This is how living, care and culture come together in renovated Slotervaart: "Preserving the concrete that connects the city."

Amsterdam's Slotervaart is back on the map. Not as a hospital, but as an important place for care, welfare and culture. Like the hospital, this centre aims to become a hub in the neighbourhood. Something that residents in the Nieuw-West, an Amsterdam neighbourhood where many facilities are disappearing, actually need. What does this new Slotervaart Centrum voor Zorg mean for the people around it?

It is a huge concrete icon in Amsterdam's Nieuw-West. The bankrupt Slotervaart hospital was forced to close its doors back in 2018, to the dismay of many residents of the post-war neighbourhood. It had been a real community hospital. And over the years, many meeting places had already disappeared in a neighbourhood that at the beginning of this century the government was still labelling a problem area.

Fortunately, property entrepreneurs managed to convince the municipality not to demolish the building. Together with care agencies, community organisations and even cultural entrepreneurs, they will make this a new place for their concept of ‘care’, a term much broader than that used in the medical sense. The concrete cross will remain standing and renovated in a fully sustainable way. All kinds of healthcare organisations are taking up residence here. From GPs, pharmacy and physiotherapist to a secondary vocational education institute, creative lab and cultural centre. Two more floors will be built on top of the 10 existing floors. The ambition is to transform this piece of the city into a diverse area for living and working. It aims to be a vibrant, inclusive and sustainable urban district with housing and amenities.

A community building, not an empty shell

One wing of this new Slotervaart Centrum voor Zorg is already open. On a Monday morning, for instance, you will find Mohamed Mahdi on one side of the building. He moved in with his Casa Sofia and hopes, after the renovation, to have a permanent home there. In the early morning, a club of people sits inside drinking coffee and meeting together. Behind the bar, an Eritrean woman pours the coffee. The ornate wood-carved doors to the kitchen come from Mahdi's childhood home in Morocco. A large bookcase along one side also adds to the feeling of homeliness.

Casa Sofia has been in Nieuw-West since 2016. It had once been in another location that was subsequently demolished. Mahdi – a former city councillor - founded the place because he saw more and more facilities, such as the public library, disappearing from his neighbourhood. The idea came after burnout and a barrista course. In his view, the neighbourhood lacked a place to meet. A café where literature and culture could come together. According to Mahdi, the neighbourhood's new white, two-income homeowners and traditional migrant families do not meet enough.

Meanwhile, Casa Sofia is a place where children outside school can learn to play chess and get writing lessons from professionals, where low-threshold poetry nights are organised and people eat together while live musicians perform. Mahdi rents the spaces to businesses not only to make the budget go round further, but also for interaction, for instance to arrange internships for young people from the neighbourhood. And the jobs will be filled by people with a labour market background. Mahdi: "Community building is not an empty phrase here. We make it happen to bring people together organically."

Slotervaart Centrum voor Zorg

In June 2020, Zadelhoff acquired ownership of the vacant Slotervaart hospital. The plan they used to convince the municipality: a centre that would benefit the whole neighbourhood. The renovation would be entirely sustainable. As many raw materials as possible would be reused in the cross building and the old facade would be preserved. The first work started in August last year. Centrum voor Zorg and Louwes Lab (within which Casa Sofia is located) are already open. Work on the homes will start at the end of this year and a park will be created around the building.

Don't get rid of what has value

The part in which Casa Sofia is housed is a low-quality extension. It will soon be demolished once the cross building, that concrete colossus, is finished. This cross building is undergoing major sustainable renovation. Meanwhile, they have been without gas since last year. Such a concrete colossus, it’s hard to love, admits Martine Gründemann, who is leading the renovation on behalf of Zadelhoff. "But I do love it," she adds. She believes that it is about not getting rid of what still has value. "We would rather put the money into healthcare," she says. With her years of experience in the real-estate business, she decided it was time to get involved in renovations that serve society. She became involved as soon as the bankruptcy agreement had been settled, because she recognised that the Nieuw-West district needed to keep this place, not only for care, but also for the well-being of the local residents.

Just as the hospital had to be extra accessible to low-income people in the 1970s, the new centre should again open its doors to everyone from the neighbourhood. Geertjen Pot, director of the Slotervaart Centrum voor Zorg: "It was our desire to create a place providing the care of the future. Here, collaboration, inclusiveness and innovation are key themes. Here, we connect care with living, well-being and innovation. Primary care in a variety of areas has already returned to the district."

Sitting in the centre's coffee bar she explains how important that connection is. With local residents, but also between the parties involved in the project. "We are responding to key challenges in care, such as staff shortages and an ageing population. For example, an MBO (secondary vocational education) care and welfare department will soon be housed here. But also the Louwes Lab, where art and care come together. Artists and craftsmen will be designing applications such as jewellery that double as hearing aids. "The most important thing is to work with entrepreneurs who know the neighbourhood and know what is going on. Those entrepreneurs should be given a place here."

Culture-sensitive working

Zeynel Erkut is a fine example of this. He is among one of the first healthcare entrepreneurs in the Health Centre, which opened in 2021. He is a psychiatrist and his organisation Terra Mental Health Care focuses on trans-cultural mental health care. Most psychiatrists speak Turkish. "Our target group, mainly residents of the Nieuw-West, solve problems themselves. In Turkish culture, there is no culture of talking. They don't recognise a mental health problem as depression."

Erkut's philosophy is: Don't just help the client who comes in, but the whole family. It sounds obvious, but it is still common for family members to be helped in different places. "During the Covid period, many children came to us with mental health problems stemming from parental stress. Then we will offer help to a whole family. We know the relationships in families from other cultural backgrounds because we work in a culturally sensitive way. So language is not the only important factor. In fact, our experience of working in this way means we also know how to reach Syrian and Afghan families, for example, whose language we do not speak."

Terra Mental Health has been in the district for decades but in a different location. Erkut points out how important this is. "We need to be close and approachable for the people from the neighbourhood we target. At the Centrum voor Zorg we can collaborate with other multicultural organisations. For example, outpatient counselling which offers a mentally disabled client the opportunity to go for a guided walk every day. We can also share facilities together with those organisations and make it possible to run a sports hall, for example. Because the care we give is expensive. We do not stop after the recommended treatments reimbursed from the insurer. We only stop when someone is really helped."

Why Triodos Bank is financing this renovation

Triodos Bank finances building(s) with social added value. Sustainable renovation of existing properties is the best: no new concrete needs to be produced for existing concrete.

For example, the renovation of the Slotervaart Centrum voor Zorg is also made possible with a loan from Triodos Bank. Director of business relations Patty Zuidhoek: "This is exactly what we want. Sustainability, social cohesion and tailored care come together here."

"The most important thing is to work with entrepreneurs who know the neighbourhood and know what is going on. Those entrepreneurs should be given a place here."
- Geertjen Pot