Rewilding city streets – an idea for our times

There is a canal in Utrecht that once was a moat around the city’s old town, 900 years ago. Back before cars. Back when towns were made up of winding streets that grew from peoples’ footpaths. Back before paving. Back when the world was newer than it is now.

Then in the 1970s, when the car was king and the biggest concern was how we could get from place to place as quickly as possible, that canal was concreted over to accommodate a 12-lane motorway. It was a mistake, the city decided.

And they decided to fix it.

“People kept resisting the road and calls for the return of the water never fell silent,” as the story is told in the BicycleDutch blog. “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.”

BicycleDutch on YouTube

In September 2020, the Guardian reported, “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.”

As part of the canal’s reopening, the central Zocherpark has been restored to its original 1830 design. The waterway now runs under an indoor shopping centre, allowing boats to travel the full 6km route around the city centre.

“It is quite unique for a motorway, with space for 12 lanes, to be converted back”, said alderman Eerenberg. “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.”

Clive Thompson calls it part of ‘rewilding cities’. And asks: “If we can rewild the landscape, why not rewild city streets? Why not transform them so cars are only one part of what they’re used for?”

Thalia Verkade and Marco te Brömmelstroet refer to the exclusive use of streets for cars as a kind of ‘civic monocropping’. They are authors of Movement – how to take back our streets and transform our lives.

Their recent article in the Guardian’s ‘Big Idea’ series pointed out that: 

“… just as swathes of our countryside were repurposed for farming, over the past century our city streets have been optimised for one goal: to move people around as quickly as possible, unhindered by anyone using public space for other purposes…… Our shared urban environment, which used to be for everyone, is by and large dominated by moving and parked cars.”

Their book told the story of the rewilding of Utrecht’s canal, and they say a lot of this kind of thing has been going on.

“Barcelona is democratising its public space to include urban patios and parks, reclaiming its streets from traffic. Cars will still be allowed, but they will constitute just one use of public space, not the main reason for its existence.In the same spirit, Groningen, in the Netherlands, known for its progressive steps to reclaim streets for bikes, recently adopted a set of guidelines that state that moving about is just one thing that a street should facilitate, as well as, for example, better health, an awareness of cultural history, or the city’s ability to adapt to the climate emergency. Paris, meanwhile, has a 15-minute city plan that aims to create self-sufficient communities where everything you need is within a 15-minute walk or cycle.”

Maybe, they say, it is time to ban cars from city centres altogether, as we do now for some special occasions, such as marathons or street parties for the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations or London’s car-free days.

Cover image: FransA on Pexels.