UGoveRN Debate on why moving sex workers to another neighborhood is a planning problem in Amsterdam
This post was written by Tuna Tasan-Kok.
The City of Amsterdam has been actively working on limiting touristic nuisance in the city center. Although the city offers many attractions that attract millions of tourists annually, the easy access to drugs and sex in the historic and safe city center has led to a dominance of “nuisance” tourism, particularly stag parties, which has sparked heated public debates. Recently, the Mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema, and the City Council announced plans to relocate the well-known red-light district, De Wallen (or Rosse Buurt), which is usually the most obvious destination of such nuisance. The specific date for this move is yet to be disclosed.
The intention behind this relocation is to address various concerns, including ensuring the safety of sex workers, minimizing tourist disturbances in the city center, and tackling drug-related issues and crime, among others. The proposal involves establishing an entertainment complex, commonly referred to as a “sexmall,” with amenities like a multiplex cinema, restaurants, cafes, and potentially shopping facilities, outside the city center (beyond the A10). The new complex aims to offer entertainment beyond the realm of sex, but the exact format and location are still under discussion.
The new erotic center’s objective is not to discourage tourists who are attracted to Amsterdam for its reputation in terms of sex and drugs. Instead, the aim is to present a new “imaginary” by relocating these activities to a more upscale and isolated setting, where tourists can still freely engage in these activities within a windowless high-rise building dedicated to the sale of sexual services and more. The idea is that tourists will be willing to pay more for access, and by adopting a retail logic, they will be encouraged to remain in this designated location, which will offer additional attractions such as pubs, bars, movies, and shops. It is envisioned as a custom-designed shopping mall experience centered around the sex industry. This approach aims to ensure that tourists get what they want and keep consuming without becoming a nuisance in other parts of the city. Furthermore, it is hoped that they will conveniently come and depart from Schiphol Airport easily.
While the primary focus of the debate revolves around the location of the new establishment, there are also significant ongoing discussions about mechanisms to prevent similar problems from arising in other areas. Ideas such as obtaining customer fingerprints, imposing limited access, and implementing additional security measures are being considered.
This initiative has sparked a significant amount of backlash, protests, expert meetings, and consensus-seeking discussions. It appears that the approach focused on changing the location and concept lacks comprehensive research and fails to consider the broader dynamics of the city, including traffic circulation, social consequences, neighborhood dynamics, infrastructure development, and a comprehensive crime prevention strategy. It merely shifts the problem from one location to another. According to a sex worker who provided their opinion during the Amsterdam Zuid expert meeting, this relocation will create feelings of alienation and unsafety among the sex workers, as they will be confined to a building with limited choice to refuse undesired clients. Moreover, the emphasis on choosing the ‘optimal’ site generates intense public discussion concerning predetermined multiple locations. On the one hand, this approach fosters a ‘sense of citizen involvement’ in the decision-making process, enabling the residents to discuss pros and cons of the given location. On the other hand, it restricts the discourse to the selection of a specific location for construction, while bypassing the real problem and need. The adoption of this kind of ‘post-political’ strategy evokes a perception of a democratic process and grants influential decision-makers the ability to manipulate the discourse surrounding chosen subjects, while impeding a thorough examination of necessary actions in a comprehensive way. In fact, the ‘locational’ approach has created a classic NIMBY response in Amsterdam. Indeed, who wants to have a multi-story, bright red building complex with all the nuisances attached to it in their neighborhood?
UGoveRN members organized a policy debate session on 17 May 2023 to discuss the rationality of the current policy approach. One of the initial topics discussed unanimously by all participants was the lack of clarity in the ‘problem definition’ and ‘motivation’ of the City. In the context of Amsterdam’s red-light district, the focus of the ongoing discussions primarily revolves around addressing the issues of ‘safety and nuisance caused by tourism.’ The City is swiftly proceeding with the selection of three locations, out of a larger list, to be considered for the proposed ‘Erotic Center’ project. However, the true intentions of the municipality remain unclear. Is it primarily aimed at eliminating drug cartels and crime from the city center? Or is it focused on managing the overwhelming nuisance created by tourists? Perhaps it’s about ensuring the safety of sex workers or leveraging the property values in the center for regeneration purposes. It’s possible that it serves as a political statement of power or a combination of all these factors.
We reached a conclusion that we need to see this as a comprehensive planning problem, not just as a locational choice problem. Planners typically approach complex problems, often referred to as “wicked” problems, by utilizing various toolsets and considering the checks and balances within a city. Recognizing the city as a living organism, planners understand that influencing one part of the city necessitates considering the consequences for other areas while also keeping wider perspectives and public interest in mind. To address the situation effectively, planners employ a range of tools. They begin by clearly defining the problem and then explore alternative solutions. They establish connections between societal problems and their spatial and economic aspects since these cannot be separated. More importantly, they have a comprehensive view of the problems and consequences of future choices.
While the definition of the problem and the narrative surrounding the new erotic center greatly influence public opinion and shape the positioning of the political debate, we agreed that it lacked a comprehensive planning analysis. The City of Amsterdam conducted several expert analyses mainly aiming to find the new optimal location to move the red-light area, and to understand possible consequences of this locational choice. Different cases from other cities in the Netherlands, and also from abroad (like Belgium and Germany) were also considered, without taking the contextual differences into consideration. We agreed that this approach is problematic, as it narrowly defines the issue as a matter of location, consequently limiting the potential solutions to changes in location. Moreover, the new alternative is merely a more commercialized and controlled version of De Wallen. Regardless, we reached the consensus that a robust analysis of sex-work as an urban function is of utmost importance to define the multifaceted problem accurately, and consider solutions from a broader perspective. A comprehensive analysis of the problem, development of diverse city-wide scenarios, and analysis of the consequences of choices connected to these scenarios are needed. This approach helps to prevent the problem from spreading to multiple areas or giving rise to unforeseen complications. Hence, it holds significance for planners to view the problem in a manner that transcends political interests and connects it to the broader context of urban development.