Amsterdam’s Controversial Plan to Relocate Its Red Light District

The collective Failed Architecture is calling on architects to refuse working with the Dutch government on relocating Amsterdam’s Red Light District to the outskirts of town, a move billed as an antidote to the effects of rowdy and hedonistic tourism.

De Wallen, Amsterdam. Image via Alamy Stock Photo

Amsterdam is widely beloved for its storybook canals lined with brick-gabled townhouses, arched bridges, and houseboats. Scenic appeal aside, the Dutch capital can be intoxicating for another reason: its world-famous Red Light District, a central corridor known locally as De Wallen, which has narrow alleyways lined with brothels where sex workers advertise their services from behind storefront windows illuminated with moody red lights. Though a hotbed for tourists until the pandemic shuttered most of the district in 2020, De Wallen has polarized locals who claim the brothels attract human trafficking, illicit drug use, and mockery of sex workers, and who wish to reset Amsterdam’s reputation. 

In early 2021, mayor Femke Halsema announced a plan to shut down a significant number of De Wallen’s brothels and relocate the district to an “erotic center” on the outskirts of town. (The proposal comes on the heels of another Halsema-led campaign to ban foreign tourists from the city’s famous cannabis cafes.) It sparked backlash from sex workers, who claim that relocation will threaten their livelihoods, further stigmatize their profession, and deprive them of a safe working environment compared to De Wallen, a close-knit neighborhood where people and police are always around.

“Amsterdam has a very long tradition of protecting freedom, and being a tolerant city. And I really want to protect that,” mayor Halsema told Time, noting that she voted in favor of national legalization of prostitution as a lawmaker in 1999. “But we do not want to be famous because of sex and drugs. We want to be famous for our cultural heritage.” 

A sex worker in De Wallen. Via AFP/Getty Images

The new “erotic center” will take a decade to establish if approved, but the collective Failed Architecture has already called on architects to not work with the government on its design. “Sex work is as much a form of historical heritage as the architecture that accommodates it, and should be protected and considered as such,” reads the letter, which was backed by 130 active De Wallen sex workers, Red Light United, and Trans United. “Its designed removal from the city center would damage the workers, the community, and the city of Amsterdam. Sex work is not the same thing as trafficking and it should not be shunned by the city.” 

“The women don’t want to leave,” Mary, an anonymous escort, told Matador Network. “They love that area because it’s very compact and busy, and that means you’re safe even if you leave your shift at 4:00 or 5:00 AM. There’s always people around, we all know each other, there’s a lot of police cameras. It’s very safe.” She further describes the relocation scheme as a tactical maneuver in the battle of “normal” versus “abnormal” and cites a recent city inquiry that determined 95 percent of surveyed people would still visit the Red Light District if the brothels disappeared. “It’s an entertainment area. There are cafes and restaurants; that’s what attracts people.”

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