"A design that could inspire a new benchmark for sustainable urban regeneration." These were the words used by CCCB (Centre of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona) to comment on the choice to assign the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2022 to the Dutch studio OKRA landschapsarchitect for its reinstatement of Catharijnesingel, the historic canal in the heart of Utrecht, which has been uncovered through local demand.
Regeneration in the Catharijnesingel canal neighborhood has taken place through thorough work to recoup the blue and green infrastructure in Utrecht. This is part of a masterplan involving the city's railway station area, which has already been the object of extensive work aimed at improving urban habitability. This is why the planners opted to reinstate the historic waterway, uncovering a section of the canal that had been filled in and used to enable a ten-lane motorway. The first stretches of this waterway were restored in 2015, while the most recent ‒ between Mariaplaats and the Bartholomeï bridge ‒ was completed in 2020.
For repurposing the Catharijnesingel and the extension of the nearby Zocherpark, the OKRA studio came up with versatile public spaces able to change with the times, this being "in line with today's needs and ready for tomorrow's development", by setting out from mobility. In fact, areas specifically for pedestrians and cyclists follow the waterway, while recreational, sport and cultural areas have been placed alongside these. Careful consideration has been given to the street furniture, the seating zones and the various types of vegetation so as to encourage biodiversity. All this has led to a significant revolution in transport, with fewer motorized vehicles used and an increase in more eco-friendly ways of getting around.
A variety of materials have been chosen for the paving, including clinker bricks and gravel, to mark out the various routes as well as to create appealing visual connections with the historic city center. In addition, a new wooden walkway has been positioned beside the old jetty to act as seating or a stage, while the old wooden bridge has been supplemented with a bottom section so as to improve canal use. It is now in fact possible to cruise around the town center and admire the centuries-old remains of Vredenburg Castle beneath the Hoog Catharijne church.
The European Prize for Urban Public Space is a two-yearly honorary award that has been recognizing the best projects in terms of creation, conversion and restoration of public spaces in European towns and cities since 2000. Last year's edition ‒ the 11th ‒ attracted a record 326 entries from 35 countries. A fascinating aspect of this competition is that all the submitted works highlight to what extent the issues faced by towns and cities are very similar and common to most if not all; they are topical and in keeping with the context of climate change driving local authorities to seek out solutions to make towns and cities more sustainable and livable.
This is why the design by the OKRA studio was chosen as winner among the five finalists, which also included the project by Decoratelier Jozef Wouters for a Brussels city swimming pool, the one by Artilērijas dārzi for community gardens in Riga, the restoration of Place Saint Sernin in Toulouse by BAU (Joan Busquets and Pieter-Jan Versluys), and the Hage Meanwhile Use, in Sweden, by Brendeland & Kristoffersen Architects with Price & Myers. The Catharijnesingel restoration is an urban regeneration design that involved uncovering a canal as a propelling force in transformation, which will benefit local residents, the microclimate and local biodiversity. A perfect example of what may be described as 'urban resilience'.
Location: Utrecht, The Netherlands
Architects: OKRA landschapsarchitecten
Images © OKRA landschapsarchitecten, courtesy of CCCB