I live in a town that made some serious urban planning mistakes in the last century. The most significant was to bulldoze the historic town centre and build what was Europe’s largest indoor mall. It felt like the future at the time, but it privatised the town centre and destroyed the civic and cultural life of the town for decades to come.
In the process of building the mall, Luton compounded another error, and buried the River Lea. This is a famous river further downstream, flowing through the Hertfordshire countryside, the River Lee Country Park, and through the site of the 2012 London Olympics. At one point the river served as the border between Danish viking territory and King Alfred’s kingdom of Wessex. Here in Luton, where the river rises, it is unloved. It goes into a concrete channel, tunnels under the mall and disappears.
Opportunities to free the river come around from time to time, and there are plans to open up parts of it again as the town centre is regenerated. We may yet correct some of the damage, and bring light and life back to the river.
In doing so, we could learn a thing or two from Utrecht in the Netherlands. As an old medieval town, they had a moat that encircled the city, and that was later modernised into a canal. The watercourse remained for 900 years, before town planners figured that it provided a useful loop around the city that could be converted into a ring-road. In the face of local and national opposition, the council compromised and decided to just take half of it. Work began in the north-west quarter, draining it and turning the canal into a highway that opened in the late 70s.
This intervention was so unpopular that the full plan for the road was never delivered. Part of the drained canal was turned into a car park instead, but the calls to undo the damage never went away. By 1996 the car park had been undone, and in 2002 the city held a referendum and voted to restore the water entirely. This was not a quick job. A large new section opened in 2015, and the last stretch of the loop opened quietly during lockdown in 2020.
Local news reports carried comments from elderly residents who had opposed the plans in the 1960s, and were alive to see the canal restored. “At the time they chose asphalt to get the car into the city centre. Now, it is the other way around” said one, and he reflects a broader trend. Cities that embraced the car in the last century are now going to great lengths to get cars out again.
This is important for cities that are still developing, particularly across Asia and Africa. The car should not represent progress, however aspirational it may seem. Cities should put people first, and the path that many cities took in the global north was misguided. It’s a whole lot better to preserve quality public spaces, green spaces and cultures of cycling or public transport, than to sweep them away in the name of modernisation and then regret it later.
Utrecht is also a hopeful story for places like Luton that are still living with bad 20th century planning decisions. And for any Luton residents reading, look out for a brief shot in the video below, towards the end. Utrecht’s waterway still passes under a mall at one point, and the shopping centre has a glass floor so you can see the boats passing under your feet. I mean, the river Lea’s only big enough at this point to see ducks paddling under the mall, but we can dream, right?