Utrecht (Netherlands)

Candidate: Utrecht

Location: Netherlands

Category: European City of The Year Awards

Year: 2020

Assessment Summary

Located in the heart of the Netherlands, Utrecht is the fourth largest city and, watched over by the Dom Tower, has one of the richest collections of medieval buildings among Dutch cities, with many of its baroque and gothic buildings still intact along with many of the attractive, cellar lined canals, providing the backdrop for a strong café culture typical of European cities. With a population of 350,000, it serves a region of approximately 1 million and is home to 159 nationalities. 10% of the population comprises students and the university, which is one of the oldest in the Netherlands, is ranked no. 1 in the country. Utrecht’s central location means it is in easy reach of other major cities (Amsterdam: 27 mins by train, Rotterdam: 37 mins by train and De Haag: 38 mins by train) and as a result is a major transport hub. It is in part due to this central geography and easy commute to other major cities, alongside its desirable lifestyle, that Utrecht’s popularity has grown in recent years. Whilst it was originally estimated that the population would grow by 50,000 to circa 400,00 by 2040 it is now estimated that this rise in population will occur within the next 12 months, making it the city with the most rapid rise in population within the Netherlands. This trajectory does not appear set to change any time soon, and is considered to be one of the key challenges which needs to be embraced by the city.

Utrecht has shown itself to be a city that continually evaluates its progress to ensure the city continues to grow and innovate. In recent years it has undergone a transformation in its method of operation and governing organisational structure, galvanised by the need to surmount imposed spending cuts by central government. The opportunity was seized to re-establish the city’s key objectives: enhance public trust, enhance transparency, improve effectiveness, improve efficiency and increase citizen engagement.

The result is a new City Office building, which opened in 2014, it has revolutionised the city’s operational practice by creating space for almost 3000 city employees to work together under one roof, all of whom had previously worked disparately throughout the city in 15 separate offices. The new super-sized city hall has led to a dramatic overhaul in long established habits of working in silos to stimulate joined up thinking with a greater efficiency of working between departments. The Dutch people have traditionally had a close relationship with their civil servants and politicians, and the design of the new town hall invites citizens to occupy and use the lower floors allowing an easier interaction between the public and administrative body. A second significant change involved a streamlining of the administrative structure to an executive team that comprises of only 4 directors who can be easily held to account, and who steer the direction of the city with a strong, shared social agenda – health and well-being for all citizens. Supported by 3 pillars: healthy environment, healthy people and healthy economy, the portfolios of each of the directors has significantly widened with the aim to establish an holistic approach which is unique to Utrecht within the Netherlands. For example, and perhaps tellingly, the planning department is now under the auspices of the ‘Director of Healthy Urban Living for Everyone’ The result is an integrated, efficient, high quality team who are in tune with the core purpose of creating a healthy city.

Sustainability is at the heart of the principles of healthy urban living being actively pursued by Utrecht and as a natural extension of this philosophy, in July 2019 it became the third Dutch city to declare a climate emergency with a significant majority of council members supporting this. A growing city means more people to move and sustainable modes of transport are core to the city’s expansion transport policy ‘Utrecht Attractive and Accessible 2030’ with an emphasis on improving public realm and encouraging the use of bicycles and public transport – students have had the benefit of a free bus pass since 1991. The long-term aspiration, funding allowing, is to move away from buses to trams for their green credentials, large capacity, and possibility of unlocking future development opportunities.

The bicycle however, has taken-over the city and Utrecht has emerged as one of the bicycle capitals in Europe second only to Amsterdam. Anecdotally there are believed to be 2 bikes / per person in Utrecht. It is difficult to overstate the rise and impact of cycling within Utrecht – which currently has a seemingly infinite number of specialised cycle lanes, the world’s largest bike park (12,500 spaces) and 125,000 bike trips per day. This is made all the more remarkable by the fact that in the 1970’s cars ruled the city and incredibly even some of the major canals were asphalted to make way for highways. Important measures to encourage the re-introduction of cycles included legislation to protect the cyclist and the implementation of extensive cycle infrastructure to lay the foundations of today’s cycling passion. A further happy result of the car being demoted, is for the asphalted canals gradually being re-instated to create attractive amenity within the city. This dramatic increase in bike use presents its own challenges however, and tactics to manage the proliferation of bikes are constantly under review by the city.

Methods includes the requirement for any new development, no matter the scale, to accommodate the bicycle. Dafne Schippers bicycle bridge crosses the Amsterdam Rhein and was opened in 2017 presents an excellent example of innovation and joined up thinking by integrating a bicycle pedestrian bridge with the roof of a school. This is typical ‘out of the box’ Utrecht thinking, bringing together and integrating requirements for maximum benefit. This project is also a tangible illustration of the new city hall functioning successfully, since it was due to the transport and education teams operating under one roof that enabled the dialogue to generate this fruitful joined up project.

At a more strategic level, and due to its central location in the country, Utrecht is recognised as a major transport ’hub’ with highways, rivers and railways passing or transecting the city. This presents a number of the city’s greatest spatial challenges, notably in the Centraal district, where 18 mainline tracks cut through the centre creating a long-standing barrier between east and west of the city.

A transformative project incorporating the new city hall, shopping mall and Smakkelaarspark – a combination of infrastructure, park, canal and new homes – collectively create a bold, active piece of the city, with the new station and pedestrian link bridging the tracks, with the new city hall sited at the ‘wrong’ side of the tracks to re-enforce connectivity.

300,000 people pass through the new expanded terminus each day and is a stunning example of a transport interchange – presenting an impressive sense of arrival, which from a visitor’s point of view is a great introduction to the city. Long term plans include extending the train network to smaller hubs radiating towards the edges of the city, to decentralise the flow of people and reduce pressure on the centre as the population grows.

Projects with bold moves such as these are possible through positive partnerships with developers and corporations, who through the procurement processes are obliged to embrace the city’s core principles of healthy urban living – prioritising a balanced housing provision, sustainable mobility, and greening the urban environment. Further to this, and in order to avoid a ‘one size fits all’ in terms of regeneration projects, the development vision and procurement methodology is designed to be specific to physical and social context. For example, the development of NPD Strip Overvecht is designed to inject new life and uses into a challenging neighbourhood and the Cattlemarket project required that private developers teamed up with architects and residents to design bespoke ‘blocks’ of family homes. Perhaps the most radical project in the pipeline to further healthy living, is The Blue Zone, designed by Mecanoo, the scheme of over 2000 homes is located at a former goods yard, for which healthy habits have been translated into four urban design themes: mobility, healthy diet, community and meaningfulness & relaxation.

If successful, this would be one of only a handful Blue Zones in the world and possibly the first to be created by intent.

The largest and most ambitious development, however, is Leidsche Rijn. Located to the west of Utrecht, this is a planned city extension on 1120ha to create homes for 100,000 residents and 40,000 new jobs. This is the largest new build project in the Netherlands, and when completed will appreciably increase the size and population of Utrecht.

Responding to the prevailing landscape, farmsteads and waterways, the masterplan establishes the principles for a series of villages or neighbourhoods all supported by a new CBD, shopping district and transport interchange. Development of localised sites started almost 20 years ago, and many neighbourhoods already have an established air with flourishing communities comprising a mix of private and affordable homes. The consistent quality in architecture and landscaping making it impossible to differentiate between tenure, the project has provided the opportunity to test new models of living and is a case study in its water management and extensive use of SUDS.

At the heart of the masterplan sits Maxima Park, a 300ha urban park and recreation area at the centre of Leidsche Rijn. Planned by West 8 it comprises gardens, (including by Piet Oudolf), nature park, sport facilities, and the Castellum, a modern interpretation of a Roman Fort discovered in Leidsche Rijn in and is a hub for cultural and community activities. The park is remarkable not only for its scale but also by the way it has been embraced by the local community who have taken this to their hearts and established a network of volunteers who have developed a close and sophisticated relationship with the city, to curate gardens, educational resources and events. There is a special energy and symbiotic relationship for those that enjoy or work in the park. Take Maximus Brewery for example, who provide valuable work placement and training for those out of work, and who in turn this year received support from over 100 enthusiastic volunteers to assist with the harvest of hops grown in the park itself.

Utrecht’s economy base is relatively broad covering the fields of digital infrastructure, health, higher education, the labour market, technology and innovation, and rated the 2nd most competitive region in Europe (London being the first) with over 36,000 companies established in the municipality, 900 of which are of international origin and include DHL, Mercedes-Benz, Capgemini and PepsiCo. It has the highest proportion of highly educated people in the Netherlands and a relatively low unemployment rate, although this is skewed toward higher-skilled individuals.

Where there is a high percentage of highly skilled employment, there is a lack of resource for medium-skilled employment, and insufficient jobs for the lower-skilled, and Utrecht are working hard with their corporate and education partners to fill the gaps.

Upskilling through training and education assist as many people as possible to move into the medium skill employment sector, whilst opportunities for creating lower-skilled employment are being explored for example, through the city’s own construction projects. Nonetheless, some residents still experience poverty, and the city has launched a Debt-Free Action Agenda which recognises that those in debt often find themselves in a vicious circle. Residents, experiential experts, scientists, employers, companies and service providers are all participating in the action agenda to raise awareness, de-stigmatize debt and help to provide solutions.

Whilst this programme is very much in the early stages it demonstrates Utrecht’s progressive partnership approach to consider well-being for all and embracing problem-solving at a personal and granular level. The city council recognises that they require numerous, linked approaches across employment, housing, education, transport and health to sustainably navigate the anticipated population growth, whilst considering the needs of existing residents, choosing to do this through positive partnerships with university, industry and the citizens of the city itself – extending the notion of a triple helix model to one that is multi-layered.

Throughout our visit we encountered numerous examples where the city had supported the citizen to realise or co-produce initiatives: a new model of living for the elderly within the community, conceived by a group of young women has come to life as an initiative within the new NPD Overvecht development; the café owner who wanted to open a restaurant and local hub in the emerging Leidsche Rijn, who not only received support from the city who facilitated the search for a site, one of the planned play areas has been located adjacent to the proposed café by the city, recognising this would generate a synergy between the functions to maximise the success of each. In a more formal set up, Utrecht have created 10 neighbourhood offices throughout Utrecht in strategic locations where the access is deemed to be most critical – eg within the more vulnerable neighbourhoods or in emerging ones such as Leidsche Rijn, which acts as a great resource for residents and charity organisations bridging the gap between policy and reality.

Thoughtfulness, equality and reasonableness are traits repeatedly encountered. All projects are based around people and healthy sustainable living, and it is clear that to succeed in the city, developers and businesses must accede to these principles, with the city, through their many layers of activity and co-production leading and excelling by example.

Lead assessor:

Victoria Whenray AoU 

Deputy lead assessors:

David Lumb AoU

Philip Jackson AoU

The Academy of Urbanism (Number 2) Limited is a not-for-profit organisation limited by guarantee registered in England and Wales 0595604, 11c Milton Road, Cambridge CB4 IXE, United Kingdom.
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