“Urban Development with Rural Consequences”

As part of the course Understanding Rural Development, a group of master students from France, Cameroon, Taiwan and the Netherlands plus staff from the Rural Sociology Group went on a study trip to Nijmegen-Lent to learn more on the developments in this area. The group was met by Karolien Andela, from the Municipality of Nijmegen. Gathered around a scale model of the area in the information centre De Waalsprong, she informed us on projects such as: ‘Space for the river Waal’, ‘the Waal Jump’ (new urbanisation in Lent), the ‘Waal front’ (reconstruction of an industrial area) and landscape development.

Her story revolved around the central meaning of the river Waal in the expansion of the city. The carrying capacity of the river is becoming too limited for the amount of water flowing through. In 1995 this already led to flooding in several parts of the city and as the water level tends to rise this is expected to have more negative consequences in the future. This is of course a concern to both local government as well as its citizens. In the past, the response to rising water levels in the Netherlands has been to strengthen dikes and increase its height, but this is not a long term solution. Therefore on a national level, the government decided to change its approach to this threat and introduced the idea to give more space to the river (“Geef de Rivier de Ruimte”) meaning to give the river more capacity. This is done for example by returning flood lands to the river, construct side dams, dig channels along the polder or streamline vegetation. The national government appointed 39 spots where this concept should be applied, concerning the rivers Maas, Waal and Lek. Most of these projects are located in predominantly rural areas but in this case it is right in the middle of a city.

In the case of Nijmegen, the suggested plan by the government entailed to relocate the existing dike more land inwards and in addition dig a channel in front of it to increase the capacity of the river and thus lower the water level. As a result, an island is created which will give opportunities for housing, recreation and cultural activities as well as nature development.

At first this plan was faced with a lot of public opposition as it implied the removal of houses and farming enterprises as well as other negative impacts such as a rise in the ground water level. The group of protesters even came up with an alternative plan which was accepted by the city council but eventually rejected by the national government who favoured the original plan. Initially the city was reluctant with this decision but managed to change it into an opportunity for urban development and even get the necessary public support. One of the factors enabling this public support was the creation of a platform that is involved  in different stages of the plan development and gives voice to various interest groups including a group of affected households.

The group from Wageningen was interested in aspects like: What is the effect of the plans on local farmers? Are the planned green spaces in the new part of the city going to be interconnected or just loose patches of green? How do the citizens of the village of Lent feel about the plans as they suddenly becoming part of a city? How are the urban planners going to create a shared feeling of identity between the inhabitants of the old and the new part of the city? What are the effects of the economic developments on the plan? And are sustainability concepts  taken into account in the design of the area and its houses?

After this informative talk by the Municipal spokesperson, the group took a short stroll over the bicycle bridge that connects the city of Nijmegen with the village of Lent. From here the group could see, with a bit of imagination, what the effects of the planned developments will be. Suddenly it became clear which households were going to be on the  “wrong” side of the new dike and will not be able to escape the new course of the river.

To voice your opinion about the plans you can interact with the project team on twitter (www.twitter.com/waalsprong) or follow the developments on YouTube (www.youtube.com/waalsprongnijmegen). The work is planned to start in 2013.