge the city’s history, attending neighbourhood initiatives and volunteering, expats will better understand the new city they are living in and integrate more. After all, these are all wonderful ways to experience the city.

Amsterdam’s rich history
The Labour Party’s initiative helps not only expats become integrated into the city, but also is a gesture towards Amsterdam locals who are starting to feel like their city is becoming overrun with expats. According to Heinhuis, the current national integration policy is unfair, as only permanent immigrants are only required to integrate (meaning that they learn Dutch and basic information about the Netherlands), while expats and internation students are exempt. The proposal of ‘becoming an Amsterdammer’ is ideal for this group, who are left out and stuck in their own little world.  As the Dutch writer Geert Mak has argued, most locals in Amsterdam are not from the city originally and the beauty about the city is that everybody can become an Amsterdammer. If foreigners learn some basic Dutch and become more aware of the city’s rich history, most of them will love it even more.

Written by Benjamin B. Roberts