Residents in the Dutch city of Utrecht have long understood that vibrant cities and lots of cars don’t really mix; Utrecht first experimented with temporarily closing streets in its city center to vehicles in 1965. Today, a pedestrianized city center is the norm, and Utrecht, along with most of the Netherlands, is known for being bicycle-friendly. Still, vehicles tend to dictate the design of most public space there, as with most cities in the world. The architects of a newly proposed neighborhood called Merwede want to change that, though, by giving residents everything they need within walking distance.
Merwede will be home to 12,000 people on a nearly 60-acre site in southwest Utrecht, with a focus on pedestrians and cyclists, and with public transportation that connects to all parts of the Netherlands. A fleet of shared cars and bicycles will be available to everyone living there. Instead of one (or multiple) cars per household, filling the streets with congestion and parking spaces, Merwede will have one car for every three households.
More than a third of Utrecht’s 1.3 million people already bike to the city center daily, but Marco Broekman, the architect whose firm led the design for the urban plan, says in an email that many in the Netherlands are still stuck on the idea of owning a row house with one or two cars out front, “but in new urban-oriented generations and groups, we see people with a different mindset towards cars, from owning to sharing.”
“By having this car-free area, we can design spaces without the straightjacket [or] rules of the car, and thus focus on essentials for a high density area, which is the quality of public space, city on eye level, green, biodiversity, climate adaptation and meeting places for social interaction,” he adds. “With the car-free area and low parking norm, we want to set a standard for new high density neighborhoods, and want to set the right conditions so people can change their behavior; from a car dependent to more sustainable and healthy ways of transportation.”
This design for Merwede will transform what is currently a business park full of offices into a complete neighborhood, with 6,000 dwellings in more than 200 buildings. The motto of the design, according to the Marco.Broekman firm, is “green, unless”; every building block will have a courtyard garden, and a new Merwedepark will provide a walking area along the canal. As Utrecht alderman Kees Diepeveen says over email, “It will be a city district with everything for daily provisions, like a supermarket, primary and secondary schools and medical services, within walking distance. People can do their shopping, work and play sports in the neighborhood and relax at a terrace on a city square.”
That greenery will extend to the building roofs as well; greenery and solar panels on the roof are part of Merwede’s sustainability efforts, and water from the nearby canal will be used in “the largest underground heat and storage facility in the Netherlands,” per Diepeveen, to heat and cool the district. The firm says it will be “almost energy-neutral,” and specialists are researching how the district can become circular as well.
Utrecht is the fourth largest city in the Netherlands, home to the country’s largest university, and is a central hub for transportation—and it’s only going to get more crowded. It’s one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, according to Diepeveen, and officials expect to have 100,000 new residents by 2040, for a total population of 450,000. This neighborhood design is important, he says, to give people a chance to live within the city, within bicycle distance of its amenities, instead of building new suburbs on the outskirts.
More than just this one neighborhood needs to adapt, though. “Unless Utrecht is a real cycling city, driving cars is still popular,” he says. “A big change in the mind-set of inhabitants is needed to change a city into a car-free city as a whole or at least a city where driving cars is not so common anymore. The new city district Merwede is a good start for a shift from cars to cycling and walking and from private ownership to sharing.”
The Merwede designs are now open for public comments from residents. Some are excited about the proposal, says Diepeveen, but others are concerned—mostly about the number of people who will live here, the extra cyclists this will bring to slow-traffic bridges, and all the new routes the city needs to build, within this neighborhood and to connect it to other districts. Those responses will be processed by March 11, and then the Merwede plans will go to the city council for a decision. “If this all goes according to plan,” Diepeveen says, “the first residents can move in in 2024.”