Waterfront Housing in Amsterdam, Eastern Harbour


The Eastern Harbour includes three narrow island wharves: KSNM Island, once the home of the Royal Dutch Steamship Company; Java Island, a former industrial area; Borneo, the third island, a former railway shunting area.  They have been redeveloped to provide some of the most interesting waterfront housing in Europe.

Planning and Process

Each of these islands is planned as a neighbourhood area with an urban design strategy, organised to provide a sense of local identity. Density is 100 dwellings/hectare.

KSNM Island accommodates some 1250 dwellings - the plan is a result of collaboration between Amsterdam City Council planners and Jo Coenen.  Java Island is now a mixed-use neighbourhood of some 1350 dwellings with 500m2 of commercial space.  Borneo is a low-rise, high-density neighbourhood of some 2150 dwellings.

 Amsterdam East Harbour
Amsterdam East Harbour
 Amsterdam East HarbourImages
© Urbed 

The importance of the masterplan to shape development has been of vital importance.  Integrated teams of landscape designers, architects, planners and engineers established the development ethos. That spirit is exemplified in the form of urban housing in which the Dutch excel. The concern for privacy so prevalent in Britain is transformed into a positive approach to neighbourliness, safety, communality and self-responsibility.  Instead of traffic orientated development there is a pedestrian friendly environment.


The close working partnership between public authorities and the private sector has enabled some 8000 houses and apartments to be built in the last ten years. The public sector, often the landowner, is able to set out the design and financial terms for development – allowing the private sector to bring finance and development expertise to the table.  On Java the partnership between city planners and the private sector consultants – in this case West 8 and Rudy Uytenhaak - has shown that a shared vision can create a high quality environment.

Partnership has been between the role of the local authority as land assembler, and that of the private sector as developer. An ‘open-book’ system operates that allows the City Council to monitor the financial performance of development as it is designed and developed.  There is an important lesson to be leaned in the idea of opening up the market to individuals rather than just developers.  


On KSNM Island development takes the form of apartment blocks along the quayside with traffic running through central parkland in the middle of the island between the housing.  On Java Island the design approach has been different from KSM. Apartment blocks up to nine storeys form a wall around the island. Traffic has been kept to the quayside to provide central pedestrian friendly courtyards.

On Borneo in only designated locations have blocks of flats been built, to provide focal points. Elsewhere design guidance has limited the development to three storeys – houses, flats or maisonettes. Each unit has its own front door onto the street and its own garden of patio. Parking is both on-street and in sub basements. This creates interesting opportunities for courtyard patios on the roofs of the parking garages. Different architects, including Erick van Egeraat and Steven Holl, developed different blocks, though there is a consistency of materials and designs that is the result of careful urban design guidance.

Part of Borneo Island was the subject of a competition for development for private individuals. Plots were a standard 16 metres deep and between 4.2 – 6 metres wide. Urban design guidelines challenged the individuality of plot owners and their designers, and a creative enthusiasm emerged that has given the area an important status in the history of self-build or self-managed housing. The height of dwellings was limited to 9.5 metres. The ground floor height was consistently at 3.5 metres. Houses had to be built directly onto the dock edge.

Urban Design Guidelines have provided strong guidance on materials, height, massing and landmarks.  They are sometimes prescriptive, but flexible enough to create a canvas for imaginative and innovative responses to a very simple and well understood urban form – the terraced house.


Jon Rowland/URBED/Brian Human (Vice Chair HTF)
1st June 2010