Last updated 2 days ago by UtrechtCentral.com
A motorway for more than 40 years, and now a canal again. It’s certainly a reason to celebrate for Utrecht and its residents!
The city of Utrecht now looks like the day it was born. Yes, somewhat literally. It’s like getting that old charm back, or as some say, a correction of a huge mistake. Part of Utrecht’s historic outer ring moat was converted into a motorway in the 1970s but is filled with water again. It’s back to being a canal.
On September 12, 2020, some municipality officials and residents celebrated the restoration of its 900-year old moat. To the delight of some swimmers and pleasure boats, water is finally back in Catharijnesingel, which surrounds the city’s old town. The canal was converted into a 12-lane motorway more than 40 years ago. But what is the whole story behind the celebration?
The moats significance throughout history
Utrecht was granted city rights in 1122. Post that, a wall was built and a moat was dug around it for protection. In fact, some branches of the rivers Rhine and Vecht were turned to fill the moat with water. The city was thus surrounded by the wall and water to attack when required or protect itself from predictable assaults. The mud taken out of the moat was used to build more fortifications. The construction served its purpose for around 700 years, but with changing times they lost its purpose. By the 19th century, they were almost not needed. These ramparts, including some city gates constructed for the same defensive purposes, were taken down in between 1830 and 1872.
Meanwhile, the canal still served some purpose as goods were transported by water even then. However, as time passed by, this function was also minimal, as it was the time of modernisation and asphalt started overpowering the city. By the 20th century, water was no longer used for transferring goods and cars took over. In the 1950s, talks and consultations began to stop the free-flowing water of the canal, which existed since its birth promoting green and healthier living, to give more space to automobiles. By then, the number of cars had increased so much that it became difficult to manage. In 1959, the municipality asked several experts for solutions. Shortly after, traffic management plans came about. That was around the same time when German traffic expert Feuchtinger offered them a solution.
Moat gets filled to allow more vehicles
He suggested the city’s buitengracht, as the watercourse surrounding the old town is called, which covered the entire historic city center, to be filled. As expected, the drastic plan was met with a lot of resistance from the residents as well as some of the politicians.
However, after that, a toned-down version of the plan was to be implemented, according to which part of Catharijnesingel was to be converted into a motorway, connecting the city center of Utrecht and central station, and providing better access to the shopping district Hoog Catharijne. Politicians then thought this to be a fair move from the business point of view. A parking lot was constructed next to it by filling Weerdsingel. These were operational by the mid-1970s. Thankfully, in 1966, Netherlands first female prime minister Marga Klompé declared the North and East part of the canal as national monuments thereby protecting the complete destruction.
Imagine, cars sped past on the motorway right at that time in the heart of the city then. Residents were not happy, and they found this to be unsafe. Some of the policymakers also raised similar concerns. By the 1980s and 1990s, there were plans to have a new center and station area for the city. But that was also the time when the voices asking water to return to the canal became louder and louder.
By 1997, these calls were finally heard and a decision was made to fill the moat with water again. The entire canal restoration took more than twenty years by reopening in three parts.
Around the year 2000, digging began, and the first part of the moat – between the Weerdsluis and the Monica bridge – was filled in by 2001. A year later another section had water. But after that, the work stopped. In fact, residents in the 2002 referendum voted against the motorway, asking to replace roads with water. Several actions were taken the following years arguing for greener and healthier living, and work continued at a fast pace to fill the remaining parts of the moat with water.
Finally, in 2015, work continued and now Weerdsingel and Catharijnesingel were connected again through water. By the end of that year, water even reached another section and finally followed till Hoog Catharijne. This is when Utrecht was almost restored to the way it looked during its birth, getting its old historic center back, and work for filling Catharijnesingel continued.
On September 12, 2020, the canal ring finally completed and water now flows freely around the city. This was the third and last part for the completion of the canal ring, though it took a long time to complete. This certainly meant a historic day and a big reason for the city’s residents to celebrate. The boats can now travel the full six-km waterway route around the city center, and under the indoor shopping center. And since the canal is connected to the river, it provides a free pass to fish and other aquatic life as well. Also, as part of the celebration, the central Zocherpark is restored to match its original 1830 design.
The restoration of the historic ring canal is a part of the city’s plan to promote a greener and healthier living. As part of the same, the city opened the world’s largest bicycle parking lot in 2017. For an eco-friendlier living, the city is driving to lay flora and fauna on the rooftops of city buildings. In addition, the city is building Europe’s largest car-free residential area.