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What is Utrecht? Utrecht is just another Dutch city, a generic Dutch place if you will. Not really important, not really interesting and not really pretty. Lots of bicycles, rain and Dutch food. Holland in its most common form. So what is special about this not so special place? Utrecht currently leads one of the most complex projects I have come across, and it does so rather successfully.

At the foundation of this urban program called CU 2030 (the target year of the program, which has a bilingual website and a Facebook page) stands the central train station, which is also the largest train station in The Netherlands (due to Utrecht’s location). The train station consists of 14 platforms and almost 300,000 passengers pass through it every day. As part of the program, the station is being expanded to 19 platforms and on top of it dozens of construction and transportion projects are taking place all around. Here is what they say (I’ve highlighted the section that deals with the program partners):

Utrecht is building a new Station Area. This was much needed; ever since the Hoog Catharijne shopping mall was built in the 70s there had been overdue maintenance, neglect, a growing number of passengers, a growing city and the desire to get water back in the old canal. With the contruction of a new and renenewed area all these things are tacled at once.

The historic inner city and the Station Area were two seperated parts of Utrecht; these parts will be connected again to form one coherent centre. Liveliness and safety will be improved. There will be space for culture, leisure, the area will be better accessible and last but not least: water will flow once again in the canal that was filled in during the 70’s.

We’re building a future that’s sustainable: low emission buildings, plenty of pleasant space for bikes, public transport and pedestrians, and solar cells on top of the platforms.The building of the Utrecht Station Area is a close co-operation between the City of Utrecht, Corio (owner of Hoog Catharijne mall), Dutch Rail, ProRail and the Jaarbeurs (tradefair).

You can notice that this complex program involves five major partners – the municipality, the mall that is conencted to the train station and goes by the name Hoog Catharijne (we’ll get to it shortly), both of the Dutch rail companies and the fair grounds. There is no single boss that dictates everything for everyone. Like in many other places, The Dutch built many bad malls in the 1970s, and one of them was placed on Utrecht’s central train station. In fact, to exit from the station to the city center, one must go through the mall (also at night when all the shops are closed). The mall itself has an incoherent internal structure, which became pretty unsafe over the years until they had to shut down the upper floor entirely. As part of the train station upgrade the internal strcuture of the mall is modified so as to make a cleaner and more navigable space eventually. Before we delve further, here is a fantastic clip that explains almost everything:

The Dutch work on a grand scale. This is not a transportation plan nor a construction plan. This is solid urban planning that goes beyond just construction and transportation and includes also contact with the various stakeholders (including the residents), financing and execution. An important aspect is the day to day project management itself. The entire area of the train station lies in a complete disarray, yet the station and its shops are open for business, the mall works and accessibility for bikes, pedestrians and public transit is provided all throughout the project (even though it’s a little bit messy for Holland). The program has an information center open to public, which also provides guided group tours. Yep, the guys from Utrecht city hall do not hide beyond blank walls like is common in other countries.

The new bike parking strcuture is used for seating and relaxing in front of the new square outside of the train station. The 2015 Tour de France will start here.

Jaarbuers Stairs and Bike Parking in Utrecht

The clip shown above was uploaded to the web last March. I visited the Utrecht during the month of July and it appeared to be going as planned. The new concert hall (Tivoli Vredenburg) next to station was already open. The luxurious bike parking strcture, including over 4,700 spaces is in operation, and serves as a convenient platform for relaxing. Overall, more than 30,000 bike parking spaces are planned to built around the station area (and it will not be enough). The new city hall is just about ready. You can see the other projects around the station, including daylighting of a canal that was covered during the 1970s (when even the Dutch thought that the city needs as much asphalt as possible).

Not a dull moment. The new concert hall in the background.

Tivoli Vredenburg Halls

This post demands further discussion on the lessons that can be learned from this urban program. In the meantime, you can keep calm and know that there are public organizations that plan, manage and execute big and complex urban projects. And they do it while sticking to schedule, holding a public discussion and in the right place.

For your convenience, here is a map of Utrecht and its central train station (which is located on the western edge of the old city):