Amsterdam Is Building New Islands With Affordable, Sustainable Homes

The Dutch capital is expanding housing through a cluster of man-made islands, built with renewable energy and sustainability in mind.


May 31 2019, Updated 3:26 p.m. ET

Like many other bustling cities, Amsterdam is running out of room. The Dutch capital has limited land to build new housing for its roughly 850,000 residents, but it’s solving this problem with a unique strategy: by moving onto the water.

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As CityLab reports, Amsterdam first hatched a plan to build 10 new islands on the IJmeer Lake in 1997, with the ultimate goal of creating 18,000 homes. Now, it’s ready to break ground on Centrumeiland, the seventh island in the cluster, and it’s set to be a model in eco-conscious construction and affordable housing.

The islands are collectively known as IJburg, and the new district has already attracted eager inhabitants, who praise the family-friendly vibes and lakeside views. Residents can travel between islands thanks to a series of bridges, including a main bridge that burrows straight into the mainland. The district is also a 15-minutes tram ride from the Amsterdam’s largest train hub, helping rush hour commuters reach work on time. 

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While the city’s official tourism site claims there are over 10,000 “pioneers” currently living in IJburg, Pacific Standard puts the number at roughly 21,000. The city is hoping to attract 45,000 citizens once the remaining islands are complete, and create 12,000 jobs in the process.

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Next on the docket is Centrumeiland, or “Center Island,” and the city has grand plans for this one. The goal is 1,200 homes, all elevated on low mounds designed to protect the structures from flooding. These homes will ditch natural gas for a district heating system that deploys warmth where it’s needed most through heat pumps. They’ll also have solar panels and rainwater harvesting tanks, and residents will have a wide range of communal roof gardens and green spaces to enjoy.

Oh, and those green spaces? They’re designed with open storm channels that divert rainwater away from waterlogged areas and prevent drain overflow.

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Centrumeiland will also be a largely self-built community. According to CityLab, 70 percent of the homes will be built through a collective construction group known as a Baugrup. This model places development in the hands of residents, who purchase plots of land together and then build their new homes on them. The first wave of plots went on the market back in 2016, with construction slated for this summer. Earlier this July, residents began bidding on a second crop of plots.

The IJburg project has hit some snags. It was originally slated for completion in 2012, but stalled several times due to building delays and environmental concerns. As CityLab explains, the IJmeer Lake is home to many creatures — particularly birds — and critics worried the mass construction would harm their habitat. The actual manner of building the islands was another issue. 

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Each IJburg island was created via the “pancake method,” wherein sand is loaded onto screens secured in the water. Once the sand hardens, another layer (or “pancake”) can be placed on top of it, slowly building the basis for an island. Except when storms hit the lake, the screens sometimes ripped and dripped sand sludge onto the bottom of the lake, disturbing mussel beds and naturally leading to construction delays. 

The city says it learned from those hiccups and refined the process for Centrumeiland, which underwent construction with improved sludge screens. Due to popular public demand, it’ll also feature more greenery than past islands, with low-rise and energy efficient buildings to boot.

There’s still much to be done before Centrumeiland can fulfill its promise of providing affordable, eco-friendly housing to thousands. But its design shows promise, and could inspire other cities to save their remaining land from construction, looking to the sea instead.

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