The Amsterdam canals are world famous. Not only because of their beauty, but also on account of their interesting history and size. After the placement of a dam in the river Amstel (the name Amsterdam was derived from this, ‘Amstelodamus’, dam in the river Amstel), canals were dug to defend the city. Among these were the Geldersekade and the Singel. As the city grew, these canals were preserved, although their function changed from defense canal to waterway. Many of the original canals have been drained in past centuries, but there have also been additions to the canals in the 19th and 20th centuries. These newer canals play a large role in water management.
Canals: from practical use to Unesco World Heritage
It may have started as a defensive project of a small town, but the almond-shaped canal system kept growing over time to take on the current massive proportions. The main (and most frequented cruised) canals are:
- Herengracht (and New Herengracht)
- Prinsengracht (and New Prinsengracht)
- Keizersgracht (and New Keizersgracht)
With the smaller canals included, the Amsterdam canals cover approximately 14 kilometers in length. There are no less than 1280 bridges over the canals; the size of the Canal system is impressive. The reason for the successive enlargements of the canal system was the explosive increase in population of the capital. In the first half of the 17th century, Amsterdam’s population more than doubled.
In the second half of that century, the city port was expanded with warehouses and wharves, which further stimulated growth. The rich merchants needed accessible warehouses and mansions, which were built in a grand style along the canals. This setup, has to this day determined the view of the Amsterdam canals with the trees and bridges which is so popular among tourists. The facades of the canal houses are recognizable in countless souvenirs. The uniqueness, historical importance and the sheer size have led to the inclusion of the Amsterdam canal system in the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Clean water in the canals of Amsterdam
From the late Middle Ages until the 17th century, the canals have also been (ab)used as an open sewer. Apart from the fact that there was little or no flow, the water was dangerously polluted. This led to the installment of a garbage collection service (with boats) as early as the 17th century. At least part of the problem was solved. Nowadays the canals still have to be cleaned and fresh water from the Ijsselmeer is led into the city. The cleanliness of the canals is under constant scrutiny; any negative impact on the environment has to be avoided. Even the tour boats that run through the canals nowadays are largely environmentally friendly (“green”).