Currently, in Groningen, the city where we as Girugten are based, two big infrastructure constructions are going on. The first one is the redevelopment of the main station area, and the other one is the deepening and tunnelling of the southern ring road. Both plans have as their main target to keep Groningen accessible in the future when bigger flows of people will make use of these important gateways to the city. However, in the way these operations are (intentionally) planned, they have the beneficial factor that they will strengthen the bond between the different neighbourhoods surrounding the areas.

Let’s start with the first construction work: the renovation of the Groningen main station. Everybody that has travelled to Groningen by train or bus should recognise it: the station-building that dates from the 19th century. Not only the building itself but also the monumental platform roofs have existed for a long period. Over time, the number of passengers that travelled to or from Groningen has increased greatly and the station developed into a (public) transport hub for the city. To accommodate the expansion of transport in the past and to be prepared for further growth in the future, it was decided that Groningen Station deserved an upgrade. The upgrade had been given the slogan “Nu voorbereiden op veranderingen, straks klaar voor de toekomst” (Now preparing for changes, soon ready for the future).

In the process of upgrading and renewing the station, several areas around the rails will undergo a transformation themselves too. Currently, if you walk from the Groningen inner city to the station, you first encounter the bus station which is located in front of the train station. This bus station will be demolished and a new one will be built on the other side of the train station. A small problem: a shunting yard is located there at the moment. Therefore, the municipality, province, Dutch Railways and ProRail had to come up with a solution: a completely new shunting yard is being built just outside Groningen.

However, a new opportunity was just created by this movement, as by far not all the vacant space will be used by the new bus station. Currently, the station and its rails are quite literally the barrier for an easy connection between the Rivierenbuurt located at the southside of the station, and the inner-city of Groningen located to the north of the station. The space that has come available will be used to expand the Rivierenbuurt a bit and create a new and pleasant connection to the station itself. Combined with the new underpass for cyclists and pedestrians at the station, a lot of people from the neighbourhoods south of the station will be supplied with easier access to a public transport hub and to the inner city of Groningen, and the other way around. Add to that the placement of a small park in the new area and the expectations that this redevelopment will be a success are justified.

The other big infrastructure development that is going on in Groningen at the moment is the tunnelling of the Southern Ring Road. Over the past decades, Groningen has grown and so has the traffic in and around the city. The place where this expansion in vehicle numbers is experienced most is at the southern ring road. This piece of asphalt is one of the most important traffic veins of the city, connecting to the A7 to i.a. Drachten and Heerenveen at the west side of Groningen, to the A7 to i.a. Germany at the east side and to the A28 to i.a. Assen and Hoogeveen at the south side.

With the current situation, during rush hour, the complete ring road is one big traffic jam. One of the reasons for that is that the ‘entrance’ of the A28 to the ring road is just a regular junction with traffic lights. Because of this, the vehicles need to stop every once in a while resulting in decreased traffic flow. Furthermore, on several access roads to the ring road, there are traffic jams as well as a result of the traffic on the ring road. Instead of what would be a common solution in America – building extra lanes – here in the Netherlands, the result is sought in flow-improving ideas instead of with capacity improving constructions. That last is only a temporarily solution and will lead to more vehicles further in the future – a phenomenon called ‘induced demand’.

One of the biggest changes will take place at the entrance to the ring road: the current junction with traffic lights will be replaced by a large multi-level junction to optimize the traffic flow. The biggest change to the ring road, however, will be a little bit further to the east: currently, the ring road is elevated a few meters, which acts as a border between the areas north and south of it in Groningen. Once the tunnel is built and the current road is removed, a vacant strip of land will be the result. Here, a new park will be created: the Zuiderplantsoen. The result of this is that the Oosterpoort neighbourhood,  the Hereweg neighbourhood and the neighbourhoods De Linie and Helpman will be reconnected again, after being split by the ring road for many years. Hope is that the liveability in this area of Groningen will (greatly) improve thanks to the extra green space, the opportunity for better social connections and the reduction of noise pollution as additional benefits to the ring road reconstruction.

The difference between the old (left) and new (right) situation of the Southern Ringroad of Groningen near the Hereweg. Credits: website aanpakringzuid.nl.

Not only in the Netherlands are these kinds of infrastructure projects taking place, but worldwide this is happening. An example from the United States is the demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway, which was, for three centuries, part of the California State Route 480 through San Francisco.

The Embarcadero is the eastern waterfront and roadway of the Port of San Francisco, along the San Francisco Bay. This area was constructed on reclaimed land along a three-mile-long engineered seawall, from which piers extend into the Bay. During the early-20th century, the seaport was at its busiest and some of its piers were dedicated mainly to inland trade and transport. After the opening of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge in 1936, and the decrease in demand for ferry services, the area fell into decline.

In 1947, it was defined that (later called) State Route 480 (SR 480) should be created to connect Route 101, coming from the Golden Gate Bridge, to the Interstate 80, coming from the Bay Bridge. This new freeway roughly followed the Embarcadero. While experiencing protests during construction, consequently leading to some changes in the proposed plan, the first section of the SR 480 was opened in 1959. A key characteristic of the SR 480 was its double-decked structure, towering above many of the buildings surrounding it. For 30 years, the freeway divided the waterfront and the Ferry Building from downtown San Francisco.

From 1963 onwards, several proposals were made to break down the Embarcadero Freeway, with the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voting for it in 1985. Two years later, the proposal was put up to the voters but was turned down. However, in October 1989, a key event took place: the Loma Prieta earthquake that hit the central Californian coast significantly damaged the structure, causing it to be closed for traffic. Then-mayor Art Agnos proposed demolishing the freeway in favour of a boulevard with an underpass at the Ferry Building to allow for a large plaza. After months of debate, the Board of Supervisors approved this plan.

After the Embarcadero Freeway had been cleared, a massive redevelopment of the area began, resulting in a large boulevard with a light-rail track that was created and squares and plazas that were built and restored. Furthermore, Ferry Plaza was constructed in front of the San Francisco Ferry Building, which itself was transformed into a marketplace in the early 2000s. Also, some parks and houses were built, and thanks to the demolition of the SR 480, multiple blocks became available, which resulted in the San Francisco Transbay development. In the end, the redevelopment of Embarcadero led to that the Embarcadero Historic District is currently serving as a major economic engine for the Bay Area, and thus being an example for other infrastructure redevelopments.

Finally, besides reconstructing or restoring old infrastructure in order to give a certain city or area an impulse, new infrastructure can be built as well. A recent and close-to-home example of that is the construction of the Noord/Zuidlijn in Amsterdam. This metro line goes from the train station Amsterdam South, where a business district is, through the city centre and main station of Amsterdam to the district of Amsterdam Noord.

The province of North-Holland, in which Amsterdam is located, is busy with implementing policies regarding the increase of attractiveness of public transport. One of the ways the municipality of Amsterdam wants to do this is by stimulating Transit-Oriented Development (TOD). What is meant by this concept is that it is stimulated to build new buildings, shops and offices close by public transport hubs (OV-knooppunten). Here, several different modes of transport (train, metro, tram and bus are available in Amsterdam) come together, presenting easy transfers and therefore faster travel times throughout the city. This will encourage people to more often use public transport for their commute instead of going by car.

The new Noord/Zuidlijn, combined with upgraded HOV (high-quality public transport) bus lines, has resulted in an increased movement in and usage of the Amsterdam North area. This shows that investing in new and qualitative good public transport can lead to increasing returns in the form of taxes from new companies, but also in non-monetary benefits like less air pollution. Although the Noord/Zuidlijn cost more than estimated and took longer than expected to build, it is such a success that the (green/left-oriented) province wants to extend the line both southwards to the Netherlands’ biggest airport Amsterdam Schiphol, and northward to Zaandam and Purmerend. By doing so, many more commuters can be accommodated for and so helping Amsterdam to tackle rush hour traffic jams.

Concluding, investing in infrastructure redevelopment can help to reconnect places that were separated before, like what is happening with the Zuiderplantsoen. However, these projects can also be used to connect places that were not, or less, connected before, having an effect that is similar to what the Noord/Zuidlijn has realised. Discovering that something does not work is important, but implementing something that will is key.

This article was first published in the Girugten Lustrum Edition (Year 50 of Girugten – issue 02 –  May 2021).

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