The Ringland project is a 6 billion euro investment which proposes a large-scale sustainable urban development focussing on a complete redesign of the highway system in the city of Antwerp. Extraordinarily, the research underlying this complex infrastructure project has been entirely organized by local citizens in bottom-up fashion. Detailed research studies, executed by external academics, are financed through crowdfunding and subsequently presented to the government. The Ringland project hence pioneers a new kind of societal interaction between citizens, scientists and policy makers.

Large infrastructure projects in Europe often severely suffer from a gridlock between those that decide (i.e. policy makers) and those that experience (i.e. action groups of local citizens). Classically, these billion-euro investments are executed in a highly top-down fashion. Governments first propose, plan and design these large infrastructure projects and subsequently organize the scientific research that is needed for these projects (like e.g. environmental impact assessments). Only in the very last stage, when plans are already in their final stage and research is fully completed, the general public is asked to respond and reflect. This creates a participatory deficit, as citizens feel excluded from the planning and research process. All too often, this participatory deficit leads to the emergence of highly vocal action groups that strongly oppose the plan of the policy makers (typically by long judicial fights that greatly delay or even prohibit the execution of the large infrastructure project).

Nevertheless, both policy makers and local citizens share a common goal: they want to realize projects that improve their lives and their children’s future. So how can we organize the planning and research associated with large infrastructure projects in Europe in such a way that we can avoid gridlock situations between policy makers and local citizens entirely? The arguments and approach strategies used by citizen activist groups are typically negative (they act against plans of the government). Can we create a situation in which citizens feel both strongly involved and in favour of a large-scale infrastructure project that improves their lives and their children’s future?

The Ringland project

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, because it is a large-scale and highly complex infrastructure project (with a 6 billion euro investment) that has been completely initiated and developed bottom-up by local citizens.

The Ringland project is a 6 billion euro investment that focusses on a complete redesign of the highway system in the city of Antwerp (Belgium). Originally created in the 1960s, this highway system is now enclosed by housing development through continued urban expansion. Consequently, the highway system currently runs through densely populated areas within the city (~500,000 inhabitants), which 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 as 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 quality and health conditions, more green areas and housing). This implies a complete redesign of the urban highway system, based on two major components: (1) A complete capping of the highway which moves the orbital motorway underground, freeing up the above space for new green areas (parks & woods) and housing development (2) A new traffic system, with local traffic and through traffic running through separate tunnels.

Top left. Current situation: a wide ring road traverses the city of Antwerp (Belgium). Center: projection of a capped highway as proposed in the Ringland project. Right: The Ringland project caps over 15 km of ring road and creates new green corridor across the city of Antwerp.
Top left. Current situation: a wide ring road traverses the city of Antwerp (Belgium). Center: projection of a capped highway as proposed in the Ringland project. Right: The Ringland project caps over 15 km of ring road and creates new green corridor across the city of Antwerp.

The Ringland project is unique in Europe, because 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 engaged local citizens from different backgrounds (architects, engineers, teachers…). To further communicate the idea, these citizens organized themselves in a non-for-profit organization ‘Het Ringgenootschap vzw’. Their biggest challenge was to demonstrate the technical and financial feasibility of the Ringland project idea. To this end, professionally-executed research was required, 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 equally extensive and of equally high-quality as in other similar large-scale infrastructure projects. The scientific research is conducted by the same academic groups and professional experts that would be involved in government-organized projects. Yet, the main difference is that the research is entirely funded and organized by citizens, through crowdfunding and crowdbraining.

  • Crowd-braining: attraction of “free” scientific expertise from the large pool of scientific talent that is available in the city (e.g. University of Antwerp). This is done by the creation of the Ringland Science Academy, a gathering of approximately 50 scientists, professionals and experts who are voluntarily helping to improve and refine the project.
  • Crowd-funding: attraction of funds from the local community, which were used to finance research by academic research groups and professional agencies. During a short and intense internet campaign, 100,000 euros was raised in six weeks by contributions of approximately 4,500 Antwerp citizens. Another 100,000 euros was raised by organizing a music festival concert, which attracted about 15,000 people.

The 200,000 euros that was collected through crowdfunding was used to fund four research projects, in which four external partners participated. These research teams investigated four different topics:

  • Infrastructural planning and technical feasibility
  • Mobility impact assessment
  • Environmental impact assessment
  • Financial feasibility and real estate development

This truly innovative approach used by the Ringland project stimulates a two-way interaction between citizens and policy makers. It strongly tightens the link between citizens (proposing ideas for urban development), scientists (critically evaluating ideas for urban development) and policy makers (making sure that great ideas for urban development are realized).

What has been Ringland’s political impact so far?

A final political decision has not been made, and the interaction between citizens and politics is very much ongoing. Still, the RINGLAND project has already had a profound impact on policy decisions in terms of the urban planning for the city of Antwerp:

  • The Antwerp city council has been convinced of the advantages of capping the R0 ring highway as proposed in the Ringland project. To emphasize this, the city council has already allocated 300 million euros to realize a first series of capping projects, which are intended as stepping stones towards a full capping of the R0 ring road.
  • The Flemish government has budgeted 2 million euros to conduct a dedicated research effort into the full capping of the R0 ring road. A dedicated “intendant” (project leader) has been assigned on December 3rd 2015 to lead this project. This intendant has been given the task to evaluate the benefits and possibilities of the large infrastructure as envisioned in the Ringland project.

These decisions have been a direct consequence of the solid scientific approach that was taken and the high quality of the research results that were obtained by the RINGLAND project. Without this solid scientific approach, the project would have not been as convincing for professionals, politicians and the general public.

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