Cycling on Haarlemmerplein, Amsterdam

Every day, many people pass Haarlemmerplein in Amsterdam. Most are on their bicycle nowadays. The square was redesigned fairly recently, but you would never guess that this is a square that was originally designed as a parking lot! In the late 16th century this place was designed as a storing space for horse-drawn carriages. After it was built in the early 17th century, it was used – as the name of the square suggests – by people coming from and going to Haarlem.

All types of people use Haarlemmerplein today.
All types of people use Haarlemmerplein today.

In the latest redesign (2013) Haarlemmerplein became a people’s place, more than it had ever been since the car arrived. But the plan for this reconstruction met with criticism when it was made public late 2012. The Vereniging Vrienden van de Amsterdamse Binnenstad (Society of Friends to the Amsterdam City Centre) thought that “the plans do not meet the aesthetic criteria one could demand for a reconstruction of a square in a historic city centre. These plans fail in pretences without a real ambition.”

The 2012 reconstruction plan. In red we can see cycle ways. Central at the top: the city gate. In a straight line to the bottom, it is connecting to Haarlemmerdijk. The big road in front of that gate, connecting to Haarlemmerhout tuinen at the bottom right, with a curve, is still taking up a lot of the available space. Cars are given a lot of space, even today in Amsterdam.

The society was particularly annoyed about a planned body of water at the location of the former sea dike that used to protect Amsterdam. Water at the location of a dike felt like a historic error. The society would much rather have seen an open square with cobble stones. Also, the sight lines from Haarlemmerdijk to the gate were not emphasised. Instead, a red asphalt strip (of the cycleway) would traverse the square passing the water on the outside with a bend. Despite these comments, the plans seem to have been executed as planned, but the “body of water” was taken out of the design. What remains is a row of fountains  that spit out water that says on a paved area. On sunny days children play in the fountains. It would perhaps have been nicer if the cycleway had been projected straight from Haarlemmerdijk in the direction of the gate, but you need to cross the main road elsewhere, so from a traffic perspective that cycleway makes more sense as it is built now.

Haarlemmerplein circa 1900. Picture Stadsarchief Amsterdam.

The new square draws tourists. Also ones that come for the cycling especially. So many tourists discovered the square, that some residents fear their neighbourhood will change too much with the interests of these tourists in mind. They started a petition to fight plans for bars and restaurants in the former city gate.

Haarlemmerplein in 1928.

It is no wonder tourists would visit Haarlemmerplein. It is a square at the edge of the Amsterdam Canal District. The seventeenth-century canals of Amsterdam, the successful outcome of city planning, were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in August 2010.


Haarlemmerplein early 1960s. Picture Stadsarchief Amsterdam.

“The Amsterdam Canal District is the design at the end of the 16th century and the construction in the 17th century of a new and entirely artificial ‘port city.’ It is a masterpiece of hydraulic engineering, town planning, and a rational programme of construction and bourgeois architecture. It is a unique and innovative, large-scale but homogeneous urban ensemble.”

Haarlemmerplein in 2016.

Haarlemmerplein was the place where – as the name suggests – carriages for and from Haarlem would gather and be parked. People arriving to the city at this location would travel further into the city on foot through Haarlemmerdijk and Haarlemmerstraat. The city gate, now present at Haarlemmerplein, dates from 1840. It replaced the original 17th century gate house. Right behind this gate, the first railway line of the Netherlands (also to Haarlem) started. The railway was later relocated farther north and connected to the present central railway station on an artificial island. Between that relocated railway and Haarlemmerdijk and Haarlemmerstraat, there was only a small strip of homes left. They were so neglected and rundown by the late 1950s, that Amsterdam got a splendid idea. With the demolition of those old houses a strip of land would become available for a major 6-lane highway all the way to central station. This would “open up” the city for the dream of the time: space for every working man to own a car that he could park in front of his own home. The highway would connect to the one that would run from the east through Jodenbreestraat, that I wrote about earlier. Also in this case the projected road was never built as intended, due to a lot of social unrest and protests, but the rundown houses were demolished. A much narrower road was built, named after the demolished neighbourhood. The remaining space in Haarlemmerhout tuinen was used for bleak housing estates from the 1980s which replaced the original buildings.

Plans for a major raised highway in Haarlemmerhout tuinen passing the old city gate (right). Behind that gate is the Haarlemmerplein. Fortunately this road was never built.

The ‘new’ (1973) Haarlemmerhout tuinen road carries most traffic, making Haarlemmerdijk/Haarlemmerstraat a main route for cycling. In line with the new thinking about city design, prevalent in Amsterdam today. From an outsider’s perspective it is very strange that motor vehicles can still use Haarlemmerdijk/Haarlemmerstraat. I would think it could have been made car free years ago. At least Haarlemmerplein was made mostly car free and you can see lots of people pass on their bikes. This being Amsterdam, the peace and tranquillity is often disturbed by scooters, mopeds and vehicles for the disabled, sometimes used by people who are not disabled at all. Luckily ordinary people cycling are the majority, so it is still a joy to watch them pass. Enjoy!

Cycling on the Amsterdam Haarlemmerplein.

9 thoughts on “Cycling on Haarlemmerplein, Amsterdam

  1. An interesting socio cum spatial planning snapshot history lesson about Haarlemmerplein, Amsterdam and unavoidably of the Netherlands itself. Thank you Mark. As you might know already, Het Grachtenhuis on Herengracht has a short but very informative audio-visual exhibit explaining the spatial planning and building development of the Grachtengordel and the historic canal houses. Like most of the museums in Amsterdam I’ve visited so far it is “done well” in terms of being interesting as well as informative.

  2. Right. We’re still waiting for the Mayor do do something about getting the snor-scooters off the cycle paths now that he got the go ahead from the central government in The Hague. Some object to the move because the scooters at 25 kph are too slow for the main road, but 70+% of those accursed contraptions speed at 50 kph plus. So, the problem is that they are too fast for the bicycles, not that they’re too slow for the cars! For the first time in 40 years I am afraid to cycle in Amsterdam (I am 72 years old). I’ve been knocked over by a snor-scooter and left for dead at least one time and had many close shaves… I can’t imagine the anxiety mothers with small children feel on their bikes.

  3. Interesting that back in the 17th century it was expected that carriages would be left at Haarlemmerplein and you’d walk from there. Nobody designed the city to allow and expect carriages to be able to go and park at their end destination.

    1. It’s hard to believe, but there were many more canals at the time (almost twice as many). So, there simply wasn’t room for parking one’s carriage.

      Many of the canals radiating out from the city centre were filled up to create room for parking, first for carriages and later for cars.

  4. I really wish they could do something about those scooters and mopeds. They are far too fast and a real hazard for cyclists. And non-disabled people using disabled vehicles? Nasty.

  5. I was JUST at the Haarlemmerplein on Saturday. I cycled for 25 km in Amsterdam in one day over 12 hours (with lots of breaks for my dad’s sore bum), and didn’t feel tired whatsoever. I LOVE Dutch cycling now. I could only be envious last week, now I want to bring over my city’s mayor and get him to ride a bike here. I didn’t even wear a helmet in Amsterdam (although I did visit the red light district and smell cannabis (not 18, so not using it), what tourist doesn’t in Amsterdam?). It is so fast, I had fewer traffic lights and pushing the button to get the green light is so quick. The roundabout with the tram line through it, it was very convenient, stopping to get something to eat was quick, I could even cycle in the tram lane when the cycle lane was closed without feeling like the tram was going to crush me. It’s absurd that almost nowhere else in the world outside the Netherlands, maybe border towns like Baarle Hertog (which part of Baarle is Dutch and which is Flemish?), even consider having Dutch style cycle infrastructure.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.