The Ringland project
The Ringland-project is a large-scale sustainable urban development, focusing on a complete redesign of the highway system in the city of Antwerp, Belgium. The research underlying this complex infrastructure project has been entirely organized by local citizens in a unique and innovative bottom-up manner. Detailed research studies, executed by external academics and financed through crowdfunding, were subsequently presented to the government. The Ringland-project supports a new kind of social interaction between scientists, policy makers and citizens.
Large infrastructure projects in Europe often suffer severely from gridlock between those that decide (i.e. policy makers) and those that ultimately benefit (i.e. local citizens). These multibillion euro investments are invariably executed top-down. Governments propose, plan and design large infrastructure projects and subsequently organize the scientific research that is needed to implement them (e.g. environmental impact assessments). Only at the very last moment, when plans are in their final stage and research has been fully completed, is the general public asked to reflect and provide input. This creates a participation gap, as citizens feel excluded from the planning and research process. All too often, this participation gap leads to the emergence of highly vocal action groups that strongly oppose the policy makers’ plans. Often this leads to long legal fights that greatly delay or even prevent the execution of large infrastructure projects.
However, both policy makers and local citizens share a common goal: they both want to realize projects that improve their own and their children’s future. So how can the planning and research for large infrastructure projects in Europe be arranged in a way that avoids gridlock between policy makers and local citizens? The arguments and strategies used by citizen activist groups are typically negative (they act against government plans). Can a situation be created in which citizens feel both strongly involved and in favor of a large-scale infrastructure projects?
Unique in Europe
The Ringland-project illustrates that this is possible, provided we think and act in a non-traditional way which allows for both grass-root initiative and large-scale urban planning. The Ringland-project is unique in Europe, insofar that it is a large-scale and highly complex infrastructure project (€ 6-billion investment) that has been initiated and developed completely by local citizens in a bottom-up approach. The Ringland-project is an investment that focuses on a complete redesign of the road system in the city of Antwerp, Belgium.
Originally created in the 1960’s, the ring road system is now surrounded by housing developments, because of continued urban expansion. Consequently, the ring road now runs through densely populated areas within the city and this has a major impact on pollution, living conditions and health. Moreover, the city of Antwerp has an urgent need for additional green areas (e.g. to combat the heat island effect) as well as housing development opportunities. With approximately 500,000 inhabitants, the city expects a population increase of 70,000 inhabitants by 2050.
The Ringland-project proposes an integrated sustainable solution for these issues: improved mobility, better living conditions and health, more green areas and extra housing. This implies a complete redesign of the urban road system, based on two major components: (1) A complete covering of the ring road, moving the motorway underground whilst freeing up the space above for new green areas (parks & woods) and housing development (2) A new traffic system, with local and transit traffic running through separate tunnels.
The Ringland-project is unique in Europe, as it is a large-scale and highly complex infrastructure project that is completely and independently developed by local citizens. The Ringland idea was originally proposed in 2013 by a group of interested local citizens from different backgrounds (architects, engineers, teachers…). To further these ideas, these citizens organized themselves in a not-for-profit organization ‘Het Ring-genootschap vzw’. Their biggest challenge was to demonstrate the technical and financial feasibility of the Ringland-project idea. This required professional research, comparable in scope, ambition and quality to the conventional environmental impact assessments carried out for large infrastructure projects proposed by governmental institutions.
Citizen science: a new dimension
The Ringland-project has brought Citizen Science to a new dimension. The scientific research underlying the project (technical feasibility, mobility impact, environmental impact, financial planning) is as extensive and of equally high-quality as in other similar large-scale infrastructure projects. The scientific research has been conducted by the same academic groups and professional experts that would normally be involved in government-organized projects. The main difference, however, is that the research has been entirely funded and organized by citizens through crowd-funding and crowd-braining.
- Crowd-braining: attraction of ‘free’ scientific expertise from the large pool of available scientific talent in the city (e.g. University of Antwerp). This was done by the creation of the Ringland Science Academy, a group of approximately 50 scientists, professionals and experts who helped to improve and refine the project on a voluntary basis
- Crowd-funding: attraction of funds from the local community, to finance the required research by academic and professional agencies. A short and intense internet campaign raised € 100,000 in six weeks from approximately 4,500 Antwerp citizens. Another €100,000 was raised by means of a music festival, which attracted around 15,000 people.
The € 200,000 which was collected through crowdfunding was used to fund four research projects, in which four external partners participated. These research teams investigated four different topics:
- Infrastructure planning and technical feasibility
- Mobility impact
- Environmental impact
- Financial feasibility and housing development
The truly innovative approach used by the Ringland-project stimulates a two-way interaction between citizens and policy makers. It strongly strengthens connection between citizens (proposing ideas for urban development), scientists (critically evaluating ideas for urban development) and policy makers (ensuring that great ideas for urban development are being realized).
What has been Ringland’s political impact so far?
The Ringland-project has had a profound impact on policy decisions in terms of the urban planning for the city of Antwerp:
- The Antwerp City Council has been persuaded that the covering of the ring road as proposed by Ringland is a viable project. To this end, the City Council has allocated € 300 million to complete a first series of coverings, which are intended as stepping stones towards a full covering of the ring road.
- The Flemish government has budgeted € 2 million to conduct dedicated research into the full coverage of the ring road. A superintendent has been appointed on December 3rd 2015 to lead this project. The superintendent has been tasked with the evaluation of all the benefits and possibilities to the infrastructure as envisioned by the Ringland-project.
- These decisions were the direct consequence of the solid scientific approach that was taken and the high quality of the research undertaken by the Ringland-project. Without this solid scientific approach, the project would not have been as convincing for professionals, politicians and the general public.
A new collaboration model
On 15th of March 2017, a co-operation model was established between the Flemish government, the City of Antwerp and the citizens movements. It was agreed that:
- Through traffic will be led around the city of Antwerp.
- Regional and local traffic will circulate in the inner circle road of Antwerp. This light version is very important to the inhabitants of the highly populated area in the north of Antwerp.
- To avoid traffic congestion by means of a 50/50 modal shift. At the moment Antwerp’s traffic consists 70% of trucks and cars and 30 % of other transport such as public transport and bicycles. This compared to other cities like Copenhagen (30% cars 70% other transport), Amsterdam (25/75), Stockholm (25/75), Lyon (49/51), and Hamburg (54/46).
The objective would be to reach this modal split of 50/50 by 2030. The planning and further development will be supported by 3 different groups:
A. The Working Community
‘Route plan 2030’ will be drawn up by a working group consisting of the Flemish Government, the City of Antwerp, the citizens movement and all other stakeholders, under the leadership of a new superintendent. This group consists of the citizens movement and all other stakeholders als wel as representatives of economic sector organizations etc., led by the superintendent. The working community will be a forum for discussions and collaboration with different departments, public administration, experts, relevant social stakeholders. This group will formulate, verify, discuss and elaborate proposals and projects in terms of mobility, viability, health and spatial planning. The working community will be involved in the entire project.
B. The Regional Council
This working group consists of city representatives, the Flemish government, provincial administration as well as surrounding districts and municipalities. They will try and obtain political support. The working group will be involved in strategic communication throughout the entire project.
C. The Working platform
This is a platform for the regional transport of Antwerp. This working group will consist of transport stakeholders (train, tram, bus, water, etc.). This working platform will support the other working groups.
Together with stRaten-generaal, a long-standing action group promoting a viable Antwerp, and Ademloos (‘Breathless’), the committee putting air pollution and fine dust at the center of the debate, Ringland has obtained the cooperation of politicians and the support of a large part of the Antwerp population. The many initiatives and various action models involving and mobilizing the population, the judgement of the Council of State, and the referendum to protest old-school solutions, have led all stakeholders to the present point of cooperation. Ringland has made big progress so far, but must continue with vigilance and determination in order to reach the best solution for the beautiful city of Antwerp.
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