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Belgian action groups win epic highway battle

By Nick Meynen.

After 20 years of struggle, three action groups in Belgium’s second city who resist the Ring Road highway extension to a 27 lane monster scored a major breakthrough on Thursday. In an unprecedented step, they held a joint press release in the Flemish Parliament, together with the Antwerp city major and the Flemish Minister of Mobility. They announced that in the next six months they will work together to study how the biggest chunk of the Ring Road highway will get a green roof.

Most of the Ring Road is already under the horizon, but air pollution creates thousands of victims every year. The mobility versus health conflict has heated up public debate in Antwerp and Flanders for several years and is one of the few environmental justice conflicts from Belgium that are featured in the Atlas of Environmental Justice.

Although views on the remaining open air highway extension in the North of the city are still miles apart, putting a roof on the largest part of the current Ring Road is sure to give breathing space to most of the over 150.000 people who live less than 500m from this major source of air pollution. Air pollution from the highway is linked to a three years below average life expectancy in Antwerp, compared to the regional levels. In addition, one municipality that the Ring Road cuts in two, Borgerhout, has the lowest level of green space per inhabitant of all Belgium’s 589 municipalities. With a green roof on top of the sub-horizon Ring Road, the over 30.000 inhabitants of Borgerhout will not know where to enoy greenery first.

StRaten Generaal has been struggling with authorities since the end of last century. A highly qualified team of volunteers managed to get good support from lawyers and academics to do court cases and studies showing that the proposed plans of the government to close the Ring Road so close to the city centre and even extend it were foolish. They and Ademloos, a group with doctors who managed to put the air pollution centre stage, won the 2010 price for democracy, which awards the citizen movement that contributed most to Belgium’s democracy. These groups also pulled off and won a city referendum in 2009, where the majority of Antwerp’s citizens voted against the project’s trajectory. In response, the government didn’t change the trajectory as asked by the people. What they proposed still boiled down to expanding a Ring Road to at one point 27 lanes right through a city of 500.000 people. By sticking foolhardy to their trajectory and extension plans, the government ensured a continued stalemate and conflict with the citizens of Antwerp.

Then, in 2014, a third group emerged: Ringland. This collection of urban planners and architects wanted to build a new ‘land’ with over 700 football pitches of new nature on a new roof over the great rift in the city that the Ring Road is. That would solve almost all air pollution health problems coming form the Ring Road, create a vast new green belt, re-unite the two city parts with each other and organise the traffic in a smarter way. With this positive alternative worked out in detail through crowdfunded studies and a team of young activists surrounding them, they rallied tens of thousands of people behind their dream plan. The only major problem: the government’s plans of the Ring Road extension is incompatible with the Ringland project. The extension to a 130 meters wide highway monster would make capping the Ring Road permanently impossible, due to both EU legislation and technical problems.

Now, in a dramatic turn of events, the government embraced around 70% of the Ringland proposal for a roof on top of the Ring Road. It also suddenly let’s go of the most controversial 27-lane part of the extension, in order to ensure that the Ring Road can still be capped. There is still disagreement on the uncapped northern part and on the concept of Ringland, which wants to split passing and local traffic in two separate tunnels. But the parties have agreed to continue talks on this and a mediator has been appointed to sort out the differences.

Just before this major turn of events, StRatengeneraal and Ademloos had started with the initial phase to collect the 50.000 signatures needed to organise a new referendum. In record time they collected enough support to go for a full scale new referendum, thereby increasing the pressure on the government to give in to the groups. With this new turn of events, the three groups need to decide next week if they will continue with the referendum or not. The action groups stress that the proposed open air plans for the Northern part are still highly problematic and they also re├»terate that alternative routes to close the Ring Road further away from the city exist and have been studied in great detail ad received backing of dozens of scientists, urban planners and other experts. In fact, they don’t mind dropping the obsession with closing the Ring Road. They only say: if you really want to do it, don’t do it so close to the city.

But whether they win this last battle of the North or not: the fact is that two decades of grass roots community actions now results in a major overhaul of the second city in Belgium and finally, most people of Antwerp will say, it’s for the good. For the first time since the government started plotting, people in Antwerp have a project they can look forward to. Tomorrow they will continue their battle to save North-Antwerp from chocking in fine dust. But today, they’ll celebrate a major victory.

More info:

For more background on this conflict, see the case in the EJAtlas.

The 6th International Forum against Unnecessary and Imposed Mega Projects is taking place in Bayonne, France, from 15 to 17 July. Citizen organisations from West and South Europe will gather to share best practices in stopping projects like Antwerp’s Ring Road extension.

Map of the Antwerp Ring Road. In green; newfound consensus that a roof is necessary. In orange: still contested part.

ringland compromise


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