Catharijnesingel by OKRA Landscape Architects unites ecology, recreation, traffic

The restoration of the Catharijnesingel, an urban public project in Utrecht, has been shortlisted for the European Prize for Urban Public Space 2022.

by Dhwani ShanghviPublished on : Oct 05, 2022 Updated on : Nov 21, 2022

The European Prize for Urban Public Space, initiated by the Centre of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona (CCCB), is a biennial award that recognises public intervention projects in European cities. This unit of the European city, although diverse in context, is unified through a historic commonality of elements like human scale, compact design and a mixed-use character. Beyond this continental scale, as global cities, they share challenges and transformations that are trans-national. The significance of the public space in facilitating collective encounters - political, economic and social - is a product of the physical design that accommodates them.

Historic context of the old city, Utrecht | Restoration of Catharijnesingel / European Prize for Urban Public Space| OKRA Landscape Architects | STIRworld
Historic context of the old city, Utrecht Image: Courtesy of 2021 OKRA landschapsarchitecten

The competition takes place in two stages - the first stage involves the selection of 25 projects that are published as digital archives on the host website, five of which are shortlisted for the second round. A professional jury then analyses the urban transformation within its context, as well as its impact on collective life to determine the final winner. The projects selected thus become theoretical prototypes for questions on urban public space, and serve as a foundation for understanding good practices, the resultant of which are not only public but also urban.

View of the canal, street and houses beyond it | Restoration of Catharijnesingel / European Prize for Urban Public Space| OKRA Landscape Architects | STIRworld
View of the canal, street and houses beyond it Image: Courtesy of 2021 OKRA landschapsarchitecten

The projects shortlisted for the second round in the 11th edition of The European Prize for Urban Public Space are - FLOW, Brussels; Hage, Sweden; Urban Community Garden “Sporta pils dārzi”, Latvia; Saint Sernin Square, France; and Catharijnesingel, The Netherlands.

Designed by the Netherlands-based OKRA Landscape Architects BV, a landscape architecture and urban design firm, Catharijnesingel is an urban public project that integrates ecology, recreation and traffic.

Masterplan, Catharijnesingel |Restoration of Catharijnesingel / European Prize for Urban Public Space| OKRA Landscape Architects | STIRworld
Masterplan, Catharijnesingel Image: Courtesy of 2021 OKRA landschapsarchitecten

In the historic inner city of Utrecht, the restoration of the Stadsbuitengracht canal imbues a new public identity to the Catharijnesingel, a street that runs along the northern part of the canal. Since the early 20th century, the canal has undergone a series of changes, that have integrated it into the public transport system - the tram, then bus, and finally in the 1970s, a 10-lane motorway, when the canal was filled in. The 2020 restoration project included excavating the motorway to reinstate the canal to its original state. The team of architects at OKRA, led by Martin Knujit and Wim Voogt, worked on the philosophy of an inclusive and climate-proof design, that facilitates the creation of a vibrant, connected, healthy and attractive city.

The revitalised Stadsbuitengracht canal|Restoration of Catharijnesingel / European Prize for Urban Public Space| OKRA Landscape Architects | STIRworld
The revitalised Stadsbuitengracht canal Image: Courtesy of 2021 OKRA landschapsarchitecten

The project involves not just the revival of the erstwhile canal, but also the extension of Zocherpark (named after the 19th century Dutch architect Jan David Zocher, who designed it), as well as re-working the traffic flow.

Sloping foreshores abutting the canal |Restoration of Catharijnesingel / European Prize for Urban Public Space| OKRA Landscape Architects | STIRworld
Sloping foreshores abutting the canal Image: Courtesy of 2021 OKRA landschapsarchitecten

A strategic and complex arrangement of pedestrian and vehicular streets, recreational areas, seating areas, grasslands, a wooden deck to replace the old jetty, a biodiversity of flowering, and non-flowering plants etc activates the Catharijnebaan - the former motorway.

Seating area overlooking the canal |Restoration of Catharijnesingel / European Prize for Urban Public Space| OKRA Landscape Architects | STIRworld
Seating area overlooking the canal Image: Courtesy of 2021 OKRA landschapsarchitecten

Public places very often fill the urban gaps in a city, expedite encounters, exchanges and community ties and provide a neutral and democratic front that celebrates diversity - not just of people but also activities, landscape and built environment. Catharijnesingel is a site that exemplifies this idea of diversity. The sloping foreshores are a site for a variety of flora and fauna, and provide walking paths for pedestrians along the canal.

Pedestrian Walking paths |Restoration of Catharijnesingel / European Prize for Urban Public Space| OKRA Landscape Architects | STIRworld
Pedestrian walking paths Image: Courtesy of 2021 OKRA landschapsarchitecten

Larger openings within these foreshores also allow recreational and sports activities, while scattered art works generate opportunities for serendipitous conversations. The vegetation here, including perennial and flowering plants, as well as rough grasslands are furnished with seating areas that have visual access to vistas, as well as the changing fabric of the city, along the route of the canal.

Art Installations along the park|Restoration of Catharijnesingel / European Prize for Urban Public Space| OKRA Landscape Architects | STIRworld
Art installations along the park Image: Courtesy of 2021 OKRA landschapsarchitecten

Designed in the English garden style, the public park is an informal space, with an idealised view of nature. It rejects the symmetrical, architectural garden of the French style, opening up spaces for water bodies (in this case the canal), lawns against groves of trees, and the historic remains of the Vredenburg Castle. Furthermore, a hardscape composed of clinker bricks and gravel hark to the historical city of Utrecht.

Activities in the restored canal|Restoration of Catharijnesingel / European Prize for Urban Public Space| OKRA Landscape Architects | STIRworld
Activities in the restored canal Image: Courtesy of 2021 OKRA landschapsarchitecten

Along the route of the canal, towards the north, is the Hoog Catharijne, which accommodates a shopping centre, offices and residential complex. This privately owned landmark sits in front of the Utrecht Centraal train station. Next to the Hoog Catharijne, above the surface of water, is a glass building, with a glass floor, that affords views of the canal below. Beyond this, a multipurpose wooden deck accommodates a new jetty for canoeists, paddlers and recreational boaters, in addition to being used as a seating element, a stand or a stage.

Glass building above the canal surface|Restoration of Catharijnesingel / European Prize for Urban Public Space| OKRA Landscape Architects | STIRworld
Glass building above the canal surface Image: Courtesy of 2021 OKRA landschapsarchitecten

A New York-based non-profit organisation, Project for Public Spaces (PPS) observes that a public space design needs to present at least 10 reasons for people to be there. The newly restored Catharijnesingel achieves this multi-fold functionality, not just through the revival of its historic canal but also a holistic upgradation of the historic neighbourhood around it.

  • Contemporary landmark of Catharijnesingel|Restoration of Catharijnesingel / European Prize for Urban Public Space| OKRA Landscape Architects | STIRworld
    Contemporary landmark of Catharijnesingel Image: Courtesy of 2021 OKRA landschapsarchitecten
  • Multi-fold functionality of Catharijnesingel|Restoration of Catharijnesingel / European Prize for Urban Public Space| OKRA Landscape Architects | STIRworld
    Multi-fold functionality of Catharijnesingel Image: Courtesy of 2021 OKRA landschapsarchitecten

Furthermore, the presence of landmarks - both historic and contemporary, public transport facilities; access to interesting visual experiences like vistas, protection and enhancement of natural features, accommodation of a cross-section of users, and a sense of safety brought on by consistent usage of the space fosters social interactions and a sense of community that makes Catharijnesingel a truly urban public insert.

Update: On November 15, an international jury awarded the 2022 European Prize for Urban Public Space to the restoration of the Catharijnesingel canal in Utrecht (Netherlands), a project by the Dutch studio OKRA landschapsarchitecten. The jury considered the reconstruction of the canal, as well as the recovery of a linear park running along its banks, as an exemplary intervention for the survival of our cities in this new climate era.

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