It is being viewed as the correction of a historic mistake. More than 40 years after parts of the canal that encircled Utrecht’s old town were concreted over to accommodate a 12-lane motorway, the Dutch city is celebrating the restoration of its 900-year-old moat.
In an attempt to recast its residents’ relationship with the car, Utrecht’s inner city is again surrounded by water and greenery rather than asphalt and exhaust fumes.
The reopening of the Catharijnesingel attracted pleasure boats and even a few swimmers into the water, with the alderman for the central Hoog Catharijne district, Eelco Eerenberg, lauding the “grand conclusion” of decades of work.
The first plans for restoring the canal, or Stadsbuitengracht, which dates from the city’s birth in 1122, had been made in the 1990s.
Residents then voted in a 2002 referendum for a city-centre “master plan”, in which water would replace roads. But efforts have been boosted in more recent years by a broader attempt by the municipality to sideline the car and promote healthier living.
In 2017, the city opened the world’s biggest bicycle park, accommodating 12,500 bikes next to Utrecht railway station. There is a drive to lay flora and fauna on the roofs of city centre buildings in the name of biodiversity and clean air. And as part of the canal’s reopening, the central Zocherpark has been restored to its original 1830 design.
The restored section of the canal had been filled in to allow cars better access to Utrecht’s shopping district in the 1970s. The waterway now runs under an indoor shopping centre, allowing boats to travel the full 6km route around the city centre.
“Traffic had increased enormously,” said René de Kam, a curator of urban history at the Centraal museum in Utrecht, of the decision to concrete over the canal. “There was a kind of ring around the city, namely the canal. It was very tempting to think: what if we just asphalt it? Then the traffic problem will be solved. The shopping heart of the Netherlands should be easily accessible by car, they thought. That’s where it went wrong.”
Eerenberg said the municipality had chosen “water and greenery over a highway for cars”. “It is quite unique for a motorway, with space for 12 lanes, to be converted back”, he said. “Now that the canal is back, it provides a beautiful connection to a plethora of important urban functions. Among other things, the station, a pop stage, theatre and greenery have found their place at the water.”
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