Rewilding Cities

We’ve monocropped streets — so they’re used almost exclusively for cars. Time to rewild

Clive Thompson


The Utrecht highway turned canal, via before-and-after interactives created by Bouwput Utrecht

In the 1970s, the city of Utrecht in the Netherlands wanted to make it easier for people to drive downtown to shop. So they took a 900-year-old canal that ran through the city, and filled in a big chunk — turning it into a four-lane highway. Car culture was ascendant back then, and a key goal for city planners was the rapid, efficient movement of vehicle traffic.

It worked, sort of. The road encouraged so much more driving that Utrecht — like many cities that built of suburb-to-downtown highways — generated evermore traffic.

Then 20 years ago, the citizens of Utrecht decided they’d gone too far. When they looked at their downtown, they realized that in making things easier for cars, they’d made life harder for everything else. Roads that for centuries had been used for a welter of purposes — for children to play in, for congregating and chatting, for selling stuff; for civic life, in other words — had turned into a sea of rushing steel.

So they did something radical: They reversed the entire project.

They ripped out the highway, and turned it back into a canal.

It’s pretty amazing. The Dutch newspaper Bouwput Utrecht made some awesome interactive visuals that show before-and-after views — from concrete and highway lines to water, trees, and riverbanks. These days, if you visit Utrecht’s canal, it’s alive with human activity: People riding boats, tourists crossing the bridges, workers with laptops chilling with takeout on the banks. A stage for music, and one for theater, opened on the periphery of the water. What used to be a chunk of highway with one purpose — moving cars and trucks — now hosts a riot of different human activities.

They “rewilded” the downtown.

via Montana Wildlife Gardener

Usually when we talk about “rewilding”, it’s in the context of landscapes.

I’m thinking of people who let their yards grow tall natural grasses and flowers, instead of tending short, water-hogging lawns (like the wonderful…



Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”.