The Oldest City in the Netherlands Goes Green: Nijmegen’s Sustainability Successes

nijmegen drone photo

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by | Mar 9, 2023

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Just 10km (6.21 miles) from the German border, Nijmegen is an enlightened and forward-thinking university city that flies under the radar. This compact and clean city, whose number of green initiatives rivals Amsterdam, is the oldest city in the country. Nijmegen’s city center is car-free, with residents prioritizing sustainability and quality of life. In addition to initiatives that encourage car sharing, the city has 60km (37.2 miles) of cycling super highways, and even their buses run on green fuels. This gives Nijmegen the power to inspire other cities facing climate change dilemmas.

While it’s currently difficult for cities to be 100% sustainable, Nijmegen has made among the greatest advances forward in Europe. This includes decommissioning their coal power station in 2016 and replacing it with a solar park containing 9,000 solar panels which provide power to almost 400 homes. Margot Ribberink, a climate activist and the first female Dutch TV meteorologist, said that Nijmegen is referred to as Havana near the Waal, in reference to the majestic Waal River cutting the city in two. She continued by saying that people in the city are very open-minded.

The heart of Nijmegen is Grote Markt, a 15th-century cobbled square, containing Lange Hazelstraat, the oldest street in the Netherlands. It is lined with independent shops, vintage boutiques, as well as vegan and vegetarian eateries.

The city was awarded the title of European Green Capital in 2018, but its forward-thinking roots go back further; having a long history of student activism. It acted as the center of the Dutch counterculture and protesting from the 1960s through to the mid-80s. By the 1970s, it was becoming a setting for other socialist gatherings, such as communes and women’s groups. Nijmegen’s sustainability values continue to thrive today because of its large student population. Ribberink explained that she had come to Nijmegen in the 1980s to study biology and had fallen in love with the city because of the people and their concern for the world’s climate and environment. She added that Radboud University has put sustainability at the top of all relevant fields of study, while business people continue to push the city in more sustainable and healthier, green directions.

Het Duurzame Warenhuis, is one such example, they are a sustainable department store, the Netherlands’ first and only eco department store, and opened in 2014. Their buyer, Lisette Hijink, said that they try to stock almost everything needed for a lower-waste lifestyle, zero waste being one of their core values- including reducing waste in their business, which she said has been hard, but they are focused.

Another store, 512 Nijmegen, is an edgy fashion boutique specializing in clothing and accessories for women. According to owner Jetti Wakker, they only stock a few pieces at a time in a small range of sizes to avoid waste or debt. She added that the plants around the shop were pre-loved, donated to them by people who no longer wanted them, and their stories are passed on to their new owners, they don’t like to throw plants away. On the note of not throwing away plants, one of the vegetarian restaurants, De Nieuwe Winkel, which opened in 2011, sources their ingredients from a food forest in the Village of Groesbeek, 13 km (8 miles) away. The forest contains 400 different varieties of edible plants, among them, chestnuts, peaches, pawpaws, and walnuts, as well as Japanese plums, Chef Emile Van der Staak said. He added that they were one of the few restaurants around the world collaborating in such a way.

Njimegen’s Forward-Thinking Mindset

Part of the reason for Njimegen’s forward-thinking mindset is their very real threats from flooding, which makes ignoring climate change there impossible. In 1995, the city experienced one of the worst floods in recent history. The Waal river had burst its banks, resulting in 250,000 people being temporarily evacuated and widespread damages. This led to residents voting to create a bypass river aptly named the Room for the River project. This project ultimately required the moving or demolition of 57 homes, including that of Ribberink, which they moved to another site 1km ( half a mile) away. The results created a huge haven for wildlife, a beach, and acres of recreational space. Ribberink called the project the biggest climate adaptation project in Europe and said that it has proven it’s possible to improve infrastructure while respecting the environment.

The transformation of the Ribberink area, following the need to relocate homes, has resulted in a sense of pride among its residents. The collaboration between the local government and the community is exemplary, as evidenced by the successful outcome of the project. The Room for the River initiative in Njimegen can serve as a model for other cities grappling with climate change-related disturbances. Its success can inspire the adoption of sustainable practices in future flood management plans, leading to a better and more resilient future.

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