The Amersfoort experience

In Holland — the home of windmills, clogs and tulips — lies an eco-friendly city that’s considered “one of the greenest cities in Europe”. Situated 50km from the capital Amsterdam, Amersfoort is a municipality and the second largest city in the province of Utrecht in central Netherlands and a historical town that celebrates its 750th anniversary this year.

The genesis
It all started in the 1980s when the Dutch government made plans to ensure there were enough homes for its expanding population. It implemented its Vinex report on spatial planning, which proposed that 455,000 new houses be built between 1996 and 2005. Of this number, 285,000 were to be built around cities in the suburbs.

A historical water arch over the river Eem in AmersfoortIn 1981, Amersfoort was designated as a Growth City, which led to an increase in the hospitality and trade sectors, the development of business parks and the building of a new train station. As a result, its population was predicted to increase from 130,000 in 1981 to 160,000 by 2016. With the Vinex report, the Amersfoort municipal council made the decision to create suburbs using the latest technologies and innovations to ensure a viable living environment.

The municipal council decided to develop three new settlements into eco-suburbs namely Vathorst, Kattenbroek and Nieuwland.
Each suburb possesses distinct characteristics in terms of its surroundings and existing structures but all have incorporated similar high standards of social and environmental sustainability. They have several similarities in terms of better connectivity, eco-friendly building materials, rainwater harvesting, waste recycling and the widespread use of photovoltaic (PV) panels.

Motor vehicles are restricted in the development and banned in the city centre of Amersfoort. To ensure connectivity isn’t compromised, better bicycle and walking paths were created as well as the implementation of an excellent public transport system. Good town planning ensures that there is a maximum walking distance of 400m to bus stops from all houses.

The use of durable materials and energy resources, such as district heating by means of an incinerator, efficient use of space (clustering of amenities) and high-quality architecture, provided comfortable living and work spaces.

Rainwater is harvested and recycling is encouraged through the Dutch’s innovative underground waste storage system.
While all three eco-suburbs possess these features, Nieuwland has been a topic of many case studies for its use of solar energy.

Nieuwland, constructed from the mid-1990s and completed in 2002, comprised about 5,000 homes.

It uniqueness lies in its widespread use of PV solar panels as a main component of construction that provide a zero-carbon energy source for home and business owners. The power generated supplies electricity in part to residences and commercial properties and is also channelled to the national electricity grid. In total, the entire suburb generates close to one megawatt of electricity. This was the first time such a large-scale development had been built using PV as one of the main components in construction.

Numerous case studies have been done on Nieuwland, showcasing the sustainable benefits of solar power. In fact, the suburb has attracted many international visitors who were keen to learn how sustainability and the use of PV can be done on such a large scale.
Onze Lieve Vrouwetoren - The 15th Century Tower of Our Dear Lady in Amersfoort is the third tallest church tower in Holland and stands at 98m
Lessons learnt
Some of the key lessons gleaned from the eco-suburbs and the city as a whole are good governmental-municipality communication, establishing partnerships, careful town planning and improvement of public transport.

The coordination and support of the government and municipality are essential. In the case of Nieuwland, the municipal council took charge of the project and ensured that the project met targets. The government provided financial support. It was reported that €3.2 million (RM16 million) was allocated to local and regional authorities to improve transport and traffic conditions. Overall, this translated to a smoother initiation and follow-through of the project.

Partnerships between various stakeholders were important to ensure that everyone was on the same wavelength about what was to be achieved. This meant, for instance, that there would be negotiations with private developers about plot prices and multi-disciplinary project teams would be set up to cross professional boundaries and so on. In other words, a holistic approach was recommended.

Careful consideration was given to the care of existing structures or green lungs and/or improving on them so that the suburb and city centre retained their own character. The use of eco-friendly materials and providing enough design variety in the products built were essential.

Lastly, to maintain a low carbon footprint per individual, improving the public transport system was crucial to discourage the use of motor vehicles while development of services near housing areas to ensure sustainability was carried out right from the start.
As a result of the initiatives, and many more, it is estimated that Amersfoort’s reduction in carbon dioxide is almost 89,000kg per year, or about 98 tonnes.

As the world seeks out new ways of sustainable living, the exercise at Amersfoort showcases a strong argument that going green has its benefits. It shows that political will and foresight, as well as the willingness of municipal councils to take charge, are required to ensure a green agenda is met. Amersfoort is ample proof that a little elbow grease and good planning can bear much fruit.

This article appeared in City & Country Special Focus, the property pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 760, June 22 - 28, 2009.
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