The city where the future has already arrived

Mar 18, 2024 | News

What will cities be like in a decade? Utrecht is a shining example of green living at its best

Ducklings swim in convoy with their mother along the Catharijnesingel Canal in Utrecht. The motorway is gone, so this is the only tailback that you’ll see in the area these days.

Imagine the tabloid-fueled frenzy in Britain that would result if a city converted a six-lane highway into a canal to enjoy pleasure boating and nature. Much uproar in Utrecht? Paul Manten, the project leader, tells us as we stroll along the canal banks’ flower-strewn bank, “Not really.” “A few people, who drive everywhere, didn’t like the idea.”

Others saw it as a way to right a historical wrong. The canal was dug in 1122 as a defensive line for the city. In the 1960s when the world was gung-ho about cars, the canal was controversially filled with concrete. Residents voted in 2002 to bring back the water. Covid may have scuppered the grand reopening of 2020, but it has also sparked an active travel renaissance elsewhere. This is a vindication for Utrecht which, according Manten, spent around EUR1bn(PS860m).

“We were ahead our time,” he says as boats pass, carrying passengers in gilets with glasses of red wine in their hand. “Everywhere is doing this now, making their cities greener.”

Utrecht is a city that takes green living to a new level. Behind the train station, a lush tower block is forming just a short distance from Catharijnesingel. Wonderwoods Vertical Forest, a new residential and office complex, will be a 2.5-acre wooded area when completed. I look up and see the trees swaying above the balconies, the flowers draped on the balustrades.

Paul Manten leans against a bridge which used to have a motorway running underneath it. Image: Gavin Haines

Hedzer Pathuis tells me that he feels privileged to be working on this project. It’s Friday afternoon, and workers are putting down their tools as the pub nearby gets busy.

Wonderwoods, when completed (apparently later this year), will be awash with 360 trees, 10,000 plants, and 9,000 bushes. Pathuis says, “There’s a lot of rain in Holland,” as dark clouds threaten his point. “In the basement, there’s a sink that collects all of it.” When it’s dried, we pump it – hoses are attached to each plant.”

If it sounds like a lot to maintain, that’s exactly what it is. Who will do all the trimming? Pathuis says that a company has been contracted to maintain the green for 25 years. Residents will pay EUR60 (PS51), or the equivalent of a bouquet every week, for this service. Not a small sum. After 25 years? “The residents’ association will decide what to do.”

Wonderwoods Vertical forest takes green living to a new level. Image: Stefano Boeri Architetti

I can see myself living there. I imagine drinking coffee on a balcony with a view of Utrecht as the sun rises. Pathius says 60 of the 420 units will be “affordable”. “Maximum monthly rent EUR1,000 (PS854) for 20 years,” he says. He is keen to emphasize that this is an inclusive development. Not just flats. The building will have a cultural area for events and exhibitions as well as offices and a winter garden.

Is this the future of green living in high-rises? Pathuis warns, “It is a pilot.” There are many unknowns, notably: does its eco credentials match up?

Wonderwoods, designed by Stefano Boeri Architetti of Italy, was commissioned in 2016 when the net zero discussion was just beginning. Pathuis says, “The CO2 conversation was different back then than it is today.” Another tree is raised above us. “The building requires a lot concrete and steel, because the plants are very heavy. From a CO2 perspective, I don’t believe it scores highly. The green does improve health, so there’s a compromise.

The world’s biggest multi-storey bike park, with 12,600 bikes, is located in Utrecht. Image: Jurjen Drenth

Wonderwoods, if not anything else, is an architectural statement. It’s a challenge to other architects to design with nature in mind, and not just for people.

I hop back on my bike and ride to another site that offers a less glamorous but more realistic vision of the future. I ride through the world’s very first cycle lane, a reminder of Utrecht’s green pioneering past, and the city’s newest multi-storey bike park.

You can tell that the Dutch are doing a great job at creating liveable cities when you ride through Utrecht. The breeze on your face and the chatter of passing cyclists will make you realize this. Rob Hopkins, a self-described ‘imagination advocate’, comes to Utrecht. In a recent interview he told me that Utrecht is a place where “the future has arrived”. Hopkins recorded the sound from the city’s cycle paths during rush hour for Field Recordings from the Future. The project aims to inspire a desire for a cleaner and more humane future.

Utrecht’s cycle paths are the inspiration behind a new music project. Image: Ruben Drenth

A soothing sound accompanies my visit to Hof van Cartesius. This creative quarter is ramshackle and home to circular entrepreneurs.

Iris Dijkstra explains that the entire structure was built using waste materials. She shows me around. “It is fun, isn’t it?” I ask as I look around. The old boat in the garden is a focal point for the children who are playing on the faded water slide that was salvaged from an amusement park. Industrial crates are bursting with flowers.

“Every building has its own story,” says Robin Brink of the Warmoes Restaurant. “Ours was made partly from changing rooms that were once in a swimming pool.”

Hof van Cartesius, a creative quarter for entrepreneurs who are interested in circular business, is a ramshackle place. Image: Gavin Haines

Hof van Cartesius is home to a number of startups, including record labels, sustainable fashion brands, and architects. The yard also has a bench, tools and a recycling area where people can rent them for EUR10 (PS8.50).

Sijmen Houben shows me around. “People can use this workshop to adjust their purchase,” he says. “It began in Rotterdam. Now there are two in Antwerp and here.” It would be great if this spread everywhere, right? I’ve been thinking the same thing all day.

Main image: Liset Verberne

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