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Channeling Politics: Shaping shorelines & cities in the Netherlands, 1990-2010


Water-oriented real estate development has emerged as a leading urban investment strategy over the past few decades. But business interests are only part of the story, and the political possibilities created when soil is turned into streams and lakes or when land-based construction is given an aquatic focus are vast. As this study of water politics in Amsterdam shows, bringing water back to the forefront of urban planning today is creating an entirely new spatial terrain of action in the city where ideas of class, nature, sexuality, and security collide in tenacious, sometimes troubling, and often inspiring ways.

This study of changing land-water relationships in and around Amsterdam between 1990 and 2010 accomplishes two objectives. First, at the empirical level, I tease out the many significant and surprising ways that water-oriented urban development has become a hotbed of political maneuvering. Shoreline debates cut through some of the most contentious issues of the day, from welfare restructuring and anti-gay violence to monument preservation and global warming. I explain that, while these shifts are partially emerging through professionalized planning sectors as expected, they owe much to the elusive and quotidian interaction of residents, activists, and passers by with houses, vistas, parties, relics, cameras, and neighbors that, by happenstance or design, have recently begun circulating through the watery spaces of town. And I show that long-overlooked institutional and cultural dependencies stemming from bureaucratic specializations and urban lore significantly shape the opportunity structures surrounding water, a phenomenon that helps explain the high degree of informal water-oriented investment taking hold in Amsterdam as elsewhere.

Second, from a theoretical perspective, this empirical study of water politics in Amsterdam shows that these re-appropriations of water in urban life are radically altering some of the most fundamental expectations about the essence, meaning, and import of cities, both as a lived reality and as an epistemic category. Long-standing assumptions about the places of freedom in the city, the embodied casings of urban history, and the relationship between town and country no longer hold. The empirically rich chapters in this book explore these three issues in turn and, in so doing, explain how, why, and to what political ends watery spaces in the city once thought dangerous, degrading, and irrelevant have come to appear habitable, luxurious, and profitable, or vice versa.

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