Utrecht’s ‘Merwedekanaalzone’ (MKZ) is a former industrial area on the banks of the Merwede river. Considering that the city of Utrecht is the fastest growing city in the Netherlands, this area is one of four prioritised areas designated to accommodate this population growth. The project involves the re-invention of a declining area and development of a highly urbanised district with attractive and sustainable living options (6,000 to 10,000 homes). This upper limit of 10,000 homes, it is said, can only be achieved if the neighbourhood’s environmental pressures are limited. A possible, and often mentioned, solution is to lower the parking standard to approximately 0.3. In such a new situation (with a low parking standard and limited car ownership), the challenge is to find innovative and ‘smart’ mobility concepts in order to meet the demand for mobility of future residents in a smart and sustainable way. As such, MKZ aims to be a ‘living lab’ (ambition 1) that sets out to gain (practical) insights on these and other developments that should improve healthy urban living.

In addition, the ambition is to transform MKZ from a mono-functional (business) area to multi-functional district combining a mix of functions, facilities and people (ambition 2). Finally, the project aspires to build on existing functions and to respect the district’s history and identity (ambition 3). In recent years, MKZ has become home to a variety of creative industries and social entrepreneurs who’s activities spurred the attractiveness of the area. To date, these functions are temporary, however, in the planning process it is examined whether they merit a long-term position in the ‘new’ MKZ. As these initiatives are, and will likely be, indispensable to MKZ’s vitality it is interesting to study their role in vision creation.

Overview of MKZ’s ambitions

  1. Merwede as a living lab for healthy urban living
  2. Merwede as a vibrant and inclusive district (“a district for everyone”).
  3. Merwede builds on existing structures and buildings
    1. Fit existing functions in the new plans.
    2. Merwede already has an ‘identity’

Developments have yet to commence, however visions of the future MKZ have recently been presented (end 2017). MKZ’s currently defined ambitions are big and diverse, ranging from circular building to (local) energy supply and innovative mobility concepts, which have been presented along 8 themes: healthy living, mobility, nature, water, soil, energy, materials and public spaces.

The project shows great devotion to co-creation and place-making which involves consultation among owners, developers, users, residents, the municipality and province in various meetings (e.g. information market and multiple ‘city-talks’). These ‘city actors’ collectively articulate objectives, exercise influence and mobilise resources that steer MKZ developments.

In addition, the municipality has created a projectteam named ‘Slim city’ to conceptualise smart in the ‘Merwede’. Slim city has the task to research, on the side-lines, how technology can encourage participation in urban planning processes. Slim city has formulated 3 demonstrators: citizen participation; cycling and data; and self-management in health, that ran from December till February 2018.

Smart City Platforms in Hilversum and Amersfoort

Hilversum and Amersfoort, two cities in the province of Utrecht, are exploring the possibility of procuring a ‘smart city platform’: a city-wide network with sensors combined with a dataplatform that can be used to integrate data from various sources and develop new services for the city. The project is in a very early stage of development: based on a market consultation, both municipalities are now preparing a proposal for the local councils to start a procurement process.

Research in this case focusses on the role of knowledge politics – including the way in which envisaged knowledge production relates to current and future changes in governance – in the process of bringing the Smart City Platform into being. It is a ‘risky’ case: whether the Smart City Platform will be materialized in either or both cities remains to be seen.