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‘Zuidas as a mini-Manhattan: it’s a worthwhile ambition’

Kajsa Ollongren feels completely at home in her function of alderwoman for the city council of Amsterdam. Following a long political career in The Hague that included terms as director of European Integration and Strategy and as deputy secretary-general of the Ministry of General Affairs, where she was a confidant of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, her portfolio now includes Economic Affairs, Airports & Seaports and Art & Culture. She also performs regular duties as the capital's deputy mayor. Ollongren is enthusiastic about living and working in Amsterdam, and foresees strong growth for Zuidas: 'Amsterdam has a strong attraction for people and businesses alike - more than ever, in fact - and I can definitely see Zuidas developing into a mini-Manhattan of sorts.'

You've lived in Amsterdam ever since you were a student at the University of Amsterdam, and now you work here as well. What does Amsterdam mean to you?

'I came here to study when I was 18. When I arrived in Amsterdam, I remember thinking, this is it! Amsterdam was everything I'd been looking for: a large and dynamic city. After graduating I continued to live here, while working in The Hague. It was a long commute, but I didn't mind. I also spent some time living abroad, but my roots were always in this city. After last year's municipal elections, I had the chance to become an alderwoman for Amsterdam. Working in my home town: a dream come true. In my current position, it's thrilling to find how this city is changing and being rejuvenated. Large cities like Amsterdam work like magnets: young people are drawn here to study and then land a job or start up a company. I stayed in Amsterdam after my children were born, which wasn't at all the norm back then. But now you see an increasing demand among people to live in the city.'

What's your perspective as alderwoman on the development of Zuidas?

'Zuidas is experiencing massive growth. The mayor has stressed that with the city's increasing popularity as a place to live and work, Amsterdam will have to expand in an upwards direction. And that's precisely what Zuidas is doing. This skyline has been built out of nothing. And that's brilliant, because the city, like the country and Europe as a whole, is emerging from a difficult period. Zuidas derives much of its identity from the financial sector, and fortunately we're seeing that equilibrium is being restored there. It is Zuidas' original raison d'être, as it were. But the interesting thing is that nowadays it's developing beyond that. Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and VUmc have to be involved in this development as well. After all, VU Amsterdam has loads of students who can go straight to work in Zuidas after their graduation.'

Economic Affairs is among your responsibilities as alderwoman is. Have we beaten the financial crisis?

'I think we need to work hard to bolster our financial sector. The crisis has dealt us some heavy blows. Though I do think this crisis is behind us, there is no guarantee it couldn't come back in some other form. We have to remain very vigilant. Now, we're seeing a slow return to growth. This is encouraging, but the Netherlands are a country that's constrained to a high degree by global market conditions; our economy is inevitably shaped by various factors, and those affect Zuidas.'

Zuidas is the Netherlands' financial centre, but it is also evolving as a residential location. Why is that important?

'The city is growing exponentially and more and more people are looking for a nice apartment. Zuidas is an excellent choice - it's dynamic and it's vibrant. I live in the city centre myself, but I could easily picture myself living here. The city centre is a only stone's throw away: it takes no more than a short ride on your bike to get to Amsterdam Zuid and the city centre. Zuidas also has excellent transport links and you can be at Schiphol airport within minutes. So it's perfect in terms of location and spatial layout.'

How important is the link between Zuidas and Schiphol?

'Amsterdam is a great location for international businesses, and an increasing number of them are choosing to move to Zuidas. Schiphol is right around the corner and offers good connections around the world, which is perfect for those companies and definitely a point in our favour. Access to the airport is certainly a key factor for the industry sectors operating here in Zuidas, and that's also why we're going to see Zuidas continue to expand both as a business and residential centre.'

An increasing number of companies are i moving their European head offices to this area, but will Zuidas also be able to attract the creative industry and smaller startups?

'Yes, absolutely. It's not like Zuidas is all head offices and large companies - there are also many smaller firms leasing offices here. Google of course is a big outfit, but their presence also attracts smaller start-ups . The prospect of being surrounded by so many potential customers is very attractive, naturally. Amsterdam has a number of locations which are appealing to start-ups, but Zuidas is definitely one of them.'

In 2011 the Volkskrant newspaper named you the most powerful woman in the Netherlands. Did you also feel that way at the time?

'I was ranked eleventh among the most powerful people nationwide. Numbers one to ten were all men. I found that rather worrying. At the time, I was secretary-general of General Affairs, the Prime Minister's right hand woman and top official, so I could understand why I was up there near the top of the list. But to say that I felt very powerful - no, it didn't feel quite like that.'

Besides alderwoman, you are also deputy mayor of Amsterdam. What does that entail?

'The most important thing for a deputy mayor is to be there whenever the mayor is absent, and Mayor Eberhard van der Laan is often away on official business. Amsterdam is a major capital, and therefore those trips form an important component of the mayor's office. Not only do they help promote Amsterdam's business interests, but they also help attract foreign companies. Whenever he's away, I fill in for him. Aside from that, there is always so much going on in the city that sometimes I assume the mayor's duties when he's got to be in another part of Amsterdam.'

Is Zuidas investing enough in art and culture?

'We're fortunate that local companies set up lots of art initiatives on their own. Recently we also had ARTZUID, featuring a number of sculptures on display in Zuidas. Zuidas is still developing and  initiatives like these need time to grow. First you get the office blocks, next come the coffee bars, and then, when you add enough residents into the mix, the art scene will emerge as a matter of course.'

What will Zuidas look like in ten years? Will it have evolved into a kind of mini-Manhattan?

'What really strikes me about Manhattan is that every street there is always buzzing with life. We're getting more of that in Zuidas too, for example with all the coffee bars like you see in New York. For Zuidas to become a real mini-Manhattan, however, it has to grow even more and have more people living here. But it's a great ambition, to try to achieve that in the next ten years.'

Kajsa Ollongren's CV:

2001-2004: director of European Integration and Strategy at the Ministry of Economic Affairs.
2004-2007: deputy director-general at the Ministry of Economic Affairs.
2007-2011: deputy secretary-general of the Ministry of General Affairs.
2011-2014: secretary-general of the Ministry of General Affairs.
2014-present: Amsterdam alderwoman (of Economic Affairs, Seaports, Airports, Holdings, Art, Culture, Local Media, Monuments and the City Centre District), and deputy mayor of Amsterdam.