The Canals of Rotterdam

The canals of Rotterdam, also known as singels, draw beautiful green lines through the city. How did we actually get those canals? In this blog article, illustrated with pretty autumn pictures, I dive into the history of these green structures.

Westersingel canal in Rotterdam with the Breytenbach plane tree on a sunny day in autumn


Traditionally, singels were the waters on the edge of the old town. The city was literally surrounded by by them, hence the Dutch word omsingelen. Mostly they were defenses, meant to keep invaders out of the city.

Old plane tree on Noordsingel canal in Rotterdam in autumn

Singels and vests

Rotterdam has never had such impressive fortifications as some other cities. But there were indeed a number of singels, also known as vests: Goudsesingel, Coolsingel and Schiedamsesingel. These have all been closed for the sake of progress. But in the course of time the word singel has changed to a watercourse decorated with greenery, no longer necessarily located on the edge of the city.

Plane trees reflecting in Crooswijksesingel canal in Rotterdam on a day in autumn


Rotterdam owes its canals mainly to one man: Willem Nicolaas Rose, city architect from 1839 to 1855. Later he also became Rijksbouwmeester (national chief architect); he was the first to use this honorary title. In 1842 Rose devised a plan to do something about the water management in Rotterdam.

A map of the canals of Rotterdam, with the original singels of the 19th century Water Project in dark blue
The singles of Rotterdam


This water management was a very urgent matter. The city’s many waters were seriously polluted. There was no decent sewage system, so all trash was dumped directly into the nearest water. Not only did this create an unbearable stench; it was also a major threat to public health. The polluted water was also used as drinking water. At that time, Rotterdam was ravaged by cholera epidemics that killed thousands of fellow citizens.

Historic barges in Haringvliet canal in Rotterdam on a day in autumn
Haringvliet: cleaned by the tides


In the Waterstad (Watertown), the area outside the dikes, south of Hoogstraat, the situation was not that bad. This part of Rotterdam, somewhat comparable to the Amsterdam canal belt, was mainly home to the wealthier Rotterdammers. Wijnhaven, Oude Haven, Haringvliet, Blaak, Leuvehaven and Scheepmakershaven were directly connected to the river Nieuwe Maas and therefore also to the North Sea. The tides washed these harbours clean daily.

Reflections in Bergsingel canal in Rotterdam during autumn

Open sewers

But the packed old town didn’t have that luxury. The many canals there were in fact open sewers, as you can still see them in third world cities today. Moreover, the city was already growing steadily at that time, across the city vests, into the polder. And the water management in those areas was also abominable.

Colorful and sunny autumn scene on Provenierssingel in Rotterdam


Rose’s Water Project provided for the construction of two series of canals in the polder: an eastern and a western section. By allowing water from the river to flow through the old town’s vests to the lower-lying polder city and pumping it away via the new canals, the water quality should improve considerably. At least in the polder; the old town benefited very little from the plan. The situation only improved there when a decent sewerage system was installed decades later.

Westersingel canal in Rotterdam at nightfall on a day in november
An autumn evening on Westersingel


Though the water issue was crying out for a solution, the city council continued to hesitate for years to put money into it. It was not until 1854, after another cholera epidemic, that it was decided to implement the Water Project, slightly modified. And so Westersingel and Spoorsingel were created on the west side of the town and Boezemsingel, Crooswijksesingel, and Noordsingel on the east side. Father and son Zocher, also known for The Park, were responsible for the design.

View across Spoorsingel canal in Rotterdam towards the rear side of the Central Station on a sunny day in autumn
The station, exactly on the axis of Spoorsingel


In addition to water management, the canals also provided urban structures. They were ideal settings for the construction of homes in the more expensive segment: villas and townhouses. The working-class houses were built in the streets beyond. No, even at that time wealth was not distributed fairly. In fact, the gap between rich and poor was even bigger than it is today. But in this way mixed neighborhoods were created where the different population groups lived in close proximity.

A rainy day in autumn at Essenburgsingel canal in Rotterdam

The growing city

Rotterdam grew from 100,000 inhabitants in 1870 to 600,000 inhabitants in 1930. As a result, the canals would not remain on the outskirts of the city for long. In fact, the Central Station is now located exactly on the axis of the western series of singels. But the concept of the canals was so successful that it was regularly used in later urban expansions. This is how Provenierssingel, Bergsingel and Essenburgsingel came into being.

Reflections in the water of Heemraadssingel canal in Rotterdam on a day in the fall


But the best example is Heemraadssingel, layed out in three phases between 1893 and 1926. Of all the canals in Rotterdam, this is perhaps the one with the most allure. In the middle part, this green urban space is no less than 120 meters wide. Apparently that was considered a bit too much of a good thing, because in the last phase that width was reduced to a still generous hundred meters.

Statensingel canal in the Rotterdam neighbourhood of Blijdorp on a day in autumn
Statensingel in Blijdorp


The idea of ​​singels was also used in the design for Blijdorp. The Statensingel winds through this neighbourhood, which was built in the 1930s. An elongated park with a wide variety of trees.

Lede canal in garden village Vreewijk in Rotterdam on a day in autumn
The Lede in Vreewijk


In the expansion districts on the southbank we also see the singels make their appearance. Boergoensevliet and Lepelaarsingel in Charlois, for example, and Lede and Langegeer in Vreewijk. But the planting is often a bit more austere than around the northern canals. Nor do we find any villas and townhouses here. A hundred years ago, “Zuid” was already facing an image problem.

Tram tracks, grass and trees on Boergoensevliet canal in Rotterdam on a day in autumn
Boergoensevliet in Charlois


Although the water project was primarily intended for water management, the aesthetic aspects already played a role at that time. One of the objectives was, in Rose’s words: “to beautify the surroundings of the city in such a way that Rotterdam will have a more graceful appearance on the landward side.” Today, anyone who takes a walk along the canals of Rotterdam can only conclude that the project has been particularly successful in this regard.

Footpath between rows of plane trees along Heemraadssingel canal in Rotterdam on a sunny day in autumn
Plane trees along Heemraadssingel

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