For many centuries, the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands was protected by a defensive wall and canal. But over time, the wall began to crumble. The area was then converted into a park that wrapped around the city center. As for the canal, a plan was set forth to transform the canal into a new ring road. Due to backlash from the community, the ring road was never constructed.

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Aerial view of the canal and surrounding greenery within the city of Utrecht

In 2002, the local community wished to restore the canal. This began a long-term restoration project for the park and canal, which was designed in partnership with Utrecht’s residents, the local municipality and OKRA Landscape Architects. The specific part of the canal that was under restoration is called the Catharijnesingel. The project consisted of a 3,609-foot-long-stretch, or 1,100 meters, and required about 1,412,586 cubic feet, or 40,000 cubic meters, of water to refill the canal.

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People seated on the dock facing the canal. Paddle-boarders and kayakers can be seen in the water

OKRA’s design for the new layout of the canal and park features three main interventions. Firstly, the park forms a buffer between the residential and commercial zones of the city. It promotes interaction with nature by providing citizens with green and blue spaces that cater to relaxation and physical activity. This includes space to run and exercise in the park and row and paddle-boarding in the canal. Further, the dock along the waterfront is the perfect link between the green and blue zones.

Pathway in a lush park along the canal with people strolling and sitting on the benches facing the water

The redesign of the Catharijnesingel also facilitates traffic flow. Pedestrians are the top priority, and they are given their own distinct paths where feasible. Meanwhile, a new walking track has been set up along the canal. It leads exercisers through the lush park, alongside various art installations and seating areas, and provides visitors with views of the city. Furthermore, the landscape architects incorporated design elements from the original landscape architect, J.D. Zocher, to create a public space that bridges its historical design with the bustling city center.

Small boats parked on the edges of the canal, while one group of people sail down the center

In addition to human-centered design elements, OKRA incorporated strategies to enhance biodiversity and climate resilience. By introducing a variety of indigenous and adaptive plant species, the park has become a home for small critters, birds and insects within the city.

Through their interventions, OKRA transformed the historic site into a healthy, climate-resilient space where humans, flora and fauna thrive. The Catharijnesingel serves as a solution to mitigate the heat island effect of the city and creates connections to other green spaces, such as the Moreelse park, expanding Utrecht’s network of parks. The project has been nominated for Utrecht’s Rietveldprijs architecture award and the European Public Space Prize.

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Images courtesy of OKRA