Utrecht corrects a historic urban design mistake

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.

billet en français

The new canal with all the small boats on the opening day must have been photographed thousands of times. People couldn’t get enough of it.
People sitting in the grass on the reconstructed bank of the reconstructed canal. This grass only grew in the last couple of weeks. Good to see that people enjoy it instantly!

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.

The revised version of the city ring road plan by ir. J.A. Kuiper left the south and east part of the canal ring in tact. Not much of this 1965 plan was executed. The east and south road would require removing many buildings. Only the north-part of the west-ring road was built and that is now completely reversed. At many locations in the city newer buildings reveal where some of the buildings had been removed for the breakthroughs in this plan.
Left a map from around 2000 showing the broken canal ring (in blueish grey). The north-west part was closed from 1968 to the mid-1970s. It remained like that until the reopening which took place in stages from 2001 to 2020. Right: Openstreetmap was updated quickly and is accurately showing the full canal ring.
This bronze, made in 1966 by Swiss sculptor André Ramseyer (1914-2007), is called “Grand Astre”. It was bought by the city of Utrecht in 1974 and placed at the end of the former city moat. The broken ring was seen as a representation of the broken canal. It has found a new and much more prominent place in the reconstructed park and can now serve as a reminder that the canal was broken for almost half a century. Two other casts of this bronze can be found in Bern and Naples.

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.”

The Utrecht Rijnkade (street on the right hand side of the water) circa 1960. (Picture Utrecht Archives)
The Utrecht Rijnkade (right hand side of the road) in 2010. Nothing in this picture was there in the 1960 picture. (Still from a video I made myself)
The Utrecht Rijnkade on 12 September 2020, the opening day of the restored canal ring. A line of trees will be planted here (on the left side). The road will also be redesigned.

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 closing of the canal started in 1968. Left St. Gertrude’s Cathedral on Willemsplantsoen, that can be seen on all pictures of this series. (Picture via Gerwin Bijsterbosch)
The sunken road and the streets around it with the cathedral in 2009. The bridge has been replaced by two concrete viaducts. This was one year before the road was closed in Spring 2010. (Picture Google Streetview)
The road and the cathedral in 2015 shortly before this hole was temporarily filled with sand from the earlier re-opened part of the canal. (Picture Hackney Cyclist)
When the dirt was taken out again the concrete viaduct as well as the concrete side walls were removed from 2018 on.
Early 2020 the banks were created and the landscaping was almost finished. No water yet. The future canal was still filled with dirt.
The final digging process took only 12 weeks, from June to September 2020 the sand was removed and groundwater filled the canal.
The official opening day, 12 September 2020, the new bridge is at the exact location of the bridge in the 1968 picture in this series.
Signs announcing road works starting from 25 September. The reconstruction of the streets is about to start.
I described the plans for the street next to the reconstructed canal in a post from 2018.

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.

Some locals correct me when I call the former road a motorway. They claim it never was a real motorway, but they are wrong. You can clearly see the sign for a motorway entrance in the bottom right corner. The speed limit was 100km/h here in the late 1970s: that is a motorway speed limit. In the final days of the road it was indeed a street for motor vehicles only with a speed limit of 50km/h, but it was really planned and built as a motorway. While the motorway itself only had 4 lanes, with the access lanes and the 3 lanes on either side at ground level you can count 12 travel lanes at this location. Picture Utrecht Archives.

This week’s video: Utrecht celebrates the return of the canal ring!

22 thoughts on “Utrecht corrects a historic urban design mistake

  1. Another great blog and video! I am trying to get our local council to embrace active travel in town centre infrastructure projects in UK. Giving Holland cycleway infrastructure as an example one response is from latest EU figures for road deaths p/million people. UK had by far least deaths in 2018 and Holland is 5/28… Any reasons/confounding factors why?

    1. The per million inhabitants doesn’t factor in how many trips people take. A country where everyone stays home would be safest that way. Better is comparing safety by kilometre travelled for each mode and even better per number of trips. When you do that, cycling is much safer in the Netherlands than it is in the UK.

  2. Excellent write up. I don’t think you mentioned the lovely video https://desingelisrond.nl/ “De Singel is Rond” – looks like it was done by the Utrechtse Gemeente. Can’t wait to see it, probably cycle down from Ams this weekend. Can you imagine how cool it will be when it freezes? 😀

    1. You’re right, I didn’t. It is a nice video, but when that showed up after I expected at least some speech by someone I was a bit disappointed. I did mention it on Twitter though and in itself it is a nice poem in a very attractive video.

  3. The new bridge (Marga Klompébrug) is in place of the 1968 bridge, but it also is basically one of the two viaducts of the 2009 picture (namely, the one off-pic to the left).

    1. There was a web presentation, days before the opening, and I asked that very question, knowing I would get this question too. I even only asked for a very rough estimate, but the answer was: “We honestly don’t know”. The entire 1.1km of canal must have been millions, but it took over 20 years in total in 3 stages. So where do you begin to count…

      1. The demolition of 10km elevated motorway and rebuilding the Cheonggyecheon River in Seoul from 2003 to 2005 costed 250 Mio EUR. That included archeological digs and the restoration of ancient bridges and a quite ridged riverbed. I assume the demolition of old motorways makes up the biggest chunk of the total costs.

        1. Not to mention the tunnels underneath the water to create access to the existing underground car parking garage that would otherwise no longer be reachable on the other side of the new canal. This was a very costly project!

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