The “dulling” of Amsterdam: a branding & anthropological perspective


When I was first approached to have a contribution on the topic of “the dulling” of Amsterdam, I started thinking about how I can contribute to it from the perspective of my formation: branding and anthropology.

In the Merriam Webster dictionary place dulling is defined as “not exciting or interesting”, “not having a sharp point”. From what perspective can we look at a place like that and what are the mechanisms involved in this perception?  This paper will address this from the point of view of the residents of a place, in the context of the transformation of their space to accommodate tourism. So the structure will cover the following:  Place Identity and the role of residents. Amsterdam and Tourism. Tourism and the Nieuwmarkt. Conclusion and implications on “dulling”.

But before approaching  the dulling of a place as a result of tourism as perceived by its residents I would like to talk about what makes the place what it is (its identity) to its residents and what are its drivers of change. This is connected to the topic of dulling because as a place changes its identity can be perceived – at a certain moment in time – by its residents, duller than it was at a previous moment.

Place identity – an open system of interaction between elements, people and processes

Place identity/image has been addressed in various ways across disciplines.  The political geographer John Agnew (2011) outlines 3 fundamental aspects of a place: 1. Location (the fixed coordinates of a place in space). 2. Locale (meaning the material setting for social relations – the actual shape of place within which people conduct their lives as individuals) 3. Sense of place. (the subjective and emotional attachment individuals have to place). In marketing there is a similar view seeing place as not only a geographical location with physical attributes but also with settings for social relations, experiences and personal interpretations.

The materiality as one part of the place is manifested through built environment, topography and administrative boundaries and sense of place as another is what creates identification and attachment between the individual and the place. Materiality and sense of place are mutually supporting and both contribute to place identity (Warnaby and Medway 2013). Thus places are complex open systems of interactions between elements, people and processes (Kavaratzis and Hatch 2013, Warnaby and Medway’s 2013). This view on places illustrates identity as emergent fluid and changeable (Kavaratzis and Hatch 2013) dependable of the interactions between the three.

Let’s look at these interactions from the perspective of people. Residents are only a part of the total number of people of a place. People cover anyone that can claim influence on either the elements or processes of the place – like residents, investors, businesses, visitors.  Place leaves impressions on its people but it also mirrors back their impressions and expectations (Kavaratzis and Hatch 2013). This means that the identity of the place to a specific group of people – like the residents – is connected to the level of influence that they have at a certain moment in time over the materiality and the social fabric of the place versus the other groups of people. When the balance changes, the place changes and their image of the place changes with it.

Let’s take tourism as an example. In touristic areas, places start changing to accommodate the (commercial) expectations of the visitors and businesses. This change, if done out of balance, can lead to a higher perception of “dulling” on behalf of the local residents as the place (through both the topography and the social life) reflects more the commercial touristic interests that the interests of the residents. Even done in balance the place nevertheless transforms to include the interests of the tourists and this can be seen as “dulling” if compared to a previous non-touristic place identity.  So my point here is that “dulling” can be a perceived effect of a place identity change/transformation and tourism can be a driver of that transformation. The intensity of the perceived “dulling” has to do with how much the change is driven in a balanced way by residents and tourism.  I want to talk a bit more on how is this relevant to Amsterdam.

Amsterdam and tourism

In recent years one of the strongest challenges in Amsterdam has been how to manage the impact of the   number of tourists on the local residents. In a city of app. 800.000 inhabitants, more than 6.000.000 tourists were estimated to visit in 2013. As the municipality and the business environment try to accommodate them, the residents complain of economic transformations (like new hotels and horeca) of their neighbourhoods that slowly reduce its residential/local function. There is a strong pressure from the residents as well as the media, on the city council and especially on its marketing department (Amsterdam Marketing) to find ways to relieve the tourism pressure on the city, and especially the city center.

Tourism and the Nieuwmarkt

The Nieuwmarkt is a special neighborhood in the center of Amsterdam. First, Nieuwmarkt looks and feels like a “small village” in a highly trafficked touristic central area. Second, it is an icon for the residents’ ability to oppose capitalistic processes – in the 70s, when the city officials, decided to dismantle the neighbourhood and transform it into office spaces and a highway, the residents rioted and managed to alter the plans and keep their neighborhood residential. For these two reasons, I chose it as my fieldwork and hoped to find here the answer to the question: “How the highly involved groups of local inhabitants relate to tourism as a case of change in their neighborhood?”   Many residents I have talked to expressed that the number of tourists is too much for them to handle but they have found ways to fight back. Many of them refer to these actions as “the second fight for the Nieuwmarkt”. Only this time it is not a fight against the municipality but against the tourism industry and local businesses as its economic enablers. In order to answer my research question, I chronicle their actions. I show that although they are disconnected from the wider tourism generating activities they influence the businesses that emerge as a result of those activities and subsequently maintain a local balance in their neighborhood.

I formally interviewed between 50-60 people I also had 10 informal short interviews with tourists around the Nieuwmarkt. To answer my central question: “How the highly involved groups of local inhabitants relate to tourism as a case of change in their neighborhood”, I will argue by joining the current debates surrounding participative marketing, against the empiricist marketing tradition that considers residents consumers with no agency of the product that is the city developed by the city branding/marketing policies. I aim to show that residents do have agency and as a constitutive part of the city develop actions from below. I will do this by using the social world’s arena framework developed by Clarke and Star 2008 as a tool to understand construction of meaning and power dynamics on a social level.

In classic marketing tradition (Simon Anholt Moilanen & Rainisto 2009) residents are seen by local governments as “consumers” of the place they live in, next to businesses and visitors.  The role of residents only as consumers has been challenged both in literature on urban governance (Zenker and Seigis 2012) as well as in place branding, in particular the emergent literature on residents as central participants (Karavatzis 2012, Braun, Katavatzis and Zenker 2013). Residents suffer the effects (like excessive tourism) of place branding initiatives so they should be engaged throughout the process and they should have a higher influencing power that the other groups in articulating and implementing the marketing activities of the place (Karavatzis and Hatch 2013).

Including the residents in the participation process means treating them like citizens with rights to contribute to the marketing activities (Braun, Karavatzis, and Zenker 2013). In a democratic system residents chose their local officials, they have political power and participate in political decision making. This is both an obligation and a right (meaning that authorities need to create the structure for the residents to exercise their right to participate in decision making).

Hitting “the sweet spot” of what is the best participation strategy has proven difficult as places are very complex structures but the key to this dynamic as per Braun, Karavatzis and Zenker (2013) is in the relationship (and specifically how mutually influential it is) that place authority develops with the residents “Arguably, the significance attributed here to residents – and specifically the suggestion to consult them and listen to them at all stages of the branding process – challenges place authorities. It is a very demanding exercise in terms of political will and risk-taking because place authorities may find themselves outside of what Ind and Bjerke (2007) call the “zone of comfort”. Zenker and Erfgen (2014) echo this opinion, stating than when the participatory approach is entering place authorities, some of the power of decision making must be given up and this generates uncomfortable situations, this being one of the reason why participatory measures sometimes fail in implementation.

 Various school of thought in sociology and anthropology argue against the perception that power is located within the state mechanism and people (in this case residents) have no agency to resist the top down decisions (in this case city marketing activities or their effects – like tourism). The social worlds framework is a theoretical and methodological extension of symbolic interactionism developed by Anselm Strauss (1991) and Howard Becker (1986).  According to Clarke and Star (2008 p.115) social worlds are “groups with shared commitments to certain activities, sharing resources of many kinds to achieve their goals and building shared ideologies about how to go about their business”. At the core of the framework of the social worlds are the interactions between the various social worlds that constitute the identification of the social worlds themselves. In the interaction between the social worlds we can observe power and agency being is exerted.

In my research, focusing on the dynamic between the social worlds / groups of residents, businesses and municipality, I tried to show that residents in the Nieuwmarkt do have agency, and as a constitutive part of the city develop actions from below, influencing economic processes triggered by increase in tourism and aiming to change the structure of their neighborhood. They deal with tourism in different ways but the basis for all actions is the participative model of collaboration between the municipality and the residents, as by exercising their agency, they act and are treated as citizens of the neighborhood.

There are some people that use a more “subtle” approach when it comes to dealing with the municipality and the business environment. They use the relationship they have with the municipality as well as the wide network of information gathering that they have set in place (e.g. neighborhood walk, traffic group) to influence policy and business development. The key to their success is that they manage to not openly challenge the legitimacy of either business or municipality but actually collaborate on an equal power position.  Others adopt a more “combative” approach – through protests, petitions – and “everyday resistance” (e.g. discretization of newly open businesses).

I have seen this in action when Betty Blue – the new bakery on Sint Antoniesbreestraat – applied for a horeca license. It was difficult to like the arrival of a new horeca especially in a neighborhood with already enough places and a street of (mostly) social houses despite its future commercial ambitions. It took numerous back and forth discussions between the owners, the residents and the municipality to release the license. Eventually the license was released with a restricted opening time (addressing the concerns of the residents regarding noise) and a restriction of ownership to only this particular group (addressing the concerns of the residents regarding lack of trust in potential future owners). This was the result of a long process in which the residents of the street came together in online and offline groups, writing petitions, attending meetings, taking pictures, thus making sure that the residential function of their street is maintained. Their commitment to the street is likely to also influence  the long term development of Betty Blue as the new owners learn it’s in their interest to include more the residents in their decision making process.

Although they challenge   the business environment (and sometimes the municipality) their resistance is important as it narrows the policy options available, amplifying – in the cases where their interests converge – the more “subtle” work the others are doing, thus leading to stronger effects (like the hotel ban with the SoHo project). By these actions the residents actively influence the tourism related commercial transformation of the area. They are steering the neighborhood into developments (like the closing of the square traffic, the fish market, the ban on more hotels) that maintain the residential function of the area as well as promote commerce that caters to the needs of inhabitants and actively oppose activities that do not (like the Soho Hotel or the Skylight cafe)

Relevance for the “dulling” topic

So, how is this research relevant for my position on the topic of the “dulling” of Amsterdam? I have started this talk by saying that place identity is formed by the interaction of materials, people and processes. As this interaction changes, the identity changes as well as the perception of the people. Like an omelet that changes taste if you keep the same ingredients but you decide to change the ratio of one to another or if you chose to add new elements. As a result for some groups of people “dulling” can appear as a consequence when comparing a previous reality with a current one. It’s still an omelet but with a different taste or composition.

During my research I have seen how residents are actively engaged in maintaining the status quo of their neighborhood, influencing economic changes made as a result of increase in tourism.  They manage to influence certain processes because of two reasons: they invest a lot of time and energy into understanding the processes and trying to influence and the municipality offers them the platform for participation. This participation strategy is a reflection of the result of the 70’s riots (that in some way was generated by the city looking at residents as consumers and reducing their role as citizens) and the acknowledgment of both municipality and residents that they need to work together with a stronger participation model.

Even in this case the neighborhood is still changing although with a lower speed that its neighbors. There are more horeca than necessary, bars, souvenir shops, Airbnb, gentrification, effects of the reality of living in a highly attractive touristic city center. For the residents that have been here for 30-40 years this is not the same neighborhood.  Nevertheless by actively influencing the decision making process they still have a say to where the neighborhood is going. But this say is representative of the weight they now have in the group of people that live and work in the Nieuwmarkt. It’s still an omelet but the new taste reflects the new ingredients.

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