Just two years ago, De Ceuvel was a polluted shipyard in North Amsterdam. Then, a group of alternative city-makers took over and turned this brownfield into a creative and sustainable working landscape. Our friends from Pop-Up City took a closer look at this urban project.

Hidden behind small car-repair shops and shifty barns in North Amsterdam, it’s not particularly easy to find this new hotspot. Not only does the journey include a ferry ride to the other side of the river IJ, but you’ll likely have some trouble finding the tiny street that gives access to De Ceuvel.

Despite being hardly visible, De Ceuvel is hot: It breathes this relaxed urban beach vibe and is a work in progress that young creative urbanites have taken a liking to. But De Ceuvel is more than campfires, craft beers, and funky tunes — it’s one of the most prominent showcases of bottom-up city-making and urban development. Shaped by a hands-on approach, the space and the projects that have been springing up there are a reflection of the creative entrepreneurs who have built this green and peaceful oasis from scratch.

De Ceuvel Amsterdam smart magazine
De Ceuvel – Amsterdam’s latest hotspot

Second-hand houseboats

Along with his office Space & Matter, Sascha Glasl is part of a multidisciplinary group of architects, landscape architects, builders, and sustainability experts who will clean up the polluted soil over the next ten years while repurposing the area as a unique office space. “In order to do so, we will be experimenting with low-tech methods to redevelop De Ceuvel in a sustainable way,” Glasl says.

At the center of this redevelopment are sixteen second-hand houseboats that have been put on land and now accommodate small creative enterprises. An elevated wooden footpath connects the boats and provides a walking route through a green working landscape. Under the boats and paths, special vegetation will extract pollutants directly from the soil, leaving the area of this innovative project cleaner after ten years.

Idea competition

During the 20th century, many shipyards were built on the north banks of the river IJ. Although it was a driver for the local economy for half a century, the shipping industry collapsed in the 1980s, resulting in many yards that were left abandoned and forgotten. Since the early 2000s, some of the huge shipyards, with names like NDSM and ADM, have slowly been transformed into new working areas.

Yet the smaller shipyard De Ceuvel Volharding was never touched until the end of 2012, and it was at this point that the City of Amsterdam launched a competition for its temporary redevelopment. Creative entrepreneurs were asked to come up with a plan to repurpose this location for a period of ten years. “A tough competition,” Glasl recounts. “The winner of the competition got the right to use the heavily polluted 4,600-square-meter plot for a period of ten years. But we didn’t receive any money and there were no buildings, so our plan had to be flexible, cheap, and off the grid as we didn’t want to touch the soil.”

The creative concept proposed by Glasl, together with Smeele Architecture and Delva Landscape Architects, used recycling as a central theme and included the idea to bring in vegetation as a way to remove pollution, convert the houseboats into studios, and experiment with low-tech systems.

From houseboat to office boat

“I knew that houseboat owners are stuck with their old houseboats when they buy a new one and since there’s no place to store them, many end up at junkyards. We came up with the idea to use them as basic structures to build upon and we could get them very cheaply,” says Glasl. All of the boats were retrofitted at the nearby NDSM wharf and equipped with low-tech additions to make them work off the grid. Solar panels on the roofs provide 50 percent of the required power, an air-to-air heat pump extracts heat from the surroundings to heat up each boat, and dry composting toilets were installed to decrease water usage.

These circular principles are fundamental to the redevelopment of De Ceuvel. “We try to reuse every bit of waste we can think of and use this plot as a testing ground for sustainable urbanism.” Wastewater is naturally filtered in tanks next to the boats and used to irrigate the soil; it is also tested by the local water board and confirmed to be clean. Metabolic, the studio responsible for all of the sustainable experiments, even wants to reuse the human excrement from the office boats and the bar to fertilize the soil and ultimately grow vegetables in their own greenhouse office boat.

City-making with circular principles

When starting this urban project, Glasl didn’t expect De Ceuvel to be such a success. “The project has had an enormous impact, not only in the press and media, but also on the area itself.” Even the bar, created by Studio Valkenier out of reused bollards, has become a main attraction for Amsterdam’s hipster scene.

Nevertheless, the surrounding area also embraces the urban development. In fact, the De Ceuvel approach has become an example for the transformation of the entire area, with local entrepreneurs and the City of Amsterdam having signed a manifesto declaring that circular principles will be the keystone for redevelopment in this former industrial zone.

De Ceuvel Amsterdam old brownfield
De Ceuvel Amsterdam old brownfield
De Ceuvel Amsterdam old brownfield urban gardening
De Ceuvel Amsterdam old brownfield
De Ceuvel Amsterdam old brownfield
De Ceuvel Amsterdam old brownfield

The next steps

“De Ceuvel is an ongoing development,” explains Glasl. “The next steps are to improve the garden and the facades of the office boats. For the long term, our plan would be to stay at this location, but if that’s impossible we are flexible enough to pick up our stuff and go elsewhere.” And not only Glasl would like the idea that, after one decade and even in the currently rapidly rebuilt area around De Ceuvel, some sense of tradition will be kept alive. Even if this particular tradition started just one year ago.

De Ceuvel Amsterdam smart magazine
“De Ceuvel is an ongoing development.”

For more information on De Ceuvel, check out the website.

All images, incl. the header image: Adam Nowek