SUSTAINABILITY

IMAGE: Henk Rougoor

New Goals, Old Infrastructure:

when sustainability projects fail

September 18, 2021

 

By Laura Schubert

Junior Officer, Communications and Member Relations, ICLEI Europe

Sustainable, smart and resilient mobility is a growing priority in many European cities. Zero-emissions vehicles, lower speed limits, multimodal commuting – there are a multitude of initiatives that cities can pursue to encourage their own green mobility transition.

 

The European Commission heartily encourages this prioritisation of green investment in the mobility sector, as outlined in its 2020 ‘Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy’. Sustainable transition at the local level is integral to achieving the climate neutrality targets we, as European residents, have been tasked with reaching.

 

“Whether it’s a village of 50, a city of 50,000, or a metropolis of 5 million, local governments have their role to play in the sustainability mobility transition. Without their action and commitment, all we have is a piece of paper with a bunch of nice ideas,” says Elma Mescovik, Sustainable Mobility Officer from ICLEI Europe.

 

So the cities get to work. They build new tram tracks, convert parking spaces to parklets and install e-charging stations – all while navigating the challenge of redesigning infrastructure that has been in place for decades or centuries.

 

How is it then, that cities reconcile the urgent need to transition towards more sustainable mobility systems, while ensuring that their cultural, societal and environmental heritage is not lost? Are these features of a city now considered inferior to green advancement?

 

According to Daniela Rizzi, Senior Officer for Nature-based Solutions at ICLEI Europe, “urban parks and green areas are integral to ensuring biodiversity in the urban environment and to supplying ecosystem services, like air quality improvement, which help make cities more resilient to climate change. Urban nature-based solutions also provide the space we humans need to connect with nature.”

 

But what if the nature we so require is the barrier that stands in our way towards becoming a smart, sustainable and resilient city?

 

IMAGE: Alphons Nieuwenhuis

The city of Amsterdam, famous for its well-developed cycling culture, was faced with this impossible dilemma during one of its most recent infrastructure projects.

 

At the centre of the city lies the Rembrandtplein – a popular square full of cafés and bars, often full of residents and tourists in the evening. Bicycles transport many people to the square, leading to a flux of bicycles and a shortage of space to park them. For accessibility reasons, bicycles were banned in the square, so nearby alleyways began filling up, leading to increased noise complaints by local residents.

 

Recognising the need to act, the City hired project manager Elian Ineke to lead a new project – the construction of a bicycle parking garage beneath the Rembrandtplein.

 

The project was a magic pill solution. Go underground, where nobody and nothing will be disturbed. The perfect use of space.

 

The project team soon realised, however, that the exploratory study had been far too logistically and financially optimistic. They moved forward, however, ready to face the expected obstacles.

 

 Community input was a central guiding feature to the project, and from the beginning, local residents and businesses strongly advocated for an alternative to the alleyway bicycle parking. The project team also joined police officers on their nightly patrols at the Rembrandtplein. They witnessed the swelling crowds for themselves, further convinced that a modern infrastructural solution was desperately needed to ease the strain on the square and its surroundings.

 

Then, after a consultation with a tree specialist, the team received some bad news. The planned construction would require the removal of 31 of the 32 trees growing on the Rembrandtplein.

 

Unwilling to accept that stipulation, the team immediately started looking for alternative locations to build the bicycle garage. Under the Amstel river or Herengracht canal, or in vacant buildings – each location presented insurmountable spatial, construction or financial obstacles.

 

 

IMAGE: Henk Rougoor

When the team was unconvinced about how to proceed, they returned to the local residents and business owners who, by now, were aware of the project challenges.  The community was presented with a question: “What would you advise the City Council to do?”.

 

Forty-seven percent of respondents advised stopping the project, thirty-eight percent urged the project to move forward and fifteen percent called for a continuation of the project but under certain conditions.

 

According to Elian, who spoke with the City of Amsterdam in an interview, it is rare to be advised to halt a project due to a lack of support, particularly when that project sets out to remedy a challenging issue. He reasoned “it is in our DNA to make any project a success and to always come up with a solution.”

 

But what if the solution degrades the quality of the natural environment? What if it requires cutting down trees in an urban centre, where nature is so highly valued? Does green innovation still have the upper hand?

 

According to Elian’s team and the City of Amsterdam, the barriers to the project could not be overcome without introducing negative consequences to the neighbourhood. As a result, the Rembrandtplein bicycle parking garage project has been put on hold. It will be revisited again in two years, when, perhaps, new solutions can be determined. Meanwhile, another underground bicycle parking garage is under construction at the nearby Leidseplein, so Rembrandtplein locals and city planners are watching closely.

 

It seems even in a city like Amsterdam – the World Cycling Capital – where the advancement of cycling culture is a city priority, a sustainable mobility transition is hard-won. The worthiest of projects are sometimes bested by existing infrastructure, be they cultural, societal – or, in this case, environmental. It is, ultimately, a choice to determine which

is more important.

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