Last Saturday Utrecht’s restored canal ring was officially opened. Unannounced and early in the morning the crew of the replica Roman ship “Per Mare ad Laurium” (some even dressed in period costumes) pulled a rope to tilt a gigantic bucket. The water pouring from the bucket into the new canal represented “a barrel full of emotions” that many people in Utrecht (a city founded by the Romans almost 2000 years ago) have regarding the return of the almost 900 year old former city moat. That canal ring had been partly replaced by a short urban motorway for about 40 years. Due to the Corona crisis only people living close to the canal and those who participated in the project were invited.
The plans to use the space of the canal for a city ring road date back to 1958. The executive council of Utrecht had ordered German Professor Feuchtinger to draw up these plans. Later conveniently blaming him for the idea, that he himself didn’t even support. Initially the city council was not in favour either. There was a lot of fierce opposition from the residents in that planning phase as well. This led to the national government intervening. As I mentioned in last week’s post, the first female cabinet minister in the Netherlands declared most of the former city moat a monument, thus saving the historic canal ring from total destruction. In 1968, the Utrecht council finally followed the executive council and voted in favour of closing the north-west side of the canal ring. It took until the late 1970s for the road to be finished, but only the north-half of the west-part of the ring road was built. The closed canal in the north was used as a parking lot and the east and south side of the canal ring were never touched. Under pressure from the national government and residents the plans were abandoned.
People kept resisting the road and calls for the return of the water never fell silent. In 1990 a new group for the return of the canal ring was formed. They eventually persuaded the city council to take the decision to turn the parking lot in the north back into water in 1996. Turning car space into water has strange consequences: a new bridge was built in the central circle of a roundabout. This first reconstruction was opened in two stages in 2001 and 2002. When the people of Utrecht saw what could be done they voted in favour of reconstructing the whole canal ring in a referendum in 2002. The enormous project took until last Saturday to be finished, after a big part was opened in 2015. It is heart-warming that some of the protestors of the early days lived to see the full return. Joan Vermeulen is 92 years old and she protested in the early 1960s. She told a reporter: “Even though it isn’t as beautiful as it was, the return gives me satisfaction. In the end they did realise that their way wasn’t the best way”. Ben Nijssen (71) was one of the initiators of the protest group in 1990. He said: “At the time they chose asphalt to get the car into the city centre. Now, it is the other way around. As residents we pleaded to correct this mistake from the past. That this day has come moves me. The next step is to make things greener, that will make it all even more beautiful.”
After the opening of the large part in 2015, plans for the remaining part were finalised with the help of residents and other stakeholders during 2017. The actual construction works started in 2018. The enforced concrete trench of the road had to be crumbled by gigantic machines. 17,000 tons of rubble were transported away in 550 truckloads. The contractor is proud of the final digging phase, starting only late June 2020. In just 12 weeks the digger took out 34,000 cubic metres of sand. It was moved away in 1,478 truckloads to another part of Utrecht, where it will be re-used in the construction of new housing. Part of the banks have been reconstructed as a city park, in line with the existing park, designed in 1830. The part near Utrecht’s mall was always more industrial. The city port was here until the 1930s. The returned water between brutalist buildings from the 1960s, office blocks from the 1980s and the renovated mall from the early 21st century give this area a whole new and strangely attractive urban look.
The road is gone (it wasn’t replaced elsewhere either) the water is back and Utrecht celebrated best as it could in the Corona crisis. A lot of people boated the full 6 kilometre long canal ring. I cycled, which I showed you last week. Many walked and some daredevils rounded the canal swimming! The festivities even made it into the foreign press. As you could see in last week’s video, the streets around the new water are in dire need of an upgrade. Signs inform that that phase of the reconstruction is to start very soon. The cycleway on part of Catharijnesingel will be closed from 25 September on! Remaining trees will be planted in Autumn and seeds for grass and flowers were already sown. The city promises a big party next summer to make up for the lack of public events this year (although there are some*), but if you look at the many boats sailing on the canal last Saturday it is clear that most people in Utrecht are very, very happy that this huge urban planning mistake was corrected!
* Utrechts Central Museum dedicates an exhibition to the fortified city. The Utrecht City Archive has an exhibition about what the (return of the) canal ring means to residents of Utrecht.
This week’s video: Utrecht celebrates the return of the canal ring!