Unesco heritage canals of Amsterdam

For centuries, Amsterdam’s canals have been renowned worldwide as a unique example of urban expansion. In July 2006, the council announced that it was applying for UNESCO world heritage status for them. On 1 August 2010, their important status was recognised at the thirty-fourth session of the world heritage committee, which added them to the list.

Photo: Alex Lakas

First criterion

The committee said: ‘It is an outstanding example of hydraulics and urban planning, and a well thought-out combination of construction and city architecture.” It described the canals as having “exceptional universal value”, and said that the canalside houses were emblematic of Amsterdam’s overseas trade and the tolerant, humanistic culture for which it is known. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was seen as the embodiment of the ideal city, and this successful urban planning project was emulated by many other metropolises across the world.
The canal district was required to meet one of ten listing criteria laid down by UNESCO. It actually met three. The first relates to its design, drawn up in the late sixteenth century and built in the seventeenth, making Amsterdam into a uniquely large and homogeneous whole. It was the first urban planning project to be implemented on such a scale and is described by UNESCO as a masterpiece of human creativity. The design incorporated areas for living, working, and getting from one place to another, combining functionality and beauty of a very high standard.

Second and third criteria

UNESCO’s second criterion relates to the nexus of technological, planning, maritime, architectural, and cultural influences of which the district formed a part for two centuries. In the seventeenth century, Amsterdam was the world capital of trade and intellectual exchange, and laid the basis for the spread of humanism.

The third criterion related to the specific architecture of Amsterdam and its canals. Its canalside houses and their great variety of facades bear witness to a very important period in the history of the modern world. It is the biggest and most prominent example of a Dutch canal city in which water traffic shapes its entire design.

UNESCO has divided the canal district into a core zone, marked in red on the map, and a buffer, shown in grey and serving to protect the core. The boundary of the buffer zone is the same as that of the national protected urban landscape area introduced in 1999, so the acquisition of world heritage status in 2010 was a continuation of the existing inner-city heritage policy.

Gemeente Amsterdam, photo: Cor Harteloh