Living on water

Amsterdam is built on poles, but a part of us lives on water – literally. The houseboat is a striking part of the inner city of Amsterdam, and it enriches the picturesque image of the canals. Within the area of the Singel, there are around 750 houseboats on the water. Roughly speaking, there are two sorts of houseboats: the house-ship, and the ark. The house-ship is an old barge of which the old cargo space has been transformed into a living space. An ark is a boat that was built to be lived in; a house on water.

Early history

Already in the seventeenth century, people lived on the water of the canals of Amsterdam. The people living on houseboats in these times were usually foreign traders, illegally selling their goods to people on the streets from their boats. The relationship between the municipality and these traders was bad; according to officials, traders would cause nuisance, and they would be unfair competition to the other traders in town. So, the local municipality would rather see these houseboat residents leave. Despite this bad relationship, houseboats remained a part of the Amsterdam landscape for the centuries to come. In this drawing from 1840, we see a group of people hanging out around a houseboat on shore. The scene takes place behind the Tolhuis, on the terrain of a former fishing harbor. Houses like these were commonly referred to as ‘dog’s houses’.

Houseboats, or also called ‘dog houses’, on the site of the former fishing port behind the Tolhuis. P.L. Dubourcq, 1840. Source: Amsterdam City Archives.


Houseboat on the Grasweg, 1932. Source: Amsterdam City Archives

Interior houseboat on the Grasweg, 1932. Source: Amsterdam City Archives

Twentieth century

At the end of the nineteenth century, wooden sailing ships were replaced by steel boats. The old wooden sailing ships were bought and transformed into living spaces; house-ships. In times of housing crises, especially around the outskirts of town like in Amsterdam-Noord, slums on water emerged. Houseboats gained popularity during the course of the twentieth century. Especially after the First and Second World War, the amount of people living on the water rose quickly. The main reason for this was a severe housing shortage. In these times, the boats were sometimes occupied by more than one family. However, not only those in desperate need of housing found themselves turning to boats. The rich were also attracted to life on water; the houseboats were an opportunity to be able to shuttle between city and nature. These fancier houseboats were usually located in the Amstel river. In 1918, a law was installed requiring all residents of houseboats and trailers to get a permit for their places of residence, all children were required to go to school, and alcohol consumption had to be limited. The boats themselves also had to meet certain standards.

One of the oldest inhabited houseboats lay at Amstelveld up until 2022; de Dogger. This boat, depicted in this painting from 1935 by Meijer Bleekroode, was a so-called ‘waterhaler’ or ‘watersupplier’ for the Amstel brewery. In 1888, water pipes were installed in the city eliminating the need for a watersupplier. In the same year, fuel supplier Dogger bought the boat, and renovated it to a place to sell coal and wood. He also started living there. The boat has been continuously inhabited until 2022.

Modern houseboats

Today, living on a houseboat is no longer a cheap choice of residence. The local municipality has frozen the amount of docking places, driving up the prices. However, living on water does not have to mean living on a boat. Europe’s most sustainable floating neighborhood is located In the Johan van Hasseltkanaal, in Amsterdam-Noord. The complete houses float on thirty arks. The neighborhood is made as energy-neutral and green as possible – on water!

The Schoonschip district in Amsterdam-Noord. Municipality of Amsterdam
The Schoonschip district in Amsterdam-Noord. Source: Gemeente Amsterdam