Citizens inspire a car-free Leuven
A broad survey, possible solutions displayed on screens, inspirational walks, tables of future and a Citizen’s Assembly – this is how the Belgian city of Leuven has co-created a new mobility plan for its Kessel-Lo borough, putting citizens at the heart of the transformation. The plan gives priority to pedestrians, reduces car traffic and encourages the development of public transport and cycle routes. The shape of the plan and the citizen engagement factor stem from Leuven’s participation in the EIT Climate-KIC Deep Demonstration programme.
Located only 25 kilometres east of Brussels, Leuven is growing rapidly. It is a university city with Belgium’s largest—and one of Europe’s most innovative—universities. Leuven is also home to a number of industries. As the result, the population is constantly growing, leading to an increase in car and pedestrian traffic, making rush hour a very difficult time of day for its residents. In response to these challenges, the city government is taking various measures, including a new, greener mobility plan for Kessel-Lo.
“The rush hour in Kessel-Lo is very busy. There are two arterial roads coming from two other cities that are totally congested, causing long traffic jams. This means that people try to find other ways, and they use very local residential streets to take shortcuts,” says Nora Deschryver, Community Engagement Manager at Leuven City Hall. “The number of inhabitants is still rising and if we don’t do anything, then Kessel-Lo will become completely congested during rush hour. So, we really need to go through a modal shift to make sure that we can have a good quality of life, and everyone can get to the right place with the appropriate means of transportation, where possible on foot, or by bike and where necessary by car.” – adds Deschryver.
The shape of the new mobility plan for Kessel-Lo comes from Leuven’s participation in the EIT Climate-KIC Deep Demonstration of Healthy, Clean Cities, a project that aims to accelerate the transition of European cities towards carbon neutrality by 2030. In Leuven, the city put together a portfolio of strategic experiments that aims to achieve systemic, holistic change and deep decarbonisation of neighbourhoods like Kessel-Lo. Mobility was one of the key areas of the programme. The goal of this experiment was to enable a far-reaching modal shift in Kessel-Lo by tying the mobility challenge to the inhabitants’ quality of life as well as the transformation of public space. The key to the programme success was to involve citizens in this transformation from the very start.
“The city already had a concept to create a new mobility plan for Kessel-Lo, and the idea was to draw on the EIT Climate-KIC Deep Demonstration programme to deepen the work we were going to do there. The programme enabled us to expand the ambition and scope of our participation programme and to adopt a more wide-ranging, holistic approach to the mobility challenge in Kessel-Lo.” – said Luca Lia, Fundraising Manager from Leuven2030, an organisation working closely with Leuven’s City Hall, who co-led the Deep Demonstration project.
Citizens are at the heart of Leuven’s mobility plan
The Municipality of Leuven has strongly involved citizens in the design process, and the final plan draws on the ideas and experiences of Kessel-Lo residents. “We experimented with an intertwined process of broad consultation for all inhabitants and a citizens assembly to work in depth.” – Nora Deschryver adds.
The city carried out a broad survey to ask residents their opinion on concepts in the areas of mobility, greenery, and meeting spaces. Many people also participated in inspirational walks to see streets that are greener, or streets that are just concrete, to feel how big the difference is. Based on these results the Citizen’s Assembly has drawn up 10 priorities for the public domain of Kessel-lo. “In the next phase, we organised online ideation where we collected ideas about opportunities and traffic-problematic situations in Kessel-lo, linked with the 10 priorities of the Citizen’s Assembly. And then the Citizen’s Assembly had developed a vision on how we want Kessel-Lo to be in 2030 with mobility as one focal point” – Deschryver continues. The city even organised discussion tables to elaborate on specific proposals for some neighbourhoods.
For Nora Deschryver, citizen engagement is the baseline for the Leuven municipality: “In every project we do, we feel that we have to involve citizens. Sometimes we have to inform them, consult them and sometimes we have to co-create together with them. And EIT Climate-KIC gave us the opportunity to go further, to look for new approaches, and to deepen the scope. Moving from siloed solutions to a systemic approach is not easy. You have to involve more and more colleagues and the core group is getting bigger and bigger. We always wanted to have a place for citizens in it. So, we don’t have to build a mobility plan for them, we want to build with them.”
The 15-minute city for everyone
The overarching goal of the new mobility plan is to give pedestrians priority over general traffic in Kessel-Lo. This includes calming the cut-through traffic through various measures such as the introduction of low-speed zones, the creation of one-way streets, banning non-residential cars from residential areas, the conversion of traffic lights to prioritise pedestrians and adding more green spaces. This will result in reducing and slowing down the number of cars, which will improve air quality, reduce noise and create more public spaces for the community. “Meeting other people, seeing your neighbours, saying hello, asking someone to help you unload your luggage when it’s too heavy for you – that’s our vision. So, choices are being made to make sure that’s possible again.”– Deschryver continues.
The plan also includes finding missing connections in the pedestrian and cycling network and rebuilding sidewalks, investing in routes with more greenery and rest areas, and eliminating conflicts with cars or cyclists. Cycling is an important part of Leuven’s mobility map. The municipality is planning an extensive bicycle network with direct bicycle connections between facilities, recreational bicycle paths and bicycle highways. There is also a long-term vision to connect Kessel-Lo cycling routes with the neighbouring municipalities.
Public transportation is another challenge for Kessel-Lo. “There is a bus service on the major arteries and through the boroughs but even that one queues up in the traffic jam during the rush hour.” – Deschryver adds. The municipality is working on a new bus plan for the whole of Leuven so that taking the bus is a genuinely attractive alternative for the residents. The idea is to provide a better bus flow, provide more comfortable buses and expand the service with more frequent buses.
Leuven’s new mobility plan will be implemented starting this autumn, but zone 30 is already in place in the residential areas of Kessel-Lo and Nora Deschryver confirms that this was the first important step in improving the quality of life and road safety: “Citizens are getting back to us with their feedback and they already see the result in the fact that cars no longer use shortcuts, because they are not that short anymore, as you have to drive 30km/h instead of 50 km/h. Residents feel that they can use their streets again”. Measurements already show that speed is decreasing, and that car traffic is shifting from residential streets to access roads.
Lessons learned and future plans
The uniqueness of the process carried out in Leuven was a systemic approach, thinking not only about mobility, but also about other elements of the urban space, and involving all urban actors in the design process. It was also about learning by doing and long-term thinking to achieve innovative and transformative change. “I think for me it’s important to learn that you have to develop a shared vision of where you want to go with your project with everyone, with your colleagues and with the citizens and with all the stakeholders as well”– Deschryver acknowledges. She also underlines the importance of admitting to mistakes and taking a few steps back in the process to improve it, when necessary: “It’s “learning by doing” for everybody. For every stakeholder. You also have to give the chance to citizens, to the education world to learn by doing as well. To give citizens the chance to experiment and fail and try over. And that is ok.”
According to Luca Lia, one of the biggest challenges with long term visions is that they require long-term funding and sustained effort. He also stresses the importance of bottom-up initiatives, saying, “The fact that we try to do everything together, not top down, but to really try to have more horizontal governance, and it’s something we try to do in every domain, is great. I think this comes from the recognition that the challenges we face today, such as climate change, are too big and too complicated for any single actor to solve on their own. So, if we want to be able to be climate neutral by 2030, it’s not enough for just the city to take ambitious action. It also needs to involve the university, citizens, companies, just each and every single actor capable of pushing the transition forward.”
Leuven is already looking into the future and wants to continue to bring systemic transformation to its residents. The city was selected by the European Commission to take part in the EU Mission on Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities, which aims to deliver 100 climate-neutral and smart cities by 2030. “Leuven was selected to be part of the EU’s Mission on Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities and that’s our focus right now. The first major step we have to take in this process is to develop our Climate City Contract. This will set up how we intend to become climate neutral by 2030, and this will include commitments from the city, but also from other stakeholders,” said Lia.
Leuven will receive extensive support from EIT Climate-KIC’s NetZeroCities platform, which enables participating cities to learn from one another and support each other in their transition to net zero. The other selected cities include Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Madrid, Malmo, Lisbon, Frankfurt and Kraków. The full list of cities is available here.
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