Image credit: Martin Woortman

Utrecht: from car to boat

From the 12th century, Utrecht had canals to defend the city. However, “in the late 50s, the accessibility for cars was a very dominant way of thinking,” explains Kees van Leeuwen, programme manager at the municipality of Utrecht.

As a result, the largest covered shopping centre in the Netherlands emerged in the early 60s. Although the inhabitants had resisted the disappearance of the water, a motorway underneath the shopping centre split up the canal.

Years of protests ended in 2002 with a referendum. Citizens had a say on how the area around the central station should be transformed, including the original ancient water path across the city. The result led to the demolition of the 12-lane motorway.

Back to the future

I never worked on a project everyone agreed on.
— Kees Van Leeuwen

It is almost twenty years since that vote, and the restoration results have been disclosed. Today, the residents can enjoy a waterway that functions as a green and healthy pathway from the central station into the city centre and surrounding the historic city.

“The canal is a historically important part of the identity of Utrecht,” says Kees van Leeuwen. After excavating 35,000 cubic meters of sand, this heritage brought back 41,000 cubic meters of water, flowery foreshores and hundreds of new trees.

He can’t hide his excitement. “I never worked on a project where everyone agreed on. The discussions were about how pretty we were going to make it. I guess we succeeded.”

A citizens’ demand

A lot of things are coming together in a place where there used to be asphalt.
— Kees Van Leeuwen

In combination with biologists, architects, and ecologists, citizens added ideas and enjoyed an active role in the envisioned project. “Evenings where we discussed the programme, that was fun,” Van Leeuwen remembers.

There has always been an ecological mentality among residents that is now clearer than ever. “Now we see the mindset is changing even further into what the city can be and how we must use green to have a healthy urban city,” states Van Leeuwen.

This mindset may be what makes citizens oversee maintaining the green areas. For example, the manager tells a farmer who comes along with his horses to take out the grass frequently.

Flora, and also fauna

Besides citizens, plants, insects, and animals contribute to a robust and sustainable ecology. “We planted all kinds of plants, even in the water. Next spring, it’ll be magnificent,” proudly comments Van Leeuwen.

We planted all kind of plants, even in the water. Next spring, it’ll be magnificent
— Kees Van Leeuwen

One of the ecologists working for the municipality came up with the fish doorbell, a particularly innovative project. Every spring, fish swim from South to North through Utrecht, looking for a place to spawn and reproduce.

However, in that season, the Weerdsluis lock on the north side of the inner city rarely opens, so fishes often wait a long time. To help accelerate the crossing, the municipality set up an underwater camera.

The live video shows the spot in an app available to download. If there are fishes locked at the location, the app user can press a button to alert the lock keeper that it’s time to open the lock and let them through.

A place to be

Van Leeuwen insists the centre of Utrecht is a place to be rather than drive through. “It is a place to go to the shopping centre, but also to sit near the water, walk around, be in nature.”

Just sitting on a bench and enjoying the view in a city where a lot is going on can improve mental health. Visitors can even change the car for a boat. Hoog Cathatijne, the shopping centre, is the first in Holland under which people can sail.

Some say the canal’s return has changed the conception of the city. “A lot of things are coming together in a place where there used to be asphalt. We really made a change on what the city is, and on what the centre is to people,” adds Van Leeuwen.

A new core

In Utrecht, policies and urban planning revolve around the health and well-being of its citizens. The council names it ‘Healthy Urban Living for Everyone’.

Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 safety measures, the council could not invite the entire city to the opening last year. Instead, they organised a digital inauguration through a video where residents from all neighbourhoods symbolically fill a piece of the canal with a developed-for-the-occasion Utrecht bucket.

The water is now flowing through the heart of Utrecht again. There are green areas and walking paths along with it. The crops and trees will grow and bloom in the coming years. The greenery between the buildings will also lead to improved air quality.

Utrecht is ready as a future city to attract residents and visitors alike.

In November 2021, Utrecht’s project was shortlisted at the Eurocities 2021 Awards in Leipzig for the ‘Planning public spaces’ category.

Marta Buces Eurocities Writer
in numbers:
  • 35,000

    cubic meters of sand were excavated and removed
  • 41,000

    cubic meters of water filled the canal