27 Jun 2023 — Cemented areas turned into complex ecosystems, energy-producing noise barriers, and lampposts charging e-cars and e-boats. Going green and enhancing its precious landscape is Alkmaar’s way of tackling climate change: “The key is reinterpreting heritage, through technological innovations”
Locals often refer to Alkmaar as “a small Amsterdam”, with a slower pace of life and a “human-size” atmosphere. Located in the province of North Holland, this historical city exudes cosiness, with its picturesque canals weaving through a medieval centre adorned with churches, narrow ancient streets, and charming traditional shops. Internationally renowned for its vibrant and lively cheese market, it is a popular touristic destination, also because of its over 3 500 historical buildings, and some 400 registered national monuments: an invaluable, but also fragile and challenging treasure, for the municipality, which set itself the ambitious goal of becoming natural gas free by 2050. With this target, the city is undergoing a massive transformation, “turning it from grey to green,” says Paul Weidema.
Weidema is a project manager for Stadswerk072, a company in charge of managing its green spaces. One of the most notable examples of its approach is Urkplein: once a cemented square primarily used as a parking area, which has been recently transformed into a so-called “mini-park”. “The asphalt has mostly gone, a large part of it has been replaced by a natural rainwater draining system, and half of the space has been ‘greened’ with herbs, perennials, and 42 trees of 20 different species,” explains Weidema. His assignment was to create 50,000 m² of green spaces in seven years, but thanks to this approach, more than half of them have been put in place in just two years.
This “quick win” approach was among the reasons Alkmaar won the 2022 Green Cities Europe Award. “It’s not a prize for ‘the greenest city’. We’ve been awarded for our strategy and for the way we are implementing it,” says Weidema. The first step is to identify all sealed spaces that can benefit from a quick transformation: small squares, banks, car parks, and roundabouts. These lifeless areas are then de-sealed to restore soil permeability, with residents being involved in their “redesign”. “It’s more comprehensive than just planting trees. We create complex eco-systems, enabling water to be filtered naturally and recovered, and which prevents sewers from being overloaded in the event of heavy rain,” he explains. This strategy is part of the efforts to make the city fully sustainable. “Big importance is given to fostering biodiversity, but also to adapting to climate change,” confirms Julia Molck, an Alkmaar municipality project manager.
Reducing CO2 emissions and contributing to climate mitigation is also the aim of another pioneering solution, which is now being tested in Alkmaar within the European project POCITYF: an “energy-producing noise barrier.” Located on “The Ring,” the city’s ring road, the project is 2.5 km long and worth over 7 million euros. It consists of three different kinds of noise barriers, covered by 5 000 solar panels. “Two of these noise barriers are ‘green’ and ‘plant-based’, and thus shield from pollution particles. But while one of them has also a raw of PVs on its roof, the third one is completely covered by solar panels. “The particularity of this last solution is that its costs will be fully covered, just by selling the energy that it produces,” explains Molck.
Expected to be ready by the beginning of October, this innovative 1.2-gigawatt plant is set to produce electricity for some 400 households. The whole project will be made available online under a kind of “creative commons” scheme, for other cities to adapt it to their needs. “This is just a pilot. We are now in touch with different stakeholders, to replicate it in 10 more Dutch and European locations in the next few years,” adds Molck. But Alkmaar is trying to become an inspiring example for its 110 000 inhabitants too. “On the municipality’s buildings, we are testing all possible solutions to optimise our energy consumption, but we’re also trying to foster this change of mindset, by providing the citizens with advice and consulting on how to embrace a more sustainable approach.”
To achieve its environmental targets, the city is also gearing up to go fully electric. The first EV-charging stations were installed in 2014 and by the end of this year, the goal is to provide all residents with one of them within no more than 150 meters from their homes. However, in Alkmaar, e-mobility must cope with one more, very typical element of the city landscape: its canals. “Both for environmental reasons and because they are less noisy than the traditional ones, electric boats started becoming very popular two or three years ago,” says Arjen van Heerde, by the city Traffic department. Hence the idea that turned Alkmaar into the pilot of a new concept: integrating charging stations for both cars and boats into classically designed lampposts, respectful of the city landscape.
“Matching sustainable solutions into high valuable heritage areas creates further challenges, but all depends on projects, technology, and research,” says Luisa De Marco, consultant at ICOMOS, an advisory body to UNESCO World Heritage Committee, with its over 10 000 professionals, among the largest non-governmental organisations, dealing with the protection of cultural heritage. “The key is learning from traditions, and reinterpreting them through scientific and technological innovations.” Inspired by this principle, Alkmaar’s solution connects a “mother charging station” with lampposts located some 10 meters away, thus allowing them to be equipped with a simple socket, less intrusive and more respectful of their aesthetics. The first such “combi-charging station” is being tested on the edge of the old medieval town, but the concept is already set to be replicated in over 60 other towns in the northwest of the Country. “It’s all about getting ready to take up the challenges of contemporary times and not just being passive and defending from changes,” concludes De Marco.
Article by Diego Giuliani
Photo credits to Stadswerk072 and to the Municipality of Alkmaar