It was a rainy evening in April when Marlies Pinksterboer, an Amsterdam-based jewelry designer, was startled by a loud, roaring sound. “It’s like part of a building collapsed,” she said. “It was crazy.”
It was too dark to see what had happened, but when he opened the curtains in the morning, he saw that the street on the other side of the canal was fenced off. A large sink had appeared and an antique lamppost had fallen next to it. A shopping cart glistened in the hole, swallowed by the yawning pit.
If it had happened during the day, she said, “someone could easily have fallen.”
Then Mrs. Pinksterboer began to worry about the 17th-century canal house she lived in. “Will it collapse one day?” She wondered half-seriously as she stood on one of the ancient brick and mortar walls lining the canals in her Groenburgwal district, one of Amsterdam’s oldest districts.
The danger is certainly not exaggerated. Amsterdam, with its picturesque canals lined with picturesque 17th and 18th century buildings, a major European tourist destination, is slowly crumbling.
Holes appear in its small streets and almost half of its 1,700 bridges are unstable and in need of repair, with trams often having to cross with snails. With a huge project to strengthen the walls of the canal, the city began to look like a giant construction site.
The main problem is the condition of the walls: About 125 miles of them are so dilapidated that they are in danger of collapsing into the canals, potentially taking buildings and people with them.
Last year, a canal wall near the University of Amsterdam collapsed without warning, leaving sewer pipes hanging and disoriented fish popping out of the water. Fortunately, no one was going right then, but one of the cruise boats that were constantly moving along the canals had just passed.
Like much of the Netherlands, Amsterdam is below sea level. Built on a swamp and greatly expanded in the 17th century, the city is on top of millions of wooden piles that serve as foundations. The Royal Palace on the dam, for example, rests on 13,659 of them. Virtually everything in central Amsterdam is backed by these piles.
Perhaps surprisingly, the peels are still in relatively good shape, but are designed for different ages.
“At the time, they were built to carry the weight of horses and carriages, not 40-ton cement trucks and other heavy equipment,” said Egbert de Vries, the foreman in charge of the promising huge restoration project. As modern life changed the city, many houses were fortified with cement and concrete, but the foundations of the streets and canal walls were ignored.
Many of the wooden piles have shifted, cracked or collapsed under pressure, causing the bridges and side walls of the canal to sag and crack. Then the water seeps in, cleans the mortar, further digs the infrastructure and creates sinkholes.
Add to that all the traffic that happily travels through the 17th-century canal rings, where centuries earlier Rembrandt walked to his studio and Spinoza discussed religion. The SUVs park right at the edges of the canals, while garbage trucks have displaced the boats they used to collect the waste. Before the pandemic, a flotilla of tourist boats crossed the canals, making sharp turns that created turbulence on the propeller, further corroding the foundations.
Something had to be done soon. “If we were to continue like this, we would be heading straight for a catastrophe,” Mr De Vries said.
The reconstruction will take at least 20 years and will cost 2 billion euros, about 2.5 billion dollars, and maybe even more, experts estimate. “These are big numbers and the work has to be done in a very lively, densely populated area,” Mr De Vries said. “People live here and work here, and we usually have a lot of tourists.”
In the city center, in Grachtengordel, 15 bridges are currently being repaired. Some are closed, such as Bullebak, an iconic bridge and a critical part of the city’s infrastructure.
Engineers are trying to prevent the walls of the canal to which the bridge is connected from collapsing, while unraveling a network of electrical and Internet cables, telephone lines and other services that use the bridge.
“It’s a very complex intervention,” said Dave Kaandorp, a builder working on the renovation. He did see one from above, as the canals were suddenly used for what they were intended for. “Now we carry a lot of building materials over the water.”
Yet many see mostly the disadvantage of the whole thing. Historic trees have been cut down along several of the city’s most beautiful canals to ease the pressure on the canal’s walls. Steel piles retain walls that are thought to be in danger of imminent collapse. Divers and technicians with remote-controlled underwater cameras are looking for the worst cracks.
“One would hope that the municipality would have dealt with this sooner,” said Kadir van Lohuisen, a well-known Dutch photographer who focuses on climate change. He lives on one of the 2,500 vessels in Amsterdam. “Instead, they spent all their money on the new subway line.” The North-South line, about seven miles long, costs more than 3 billion euros and takes 15 years.
Recently, Mr. Van Louhaisen and the 24 boat owners on the Waalseilandsgracht were informed that they would have to move temporarily from where they had landed for decades in order to repair the canal walls.
“Some vessels will be temporarily placed right in the middle of the canal. For others, it is likely that their boats will no longer fit once the wall support systems have been installed, ”he said. “It’s a giant mess. They are currently building two kilometers a year and 200 kilometers need to be repaired. This may take a century. “
Alderman, Mr De Vries, acknowledged that Amsterdam would look different from his usual postcards in the coming years. Still, he insisted that tourists should not be discouraged from visiting. “We invite everyone to come and see what we are doing,” he said. “We want visitors to realize that such a magnificent city needs support.”
Mrs. Pinksterboer, a jewelry designer, stood by the closed bridge to the abyss. Small red slabs are connected to the base of the bridge and to the walls of the canal. “They use them to measure with lasers if the sag increases,” she said. “It’s a warning system.”
She erupted in singing a popular Dutch children’s song:
Amsterdam, a big city
It is built on piles
If the city would collapse
Who would pay for that?
“I guess we are,” Ms. Pinksterboer said.