De Nieuwe Stad – Amersfoort

During the transnational meeting in Amersfoort, the REFILL partners visited “De Nieuwe Stad”. Armed with some huge red “I love Amersfoort” umbrellas, they faced the heavy rainfall at the start of the visit. In the end, it became a very inspiring and even sunny afternoon. Nicholas Karachalis, from REFILL partner Athens, gives his account of the day:

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At our arrival we could already notice that the scale and aesthetics here differ from the medieval city center and the nearby post-modern building complex that hosts the Municipal library, the Kunsthal KAdE Modern Art museum and a shopping mall. Here a toothpaste factory and the surrounding area has been turned into a successful hub of new businesses and public-used spaces with an entrepreneurial, cultural or social character. Among other one can see a summer beach bar towards the Eem river, an old stranded boat that is being used as office space , student houses in containers, a public art installation space with exhibits that used to belong to the museum of Almere and many shops and offices. The area is vibrant all day and the neighbouring student community of the Hogeschool Utrecht adds to the sociability of the area.

A space for experimenting and sharing risks of temporary use

As Els Van Kooten and Arno Goosens from the City of Amersfoort explained, the municipality worked with the project developer in order to turn this area in a experimentation zone on the basis of affordable working places.

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The idea is based on 5 main concepts: “industrial poetry”, “18 hours economy”, “sustainable innovation”, “mix of uses” and “connected identity”. The key element is described as “Permanent Temporality”, which means that experimentation and temporary use are at the center of the development. The reduced rent which is offered and the short-term contracts make the area popular to many different initiatives: many offices (varying from designers/architects to life coaches ), shops,  meeting and event spaces , restaurants, bike repairers, etc. One of the spaces is used by the students of a graduate school (MBO) as a beauty salon where they can practice.

Arno Goossens compared the planning procedure with vacation planning stating that “the whole procedure is more like an adventurous field trip than a planned holiday – many surprises occur”. It is considered to be an experiment and initiatives like this need time to be able to monitor and evaluate, therefore the new plans for the area will be discussed  in 2023 based on this experience.

We visited and had lunch at “Het Lokaal”, one of the key businesses of the area; it operates as a café and restaurant but also as a grocery store with more than 60% of its products being local. There we met one of the initiators, Cor Holtackers, who talked about this initiative that started just 3 months ago and has been witnessing success already. He also commented on food pricing in the Netherlands and the need to create fair trade practices in the sector.  Het Lokaal is organizing events, cooking lessons, meetings, etc and its goal is to inform policymakers and citizens about sustainable food practices, e.g. one of their next steps is to convince the hotel industry of the city to prefer local producers. An interesting fact is that Het Lokaal occurred as idea through the URBACT II Sustainable Food Local Action Plan two years ago. Food seems to be at the center of De Nieuwe Stad as in July a festival called “Amersfoort Kookt” (Amesfoort Cooks) is expected to catch the attention of inhabitants and visitors, while the initiative “Nieuwe Stadsboeren” (New Urban Farmers) offers citizens the opportunity to plant their own herbs and vegetables in special boxes.

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Finally, we visited a place that links the past with the present: an installation called “Liese” which the retired factory workers use as a meeting place. There we had the opportunity to meet some of them and listen to personal stories that put together the very fascinating microhistory of this former industrial area that used to host factories that produced soap and toothpaste.

Some lessons learnt during the afternoon:

  • Synergies:   The proximity and openness that the area offers allows partnerships to flourish. Collaborations and partnerships occur between users, e.g. the so-called “pop-up pallets” that were being used by many businesses of De Nieuwe Stad.
  • Variety of uses: The fact that the area was not given a mono-functional character but attracted different users proved to be an advantage. Characterised as an “authentic and adventurous area” in the masterplan, this part of the city creates an interesting counterpart to the historic city.  It operates as a space of events and as a meeting point.
  • Risk-sharing: The municipality has succeeded to involve the private developers, the educational organisations, the users and the citizens in the conversation on the future of this part of the city in order to share the risk. One can find a detailed plan  (dutch only) describing the vision, but visiting the site is highly recommended.
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