Amsterdam Canals: Watery World Heritage?

W.C. Fields despised it and said that ‘fish fuck in it’, but the Dutch sure love their water. Or better yet: they honour and respect it. For survival, the Dutch had to be inventive and developed a highly sophisticated manner to live with water. The high population density combined with an economy largely dedicated to transport, navigation and ports, results in a considerable pressure on space and environment that has to be dealt with carefully. Water management is just another way to deal with those problems: making your natural foe into a friend is just the smart thing to do.No wonder then Amsterdam wants the famous ring of three canals – Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht – around its 17th-century old center to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, as the municipality announced last week. The old centre of Amsterdam, with its picturesque bridges and elegant facades, is already a favourite with tourists. Tjeerd Herrema, the Amsterdam alderman for monuments and archaeology now says that the inclusion of the ring of canals, a unique system of marshland islands interlinked by canals and bridges, on the UNESCO list would boost tourism in the Dutch capital even more.The Amsterdam canal system is the result of conscious city planning; In the early 17th century— when immigration was peaking— a comprehensive plan was developed that was based on a girdle of four concentric half-circles of canals with their ends resting on the IJ bay.Sir Winston Churchill and Queen Wilhelmina on The Tourist on the IJ, Amsterdam, May 1946. Since 1982, this 'Grand Old Lady' of the Amsterdam Canals is sailing again. Every day she makes her rounds from the dock of the Pulitzer Hotel.These canals are so engrained in the general consciousness and so obviously ‘beautiful’, that hardly anybody stops to wonder about the thinking behind their powerful visual impact. There is nothing to suggest that they form part of an original broadly-conceived city plan. And yet… as Boudewijn Bakker of the Amsterdam City Archives wrote in his article ‘A New Atlantis. The Geometric Ideal and Amsterdam’s Ring of Canals’ in the yearbook The Low Countries: ‘Could something of Plato’s description of the ideal city have filtered through, directly or indirectly, to the ambitious governors and craftsmen of Amsterdam?’Already this year UNESCO has proclaimed Amsterdam ‘World Book Capital’, from 23 April 2008 until 22 April 2009. Now the World Heritage committee will have to decide in 2010 whether the ‘Grachtengordel’, as the ring of canals is known in the Netherlands, will be added to the World Heritage List, which at this date includes 878 properties forming part of the cultural and natural heritage ‘which the Committee considers as having outstanding universal value’.

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