Who owns the city?

Political campaign — 2018

What happens to a city when it becomes too popular? How does the rise of airbnb affect housing prices? What happens to a neighbourhood if housing prices skyrocket? Is real estate made for living or trading? Who owns the city anyway? Website vanwieisdestad.amsterdam addresses these questions through a collection of protest posters. The posters can be shared online or downloaded for free to print them out and stick them behind your window.

My posters for vanwieisdestad.amsterdam

Who owns the city? was initiated by designer Ruben Pater, who asked me to team up, just before the municipal elections of 2018. An online collection of posters was a simple format that could be launched quickly and from there spread in an organic way, both off- and on-line. We had a few posters printed ourselves and decided to spread these through a network of social initiatives in Amsterdam. My first poster ‘Waar is onze Lieve Stad?’ was a clear reference to a quote of Amsterdam’s former mayor Eberhard van der Laan. The poster combined an emotional phrase, linked to a beloved mayor, with hard data showing the amount of tourists, hotels, airbnb’s and evicted families.

Poster by Niels Otterman
Poster by Ruben Pater

Poster by Ruben Pater

Six months after the launch of our campaign new posters suddenly surfaced in the city, posters whe hadn’t printed or pasted ourselves. One of these posters was my own design, featering the iconic Nutella jar with a text that roughly translates as: I don’t like monoculture (the Dutch version has a double meaning which is lost in translation). The poster critiques the rapid rise of cheese, ice-cream and Nutella shops in the centre of the city, shops that often sell mass produced products aimed tourists. These stores have become the symbol of a city that suffers from its own popularity, a city that is turning into an amusement park for tourists and a goldmine for investors, all the while more and more people are leaving the city because they can no longer find or afford a place to live.

A poster that multiplies like a Nutella shop


Because my name is on the poster I received several complaints about our campaign; first from the municipality, then from a real estate agent, and finally from Centercom, an outdoor advertising company. Centercom held me responsible for a number of posters that were pasted over their paid campaigns and sent me a thousand euro invoice to pay for the damage my poster had caused. Apart from the fact that their claim is ridiculous, as I am not responsible for other people’s actions, it does touch upon the key question of our campaign: who owns the city?

Photos made by Centercom

When it comes to a simple act like putting up a poster, there is hardly any space for dissident or non-official messages. Amsterdam has official wildplakzuilen (a total of seventy one small pillars that are reserved for non-commercial messages) but these pillars are all used by outdoor advertising companies that take advantage of the city’s lack of enforcement. Meanwhile, these companies are gradually taking over our public space. Public objects such as bridges, lamp posts or electricity boxes used to be ideal objects to spread a message through posters or street art, but these objects are slowly taken over by outdoor advertising companies who make a smart deal with the city: we get the exclusive right to use this space and in return we promise to keep it clean and tidy. From an economic and regulatory point of view, this sounds like a win-win situation, but from a democratic point of view, it is not. Handing over these pieces of public space to an advertising company means less free space and more controlled space. It means less of the personal (graffiti, street art, drawings, poetry, or just weird and quirky stuff) and more of the official (advertising, official political messages, public service anouncements). In short: turning public space into corporate space dims the soul of a city. A healthy city should not only reflect the official and commercial side of its being, it should also allow for the unoffcial: the unfiltered messages of the people that live there. 

Centercom’s summons letter

The invoice that Centercom sent me symbolizes the conflicted nature of our contemporary public space. The monocultuur-posters that were pasted in Centercom’s frames are no longer a public issue, they are now a private issue; they no longer interfere with a public interest (a clean bridge or a clean wall), they interfere with a private interest (the visibility of paid campaigns). What adds to the problem is that the owners of outdoor advertising spaces (formerly known as public spaces) make sure their private interest is well protected because they understand the economic value of their acquired space. Meanwhile, municipality does not fine these corporations for using their/our wildplakzuilen as an advertising space because there is no economic interest at stake, only a public one.

Van wie is de stad?
Campaign, website and posters
Ruben Pater i.c.w. Yuri Veerman

Campaign: Ruben Pater i.c.w. Yuri Veerman
Website: Kris Borgerink
Posters: Ruben Pater, Niels Otterman, Dirk Vis, Yuri Veerman

The data for the ‘Waar is Onze Lieve Stad?’ poster are taken from:

Free Posters
All posters can be downloaded for free at our website. If you want some of the ‘Waar is Onze Lieve Stad’ posters, I have a small batch of offset printed posters that you can pick up for free at my studio.

If you live in the Netherlands and want to support initiatives for social housing and more liveable cities, donate to, or contact these organizations:
Fair City Amsterdam
Bond Precaire Woonvormen

Visit Ruben Pater’s website for more information about the campaign

Nieuw Amsterdams Peil - NL