A Dutch city makes room for its river — and a new identity

The Dutch city of Nijmegen is building a flood-control channel for the River Waal (left). In the process, it is also creating an island for recreation as well as prime property that can be developed into a new heart of the city. (Room for the River Waal)

NIJMEGEN, The Netherlands — In this city along the River Waal, this year marks the 20th anniversary of a scary event that quite nearly turned into a catastrophe.

Heavy rains upstream in France and Germany, where the river is known as the Rhine, sent a surge of water toward Nijmegen. The city of 170,000 people is protected by dikes. But as the waters rose and fear built that the dikes would break, many people and cattle in and around Nijmegen evacuated. Luckily, the dikes held, and after several harrowing days, the water level dropped again.

The people of Nijmegen aren’t taking their good luck for granted. With climate change expected to bring more intense storms like the one in 1995 (and a previous one in 1993), the city is embarking on a massive flood-control project. That may be expected in the Netherlands, a low-lying country where most homes are built behind protective dikes (There’s a saying here that “God created the world and the Dutch created Holland”). But even here, the approach underway in Nijmegen is unusual, and filled with ideas that river cities anywhere can learn from.

There’s two reasons why. First, Nijmegen is not simply raising or strengthening its dikes, which might seem like the obvious solution. Instead, it is moving some dikes back from the river, essentially creating a much wider floodplain. Into that floodplain, excavators and cranes are carving a new channel for the River Waal. That channel is broadening the river — and giving future floodwaters more room to flow without threatening the city.

Karsten Schipperheijn, Room for the River Waal project manager (left) and Nijmegen Alderman Bert Velthuis (Letty Reimerink)

The second reason is that all this engineering work is creating a whole lot more than flood control. Construction of the new channel also means that a new island is being made in the middle of the Waal. The island’s elevation is high enough in some spots that it will be possible to construct a whole new section of the city here, along with parks and nature areas.

Meanwhile, a new neighborhood is rising across the river from the city center, bringing some balance to the urban development on both sides of the river. And four new bridges are being built, connecting the new island to both sides of the river. When it is all done, Nijmegen will have a new urban heart in the middle of the very river that has occasionally threatened its existence.

“For the first time,” says Alderman Bert Velthuis, “the city center will actually be in the middle of the city.”

New approach to water

The work in Nijmegen is part of a national program in the Netherlands called “Room for the River.” Climate change means that just raising the dikes is not enough anymore, the thinking goes. The new approach relies on broadening and deepening floodplains, removing groins that obstruct water flow and other ways of allowing more water to pass safely. The Dutch government is spending €2.3 billion in more than 30 crucial river locations, protecting 4 million people who live in flood-prone areas.

The project in Nijmegen — Room for the River Waal — is the biggest and most awe-inspiring of the national program. For the past eight years, the construction area has been the playground of excavators and cranes, and has become an attraction in itself, drawing around 30,000 visitors from all around the globe. The river construction is expected to be finished at the end of this year, at a final cost of €351 million.

Before: Dikes on the north shore of the River Waal (seen as a roughly U-shaped squiggly line) come close to the river itself, creating a water bottleneck and flood risk during heavy rains. (Google Maps)

After: The dikes are moved back and a new channel allows more water to flow, reducing flood risk. An island is created in the river, creating room for new development, and new bridges connect residents on both sides of the river. (Room for the River Waal)

With a history that goes back 2,000 years, Nijmegen is the oldest city in the Netherlands. The city’s medieval center suffered heavy damage in World War II — the epic film “A Bridge Too Far” was about fighting in Nijmegen. The city center today is a mix of very old and new architecture, and is located close to the river. Economically, Nijmegen is emerging as a knowledge center in the health sector, with a leading role played by a local university that specializes in research. But the river itself remains important:The Waal is Europe’s busiest river, and the inland port in Nijmegen is Europe’s largest.

When Room for the River began, the original idea in Nijmegen wasn’t very ambitious. The plan was to lower some groins and make a simple and functional bypass in the river. It was a technical solution that would not have offered the city any side benefits.

Soon after, the municipality came up with the idea of leveraging the water project as a tool for urban regeneration. The new island would create an ideal spot for leisure activities such as water sports, walking and organizing festivals. It would bring nature back into the city and at the same time connect two adjacent protected areas that are habitats for birds and plants. Meanwhile, across from the city center on the north shore of the Waal, a new riverfront promenade would anchor an expanded residential area with great views of the city.

“It was quite remarkable that the national government specifically asked us for our input and ideas in this project,” says Karsten Schipperheijn, Room for the River Waal project manager. “In 2007, the municipality of Nijmegen basically took over the execution of the project from the national government.”

Winning over opponents

There was just one big obstacle in the plan. In order to dig the channel, the dikes across the river from the city center had to be relocated 350 meters inland. The area that was to be excavated was mainly agricultural land. Nevertheless, 50 families who were living there had to move. The inhabitants of the town of Lent, which is part of Nijmegen but more rural, feared their tranquil village life would be turned upside down.

For several years, Schipperheijn has been in close contact with the residents on the northern shore. He still visits every week to talk to people one-on-one. “We organized community meetings from the start,” he says. “We listened to their critical remarks and asked what their real concerns and interests were. It turned out that they were mostly concerned about practical things like traffic, accessibility during the execution of the work and their cultural heritage. We tried to find solutions to their concerns. For example, we really went a lengths way to maintain some old buildings the people were attached to.”

A historic farmhouse in the village of Lent is moved to make way for a new bridge. About 50 families on the north shore of the Waal had to be moved to widen the river. (VidiPhoto dpa-NETHERLANDS OUT DPA/LANDOV)

What won people over was the effort to add urban amenities to the area. An attractive quay will give people a reason to for a walk along the north shore and enjoy the scenery. The new bridges also promised attractive designs and improved connections with the city center. The municipality’s plan is to more than double the population on this side of the river, from about 8,000 to 20,000.

Eventually, even some of the most vocal opponents of the plan became supporters. Frank Pluym, a 56-year old car mechanic, is one of them. In 2000, when Pluym heard that he had to move, he protested fiercely. “For us, the most frustrating thing was that everything was so uncertain for a long time,” Pluym says. “Negotiations with the municipality were extremely slow and nerve-racking.“

“I did not plan to start over again at the age of 50,” Pluym continues. “But in the end it was a win-win-situation for all of us. And I must say Lent is really profiting. The area is so much more attractive now and there is more activity. Of course some people just want peace and quiet, but that is an illusion in our days.”

Questions ahead

Construction work in Nijmegen is nearly complete. The work on the last of the bridges is underway and the final part of the side channel is being dug. Already, the island is frequented by joggers, and according to Alderman Velthuis, cows will be brought over to the island soon to graze. People are seeking new ways of exploring the river. For example, a former journalist has made a successful business out of offering boat tours on the Waal.

A new quay on the north shore of the River Waal is among the urban amenities meant to draw  new residents and visitors and create a new heart for the city. (Room for the River Waal)

However, much work remains to be done along Nijmegen’s waterfront. A previously existing quay on the south bank — the Waalkade — is a bit run down and in need of improvement. A former industrial area on the riverfront is being turned into a residential neighborhood with workspaces for creative entrepreneurs. And the transformation of Lent into a major residential area is just beginning. Nijmegen is seeing modest but steady population growth, so transformative changes are possible. But realization of these plans are likely to take at least 15 years.

The biggest unresolved question is how, exactly, to develop the new island. About half of the land area is expected to be built up and the other half will remain a nature area. “We have not yet determined the final allocation plan for this area,” says Alderman Velthuis. “So for now all use will be temporary and we will explore possibilities how to develop it in the future.”

The most important thing, Velthuis says, will be to make the island into something that advances Nijmegen’s new connections, both with its river and across it. “People from Lent should cross the river to enjoy the city center,” he says, “and people from the old city should be drawn to cross over to the northern part. With these new bridges and such a magnificent island in the middle, I think we will succeed.”

“This truly is a turning point, one that a city encounters only once every few hundred years,” Velthuis continues. “The city is literally turning around in its bed. The bed is squeaking, but soon we will face in another direction.”

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Letty is a freelance journalist who writes stories about cities and the people inhabiting them.  Full bio

LEARNING FROM NIJMEGEN

  • Nijmegen is moving dikes back from the River Waal and carving a new channel that gives the river more room during heavy rains.
  • The construction is creating new urban amenities, such as an island for recreation and places to build new urban neighborhoods.
  • The project is part of the Dutch “Room for the River” program, which stresses that heavier storms will require deeper floodplains, not higher dikes.

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