Albert Einstein is widely credited with saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”
Well, after 20 years of false starts, trying to find a sustainable future for its ring road, Antwerp’s urban designers had to decide: could they find that spark of genius?
The answer? A resounding yes!
By working with more than 3,000 Antwerpians, as well as a whole host of experts, a new idea is being put to the test: to cover and complete Antwerp’s ring road, opening up more space and providing a green lung connecting older and newer parts of the city, while delivering projects to improve residents liveability that will directly impact the lives of more than 200,000 people.
2020 is set to be a year of large-scale transformation in Antwerp.
The Big Link
Built in the 1960s, Antwerp’s ring road no longer serves its original purpose. In fact it no longer even sits on the city’s periphery, which has grown far beyond its boundaries. To add salt to the wound, one section – the Oosterweel (north west) where much of the city’s large and busy port can be accessed – was never even completed.
In 2014, following the inauguration of a new city council the previous year that made ‘mobility’ a top priority in order to break this grid lock, a group of citizens, architects, engineers and teachers put forward a proposal to cover the ring. And so the seeds for Antwerp’s ‘Big Link’ were sown.
Their idea to cover the ring sought to offer local residents better air quality and create more green spaces, not to mention improve mobility.
It quickly gained backing from Antwerpians, and after long being a sore point for those who cared about the future development of the city, but could not agree on a satisfactory solution, suddenly a new future seemed possible.
“Antwerp actively picked up the challenge of involving its citizens”
Armed with this knowledge, the city and Flemish government were keen to move ahead with co-financing the project, but wanted to keep all parties on board.
Several citizens groups played a big role. Manu Claeys, founder of stRaten-Generaal, one of the earliest activist movements involved in the Big Link, comments “Antwerp actively picked up the challenge of involving its citizens in a collective effort to rethink and rebuild the city, a challenge all European cities face. The result is impressive: co-ownership of a process which involves public servants, experts, citizens and politicians alike.”
To keep the peace between competing demands and visions, the role of ‘curator’ was awarded to Alexander D’Hooghe, an architect and engineer, who put everyone around the table to come up with a clear, workable, common vision for better mobility and a more liveable city.
“The plan people have in mind may not be the best one to realise the principle they are striving for,” comments D’Hooghe. “Once that realisation comes we were able to look for shared principles or principles people might not consider a priority but could support. Then something wonderful happened: government and action groups suddenly started looking for solutions together.”
Whether you’re building a house, a factory or a bridge, it all starts with a strong foundation. There were several bumps in the road, including a popular referendum stymying the idea of a bridge, before the initial idea presented in 2014 turned into the current plans to turn the ring into a full circle by creating the Oosterweel tunnels. In addition a large part of the present ring road (more than 2km of viaduct and motorway above ground level) will be taken down, rebuilt and covered.
“A giant leap for Antwerp in terms of mobility and liveability”
This first phase of the project, the most ambitious urban renewal project in Northwestern Europe, will get underway in 2020.
The hope is that sending car traffic underground will improve traffic flow and air quality in Antwerp, while connecting existing and new neighbourhoods on opposite sides of the ring road, providing new places for people to relax, enjoy and simply live.
Memorable landmarks will be given a facelift and seen in a new light. The removal of the Merksem viaduct, for example, will open up new avenues between the city centre and newer areas of the city. Instead of being squeezed against a motorway, the city’s event hall will have a new front facing the city, with high quality public space and room for real estate development.
The potential creation of so much ‘new land’ over the tunnels led to the second part of this project: coming up with innovative ideas of what to do with it.
With the city projected to be home to 30,000 more residents by the date of completion of the project in 2030, the building of new affordable homes will also be a crucial element of this planning. In fact, according to Ringland, one of the most prominent citizens groups, so much new space will be created that it will be like having a 10th district of the city!
Six design teams, which each concentrated on a different part of the ring, came up with more than 30 feasible projects, of which 18 were selected, with the city, the port of Antwerp and the Flemish government stumping up the cash to fund them to a tune of €1.25bn.
Koen Kennis, deputy mayor of Antwerp comments, “As a city we really benefited from the participation and input of citizens and citizen movements, inspiring and pushing us to be as ambitious as they were, making a giant leap for Antwerp in terms of mobility and liveability.”
Several of the selected projects focus on finalising the bicycle network through the realisation of several new connections between the inner and outer part of the city: a bicycle bridge over the river Scheldt, a new bicycle network on the left bank, a bicycle bridge in the northeast section and a bicycle path along one section of the ring road (the Longitudinal Ring Park) that cannot yet be covered, will improve connectivity and accessibility. It will also further contribute towards the Flemish region’s goal to inspire 50% of journeys made without the use of a private car.
This hard work has already paid off, and the city’s efforts were recognised by being selected as one of the six finalists in the European Capital of Innovation Award 2019. At the EUROCITIES Awards 2019, which honour outstanding achievements by cities in the delivery of local activities or practices which improve the quality of life for citizens, Antwerp went one step further!
“It is an award which we are accepting on behalf of all 520,000 inhabitants,” said Koen Kennis, deputy mayor of Antwerp, on accepting the award during EUROCITIES annual conference, hosted by the city of Prague. “But most of all, for those Antwerpians actively involved in an unprecedented process of participation to take this into a new and bright future.”