On covering up Antwerp’s congested highway artery, by Ringland’s Peter Vermeulen

Peter Vermeulen (1954) is one of the co-founders of the multidisciplinary design and architectural office Stramien. In 2012, he proposed a viable solution to Antwerp’s road infrastructure and ecology issues, and consequently set up the grassroots, citizen-based non-profit Ringland. Relentless and not taking no for an answer, Peter maps out Ringland’s humble beginnings and ambitious – yet feasible – goals.

All visuals provided by Ringland (c).

As an engineer, architect and urban planner, I’ve dedicated 30 years of my career to renewing, improving and renovating Antwerp’s infrastructures. One issue that has continuously plagued both my mind and the city’s residents, is that of our traffic jams. Indeed, the outdated R1 Ring overpass that feeds most of the city’s inner arteries and outskirts is simply incapable of handling its many daily commuters, causing unnecessary congestion and accidents. Add to that an ever-increasing number of cars on the road as well as a steadily expanding population, and it’s clear to see how locals have had to put up with rather dreadful air and noise pollution. The issue has been the subject of much debate in the public arena over the past two decades, yet progress has been slow to say the least. The general consensus – especially amongst our politicians – was that the “closing” of the Ring with the missing Oosterweel-link, towards the northern port, would solve everything. But how exactly would this help? How would the traffic be re-directed, both during and after construction? And, more importantly, how sustainable would this solution be for the future? The sad reality is that despite this being a very urgent issue with lots at stake – health, productivity, quality of life in the city – authorities have up to now favoured short-term solutions that, quite frankly, simply add more layers to an existing problem. However, starting in 2005, change was on the horizon when two local citizen-based associations stRaten-generaal and Ademloos revived the conversation by making similar arguments. Extending the R1 to the north would not contribute towards solving the Ring problem, they argued, and urged authorities to consider longer term, more environmentally friendly solutions. One such idea was to cover the Ring and incorporate parks on the rooftops, thereby creating an attractive green “lung” connecting the inner city with the suburbs, decreasing pollution whilst increasing Antwerp’s much needed green spaces. The proposal was met with hesitation from officials: they argued that a re-organisation of the Ring’s traffic system would be necessary in order to achieve a successful covering.

It quickly became clear that the key to our success was ensuring we had the backing of the public.

That’s when I stepped in and took it upon myself, together with colleagues and friends, to work out a series of proposals for the re-organisation of the Ring as well as its covering, under the name Ring Genootschap. Over the course of the year it quickly became clear that the key to our success was ensuring we had the backing of the public; and our enthusiastic and motivated team started working on making our plans widely known and supported. Then, in 2014 and with the regional elections coming up, we changed our name to Ringland, launched our official website and started setting up information sessions to increase the public’s understanding of our project. The public’s reactions exceeded even our wildest expectations, as we literally filled up De Roma theatre each time with over 1,200 people which, to us, highlighted how strongly Antwerpians felt about this issue. Post-elections, it became clear to the political parties that it was high time to take action, but they were still adamant on extending the Ring in the north, which they actually started preparing for in the summer of 2016. Our fight is far from over however, as we three grassroots organisations have also both individually and collectively launched various legal battles starting in 2009, through referendum processes which effectively blocked the government’s construction plans. Over the course of these political legislative struggles, we are now finally accorded a seat at the negotiation table, with the aim of discussing not only the covering of the southern Ring, but rather the development project as a whole. With the northern section still up for discussion now, we’ve managed to insert ourselves in the middle of the institution assigned to the Ring project, ensuring our visions are the focus of discussion, and hopefully establishing a sustainable future for the city of Antwerp.