Utrecht is crowned the Netherlands’ greenest city

The Singel/CU2030 project in Utrecht is a massive regeneration initiative that has involved restoring a medieval canal to its former glory after it was buried in 1968 beneath a ‘hellish’ concrete highway. This remarkable project won first place in the Dutch finale of the EU’s Green Cities Europe Award and went on to secure third place in the Grand Finale in Brussels on 7 November 2023.

On 12 October, Alkmaar hosted the award ceremony for the 2023 Dutch nominations for the Green Cities Europe Award. The city welcomed around 200 green professionals, including local councillors, landscapers, urban planners, and (a few) growers, to its landmark 505-year-old Brabantian Gothic-style church, Grote Sint Laurenskerk. Alkmaar was crowned the greenest city in the Netherlands and Europe in 2022, which made it a fitting location for this ceremony.

How our climate became a wheel of fortune

To kickstart the day, the no-nonsense host, Helga van Leur, a former television weather presenter and climate scientist, introduced the causes and consequences of global warming, highlighting the daunting challenge that climate change presents to our planet and its inhabitants.

Van Leur used a set of vertical-coloured bars, known as climate stripes, to illustrate the gradual warming of the world and the Netherlands. The stripes show that the average global temperature on Earth has increased by 0.9-1.1°C (1.9°F) since 1880, and a significant portion of this warming has occurred since 1975, at a rate of approximately 0.15-0.20°C per decade.

She demonstrated that the Netherlands is warming much faster than the rest of the world, with its annual mean temperature increasing by 1.7°C since 1906. That is more than twice the increase in global average temperature over the same period. And, since measurements began in 1901, the annual temperature has increased by more than 2 °C. Van Leur said, “The bottom line is that since the start of the new millennium, we have had the hottest years on record, and I can predict the same pattern for the next 40 years.”

Increasing greenhouse gas emissions from industrialised economies have led to a weather type which Van Leur calls “a wheel of fortune marked by extreme weather events” happening more frequently and severely. Climate-related events include drought, global sea level rise, heat waves, more sun, higher UVR levels, stronger wind, and wind blasts.

Van Leur candidly admitted that her testimony on climate change and many others sadly haven’t done much to influence government, corporations, and individuals. She said, “Climate crisis requires decisive action from all of us. But that’s a complex debate as it prompts us to make the necessary sacrifices and give up, for example, unsustainable luxuries.” Van Leur ended by focusing on the health risks of climate change. “It’s about the vulnerability of populations and the natural environment, protecting each other and future generations. Heatwaves impact our physical and mental health. Ultimately, we all like to feel good and healthy.”

With the long-term, large-scale effects of climate change on the environment and people so extensively discussed, Van Leur remembered how climate change can also affect daily life. “Imagine a heatwave causing a nationwide power grid blackout, cutting cell service, and the amount of super stress it will cause.”

Singel, Utrecht, then vs now

Singel, Utrecht, then vs now

Enjoyable Contest Format

The contest format included two rounds, inviting each of the 12 nominated cities alternately on stage to make the audience and jury understand their project and secure their buy-in. The panel of expert judges consisted of John Koomen, chairman of the Dutch Landscapers’ Association VHG and chairman of the jury, WUR researcher Joyce Zwartkruis-Alferink, and Dennis de Heer, green spaces officer at Hoorn City Council. The jury also included Tom Bosschaert from Except Integrated Sustainability, an agency focused on integrating the environment in urban planning and management. Bosschaert has developed a design tool kit for what he calls ‘massive societal transformation’ by building climate-adaptive, affordable, investable, and financially profitable cities.

Green Cities Europe: Campaign and Award

Mark Jan Terwindt, the newly appointed CEO of the industry body for the Dutch bulb and perennials industry, Anthos, congratulated Alkmaar on its double win in last year’s Green Cities Europe Award, which he said was a ‘fantastic result’.

Terwindt explained that the Award is an initiative of the European Nurserystock Association (ENA) in association with nursery organisations in 13 European countries united in the EU co-funded Green Cities Europe campaigns.

The first ‘Green Cities for a Sustainable Europe’ themed campaign ran between 2018-2020, and the second one – ‘More Green Cities for Europe’ is currently underway and ends this year. The latter has €3.4 million available for the generic promotion of urban greenery over three years in 13 countries. In 2020, the Belgian city of Beringen won the inaugural Green Cities Europe Award, followed by Nantes (France) in 2021 and Alkmaar in 2022.

The Campaign and Award highlight the added value of green space in the urban environment. Each European country in this campaign can enter a national project. A delegated jury member judges the projects from each participating country in this Award.

Participating projects must be located in the participating countries: Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Portugal, The Netherlands and Sweden.

Daunting Task

In the late afternoon, guests were seated for the announcement of  this year’s national winner.

Naturally, it sounds like a big cliche, but the jury truly faced a daunting task. On one side of the spectrum were the large-scale, big-budget projects in Utrecht, Hengelo and Danthumadiel. In contrast, on the other side, Rotterdam‘s more intimate smart roof and Amsterdam’s Urban Jungle roof garden deserve a spot in the limelight. Tucked away high in the sky, these initiatives provide a habitat for scratching hens and humming bees while smartly storing more than 14,000 litres of stormwater and building cooling. Then, there is the issue of timelines; it took Utrecht
more than 20 years to turn a former stretch of 1,500 metres of highway back into its original state, that is, a medieval ring canal.

Meanwhile, workers on the roof apartment bloc at one of Amsterdam’s most polluted areas, Wibautstraat, needed only one week to replace a massive load of gravel with 2,321 planted crates and seven trees. It was a quick win for the residents as they could call off installing an earlier-planned air conditioning system. At the same time, there is also the pertinent question of how accessible roof gardens or vegetalised industrial areas are. Some projects incorporate nature into every cityscape; some are large-scale. In contrast, others have a far more localised impact – but all are innovative and inspirational, which undoubtedly would have complicated the jury’s task.

The same judges also need to act as a kind of Ad-Watchdog during the several project presentations. While most nominated cities did not breach advertising codes, some entries cleverly spotted an opportunity to put their trees or products/services forward.

Ivo Heijenrath (Okra/Hengelo), Wim Voogt (Okra/Utrecht), host and former TV weatherwoman Helga van Leur, and Ton Haakman (Alkmaar). Ivo Heijenrath (Okra/Hengelo), Wim Voogt (Okra/Utrecht), host and former TV weatherwoman Helga van Leur, and Ton Haakman (Alkmaar).

Drumroll please…

Utrecht took home the highest accolade and most coveted award for their winning regeneration plan entitled Singel/CU2040. It is expected that Utrecht’s population will grow from the current 360,000 inhabitants to 400,000 in 2028. This booming population requires new living space, while the city cannot and does not want to expand its built-up area.

At the same time, climate change is already affecting the city of Utrecht with a considerable rise in average temperature. The Urban Heat Island effect may be even more pronounced in Utrecht, a more densely populated city year over year.

Considering these demographic and environmental developments, Utrecht faces a challenge safeguarding its harmonious balance between living, working and recreation. To rise to the challenge, the city has committed itself to a ‘Healthy Urban Living for all’ approach, prioritising living environments that are simultaneously less polluted and inviting and stimulate healthy behaviour amongst its inhabitants. This is also reflected in the city’s ‘Green Grows Along’ perspective on urban planning, in which urban development must be accompanied by similar development of nearby green-blue spaces to prevent asymmetrical outcomes. Greening the city is of major importance for Utrecht. Measures can range from modification of city mobility structure in favour of green, nature-friendly buildings, development of new parks and increase of vegetation in housing areas, both in public and private space (including roofs).

In the RSU 2040 (Spatial Strategy Utrecht), the task is to achieve a healthy balance between densification and greening: an expansion of the greenery in the city by 440 hectares (approximately 900 football fields) and with 60,000 trees. In addition, there is another 250-hectare assignment around the city. This means that the available amount of green space per household (performance indicator 2.2.2, PGB 2022) remains stable in a growing Utrecht.

Utrecht lies in the heart of the Netherlands and has the busiest train station in the country. A lot of people travel through the area daily. The area needed transformation to commodify all these people and is required to improve liveability.

Occupying pride of place in Utrecht’s green strategy is the award-winning Singel/CU2040 project, aka the Central Station Project, which restored a medieval canal to its former glory. Landscape architect and one of the project leaders, Wim Voogt from the architecture firm Okra, explained how a visionless city council in 1968 voted to close the medieval canal adjacent to the city’s central station and to replace it with what for years was called ‘the Netherlands shortest highway’. In the following decades, the project met with fierce antagonism, and in 1981, protesters unveiled the first regeneration plans for the central station zone. Eventually, the inhabitants of Utrecht voted in 2002 for the restoration of the area by demolishing the highway and returning the canal and its surrounding monumental park, once designed by the famed landscape architect Zocher.

Voogt thinks that apart from the enthusiasm by which the canal’s restoration was greeted, there is an important lesson to be drawn from this project. Large-scale groundworks and garden design, he said, are two opposite worlds, each with their own needs, expectations and working methods. Hengelo and Alkmaar took the next two spots on the list. Hengelo stood out for its all-hands-on, fastforward approach.

Utrecht’s success as an innovative and passionate green city was also recognised internationally by its award as a Finalist in the category of Living Green for Health and Wellbeing in the AIPH World Green City Awards 2022. The case study describing their entry in detail is part of the AIPH Green City Case Study Collection. Utrecht was featured in the July 2023 session of the AIPH Green City Briefings, which can be viewed here. Looking to the future, the city is hosting the Future Green City World Congress from 23 until 26 September 2024.

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